Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Circus comes to town- Leek 1860

In October 1925 a wonderfully evocative letter was published in the Leek Times. To the writer it bought back distant memories of an event burned into his mind. And a poster of a forthcoming event in the market had triggered the remembrance. Bostock and Wombwell Menagerie was hitting town and notices were on the hoardings. The Circus was coming to time re-visiting a town that they had strong connections with. When Bostock and Wombwell Menagerie came to town it was opening the casket of memory for one elderly resident who felt compelled to write to the paper chronicling a visit made by the circus to the Leek of his boyhood.
"I can still remember the old show 60 years ago", the letter from "Old Resident" began his letter. "I had the pleasure of visiting the show as a child of 10. It was a gala day… every one waited patiently for the advance guard of tiny coloured ponies to arrive… The memory revives such happy memories. The great day arrived and we did not want any calling most of the town were up at an early hour forming a procession as the menagerie entered the town. The wagons, some pulled by horses harness all shining others drawn by elephants and camels came into view. What a shout went up when we saw the first wagon. All of us eager to ride in the managers trap pointing out the best way to the showground. The canvas canopies were soon fixed up in the market place. The crowd would be harangued with stories of how dangerous the animals were and the public were begged to look for themselves. The lion tamer was dressed in a red jacket with gold braiding and wearing many medals. He was our hero and our ambition was to be a lion hunter nothing else was sufficiently dangerous when we grew up.

The Band- and what a good band they were- at the front all dressed in top hats and frock coats. The show had opened and my father carried me on his shoulders. I saw the first wild animals I had ever seen: it was an education. What a pleasant recollection the old show brings to my mind! What happy carefree boyhood days!"

"Old Resident" then went on to mention the family connection between the Bostock’s and the area. The original partner in the business James Bostock had been born in 1815 at the Dairy House, Horton and joined Wombwell’s Menagerie in 1830 as a Waggoner and a trainer of horses a skill he acquired on the family farm. He acted as advance agent for 28 years for the company reaching a peak when he took presented the menagerie before the royal family in 1847 and 1854 at Windsor Castle. He died in 1878 in Surrey. One of the Bostocks had run a grocery in Church Street and a relative Frank Bostock lived in Alsop Street.

James Bostock’s son Edward Bostock wrote a very entertaining book called Menageries, Circus and Theatres in 1927, which details the family connections between Bostocks in Leek and the family business. There is a section on how he met his wife after suffering an occupational hazard. Following an attack by a hyena at a show in Stockport Edward recuperates in Leek and is nursed back by his wife to be Elizabeth. They marry at St Edwards Church in Leek in August 1881.
The account is a marvellous depiction of life at the edges in Victorian Britain. His autobiography has so many stories that there is enough material to make a very interesting book or film. There are instances when animals get out and wander amongst the audience, as a boy on tour with the menagerie in Ireland he mentions a stampede when a Lion gets into a crowd, of extremely risky acts such as a Tiger mounted on the back of an elephant riding around the auditorium in Glasgow in 1892.

He demonstrates the excitement that people in rural communities must have felt and which comes through in Old Resident’s letter as the menagerie came into town. Edward uses the expression " booming the show" to describe the procession. At the front were the bandsman well dressed and playing the popular tunes of the time. Sometimes the circus would arrive at evening and there way would be lighted by naphtha flares. Fires seemed to be a common occurrence and several are detailed in the book and derring do acts of bravery are frequently carried out as Edward and others rescue the animals at one event at the Goose Fair in Nottingham when the canvas catches fire. In 1872 in Hanley an elephant trampled to death a 14 year old boy. It is a terrible event but no blame is attached to the animal, as it seems that the boy was provoking the animal. There does not seem to be much regard for health and safety. Early in his career he goes into a lion cage with a trainer who has had too much to drink and towards the end he rescued a drunken trapeze artist who is tangled up in ropes many feet above the ground.

The journeys that the menagerie makes are truly heroic. In the winter of 1875 they walk through a blizzard over the Yorkshire Wolds. The horses are rough shod, as the roads are sheets of ice. The wagons are skidding down the hills and they have no control as cages containing lions and tigers and bears slither into ditches. By the time they get to Sheriff Hutton at night and the racoons have escaped and in the dark are difficult to find. The team have to crawl on their hands and knees in the snow to find the animals. The wagon containing the wolves is lost and by the time it arrives the following day the wolves are fine but the Wagoner known as the Dodger is so cold that he has frozen to the seat and has to be thawed out before an open fire and generous amounts of brandy poured down his throat before he is revived.

But what conditions must the animals have had to put up with. The animals must have had to put up with terribly cramped conditions as well as having to put with great extremes of the British climate. The constant journeying must have been trying for animals and people. Edward details a tour they took in 1883/4 when he visited Burton on Trent, Tutbury Ashbourne, Derby, Nottingham Sunderland, Galashiels, Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth, Dunkeld, Pitlochry, Kingussie, Inverness, Wick, Thurso, Foress, Aberdeen, Forfar, Fife, Edinburgh, Glasgow, York, Hull, Beverley, Filey and Scarborough.

One story that is told predates Edward Bostock’s involvement with the menagerie and is an indicator of the cruelty of the menagerie in the very early days. It is also an excellent reflection on the idiocy of mankind. Edward records that Wombwell in 1825 wanted to recreate the Circus Maximus of Ancient Rome. He decided to use mastiff dogs to attack a lion. A large crowd had gathered at the event in Liverpool but the dogs were so cowed and the lion so docile that nothing happened. The enraged crowd, which had been drinking heavily, turned on each other while the animals passively watched the rioting humans.

Bostock and Wombwell finally wound up in 1931 in recognition of the part the town had played in the history of the company Leek was included in the final tour. The animals formed the core of the collection of the newly opened Whipsnade Zoo