Shows


May Wirth (1894-1978), Australian bareback rider

Circus in Australia: Index of Show Movements, 1833-1969
Circus, Variety, Theatrical, Musical & Allied Arts
A chronological listing of over 9,000 Australian show movements

Earlier this year, I released the first volume in my projected series to document the history of circus in Australia. This was Circus in Australia: Its Origins & Development to 1856. Orders were received from some of the worldís most prestigous libraries, universities and circus organisations ... and are still trickling in! I am now proud and delighted to announce the publication of the second volume in the series - a chronological listing of over 9,000 show movements (organised by date, location and name) over a period of 137 years, from 1833 to 1969, mostly throughout Australia and New Zealand, but also some other parts of the world. The majority of entries embrace the period 1850-1914, the golden age of the travelling show. This is a reference work with, I think, few parallels.

The century or so stretching from Australiaís gold rush period of the 1850s to the introduction of television in the 1950s represented a golden era for Australiaís travelling show industry. People from all walks of life, in cities, towns and remote areas were kept amused and entertained by an extraordinary diversity of travelling entertainments and entertainers, circus, theatrical, musical or otherwise. In the course of over 35 years research, I have studied literally thousands of newspapers and other sources. I have collected references to the visits of numerous shows throughout all states of Australia and also New Zealand over a period nearly one and a half centuries.

The movements of travelling shows weave like a thread into the economic, social and cultural fabric of Australia and New Zealandís history and development. Yet, their significance has long been overlooked because of their transient nature. As well as entertaining generations of Australians and New Zealanders, these shows unwittingly left an enormous time-capsule of information in contemporary newspapers and journals in the form of countless advertisments and write-ups that not only detailed their professional activities but documented the lives of show people, the values of their patrons, and the mores of the age. As the eminent American circus historian, Stuart Thayer, has written of a similar phenomenon that occurrred on Americaís frontier the traffic, the routes followed by the shows, is a good indicator of the general movement of commerce because like the freight companies, stage lines and railroads the circus route was linking groups of populace.

Almost every city, town and region of Australia and New Zealand is represented and the Index therefore represents a valuable tool to facilitate the description and analysis Australiaís and New Zealandís social, cultural and economic profile and local, regional and national levels. Although based on my extensive investigations into the history of the circus, the Index is by no means limited to this genre, as all sorts of other itinerant entertainments are included.

I have presented with the links below, some samples of the entries that will be found in my Index of Show Movements, 1833-1969. Please visit the Routes section of this website for examples of reconstruction of early circus show routes.

This edition is strictly limited to 200 copies, plus legal deposit copies required Australiaís Copyright Act, each signed by the author and numbered. For ordering details, visit the Shop to check availability of this publication.

  • 1856 ~ pdf - Source ~ Index of Australian Show Movements 1833-1956
  • 1891 ~ pdf - Source ~ Index of Australian Show Movements 1833-1956
  • 1906 ~ pdf - Source ~ Index of Australian Show Movements 1833-1956


Circus in Australia:? The American Century, 1851-1950

I recently self-published the third volume in my project to document the history of circus in Australia. This is Circus in Australia: The American Century, 1851-1950, some 600 pages in length.?This work chronicles the rich history of interaction between the circus of Australia and that of the United States of America, specifically:?Australian (and New Zealand) tours by American circus companies;??American circus people who pursued careers in Australian circus;?American tours by Australian circus companies;?Australian circus people who pursued careers in American circus.?The American circus, like the Australian, owes its origins to Astley?s Amphitheatre, London, and traditions of the English circus which emerged towards towards the end of the 18th century. But the American circus soon took on a life of its own and was to become a major influence on Australian circus and culture.?The American circus reflected many aspects of American society.? The spirit that opened up the West was identical with the spirit of the early ?mud? shows, battling their way across difficult and sometimes hostile territory. As the British circus historian Thomas Frost explained in his book Circus Life & Circus Celebrities (1876)

The circus in America is a highly popular entertainment and is organized upon a very extensive scale, as everything is there ... Americans have a boundless admiration for everything big ... Circus proprietors bring their establishments before the public, not by vaunting the talent of the company, or the beauty and sagacity of the horses, but by announcing the thousands of square feet which the circus covers, the thousands of dollars to which? their daily or weekly expenses amount, and the number of miles to which their parades extend ... (pp.223-4)

With the creation of trans-Pacific shipping links and the interest created by the gold rushes of the 1850s, few American circus men reached the Californian coast without having their imagination excited by the ?fabled land? that lay in the south seas, Australia. Circuses of American origin visited Australia as early as 1851, and New Zealand as early as 1852. ?I have got Australia on the brain? wrote the famous American showman, W.W. ?Chilly Billy? Cole in 1876. Four years later, he brought his circus to Australia for a six months long tour by rail. Between 1873 and 1900, hardly a year passed when Australia was not visited by a major circus or wild west show of American origin. These included some of America?s largest circus companies such as Cooper, Bailey & Co (1876-7, 1877-8) and Sells Brothers (1891-2), ancestors of the modern day Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Inc, the ?Greatest Show on Earth?, the world?s largest circus organisation. Many American performers were so enamoured of Australia that they remained behind to join local companies or even form companies of their own.?On the other hand, circus performers of Australian origin landed on America?s shores as early as 1857. The Sydney rider, James Melville, toured his circus ? Melville?s Australian Circus ? throughout the mid-west at the height of the Civil War, moving along the Mississippi River in a sternwheel steamboat, landing and giving performances to Union soldiers one day and Confederates the next. Representatives of some of Australia?s most famous circus families followed illustrious careers in American circus in the 20th century, including the diminuitive somersaulting bareback rider May Wirth (1894-1978), a prestigious ?center ring? star with Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey during the 1920s.?The volume is extensively annotated and indexed. It is richly illustrated with contemporary illustrations, posters and photographs, many of which have not been previously published in book form, or seen since first published more than 100 years ago. Several images are in full colour! The volume includes an extensive bibliography and is strongly bound in bonded leather.

I have presented below, a sample chapter from The American Century. This chapter describes the 1891-2 tour of Australia by the famous American circus, Sells Brothers, and is richly illustrated.