In the winter of 1851, Jones and his troupe followed, with packhorses, an ill-formed road by way of Mudgee to reach the new goldfields at Sofala near Bathurst. His circus ‘tent’ was a mere enclosure of canvas sidewalls while the ‘lights’ consisted of burning paraffin-soaked rags placed in fish tins filled with mud and fat. Standing on a horse dressed in tights, Jones held a little barefooted Aboriginal boy outstretched in various artistic poses as the diggers threw coins into the ring to reward their pluck. Jones often had to purchase miners’ rights to a ground before he could put on his show but, in this way, he acquired considerable property.
After opening an amphitheatre in Geelong in 1853, Jones moved onto the Ballarat goldfields. Towards the end of 1854, the gold licencing issue reached its dramatic climax, and soldiers, troopers and police were already on the way from Melbourne. The diggers commandeered Jones’ circus tent to store their arms and ammunition. Around the circus itself, Jones and his men built their own barricades with bails of straw for protection in the coming affray. At gunpoint, the diggers forced the circus bandsmen to serenade their comrades as they laboured to build their doomed fortress, the Eureka Stockade.
But the heady days of the Australian gold rushes were already coming to an end. The several circus troupes which had moved between the goldfields, Jones’ included, now began to move between the emerging regional settlements of south-eastern Australia, travelling with horses and wagons. In a land where formed roads were few and rivers unbridged, the circus people had to cut their own tracks through thick scrub, ford wide rivers and negotiate deep ravines. Owing to flooded creeks, Jones had to offload the ‘weightier portion’ of his circus behind in the bush before he could reach Wagga Wagga in the winter of 1859.
When the Confederate raider Shenandoah, called in to Port Philip early in 1865, officers and men were treated to an evening at Melbourne’s ‘high class’ Theatre Royal. They were entertained by a gymnastic troupe, ‘The Wonderful St Leon Family’ apparently from the ‘Gymnase Imperial’ in Paris, with their acrobatics, trapeze, dancing, comedy and singing. The more astute in the audience may have recognised what the visiting Confederates could not: this was the renowned colonial equestrian, John Jones, and his three young sons, Gus, Walter and Alfred. The young Gus performed ‘astounding feats’ 30 feet in the air on a trapeze slung from the roof of the theatre.