When the Moscow State Circus completed a four-day stint at the Oasis on Sunday it reminded us of the day, 118 years ago, when Barnum & Bailey’s Circus rolled spectacularly into Swindon….and virtually the entire town lined the streets to greet what was billed as ‘The Greatest Show On Earth

SUCH scenes would not be tolerated in this more enlightened age but it is easy to imagine the open-mouthed wonder of the People of Swindon as they turned out en masse to witness The Greatest Show On Earth as it cartwheeled flamboyantly and noisily through our streets more than a century ago.

What must have been the largest gathering of Swindonians during the Victorian era occurred on the morning of Saturday, October 29, 1898 when Barnum & Bailey’s Circus – all the way from the United States of America, folks – materialised with an ear-splitting trumpety-trump.

The arrival in Swindon of this globallyrenowned spectacle with “thousands of tons of curious creatures and creations” in tow, had been the talk of the town “for the past five or six weeks by everybody from the smallest schoolboy upwards” we excitedly reported.

Cranking up the fervour with legendary panache, Barnum & Bailey’s wily marketing team placed a ‘roll-up roll-up’-style advertisement of possibly unprecedented scale in the October 21, 1898 edition of this newspaper complete with artists’ impressions illustrating “the most amazing”

thrills and spills in store.

“The World’s Largest, Grandest, Best Amusement Institution,” as it lauded itself in characteristically bombastic prose, pledged to deliver a “Monster Melange of Exhibitions,”

featuring “Startling and Breathtaking Acts.”

These, it proclaimed, would be executed in three equestrian rings, two stages, a Hippodrome race track and a ‘monster aerial enclave’ all contained beneath the world’s biggest spread of canvas in an “infinitely larger, better, grander and more varied show than ever presented in Great Britain.”

Careful not to underplay itself, the circus promised “brilliant, laudable, noble and exalted”

attractions such as “the greatest aerial champions ever performing” and “learned animal displays” along with “spotless fun and hilarity” in addition to “stupendous sensations and novelties” packed into an “imperial programme” that included “graceful and skilled maidens in daring acts” not to mention “gymnastic performances of bewildering frequency.”

We can only imagine the clamour at Milsom & Sons, Piano Stores, 9 Fleet Street when the tickets went on sale.

Best of all, though, was a Magnificent Free Street Pageant on the morning of the two shows, so that even those who could not afford the price of admission could grab a slice of the exotic, never-before-seen action.

Conjure the scene, then, as an elaborate procession of animals and artistes disgorged from the Big Top site at “Smith’s Field, opposite The County Ground” at around 9am.

Forging uphill towards Old Town, the cavalcade wheeled right into Wood Street and right again down Vic Hill for the town centre.

We can thank the Advertiser of more than a century ago for a blow-by-blow account of the cortege which was greeted by thousands of spectators who had secured their positions along the route an hour in or so in advance, with many-a-youngster having shimmied up many-a-lamp-post.

Behind a handful of mounted policemen, the “moving sea” was led by a team of noble bays, “their red plumes rising and dipping in irregular lines as they paced grandly along,” followed “a car of tigers drawn by four beautiful white horses,” after which a veritable “lion’s den” appeared included in its midst “a modern Daniel” – their trainer.

Pumas, hyenas, Russian wolves, “and other fierce creatures” were hauled along in their conveyances with all due ceremony amidst a constant hoo-ha of cheers, hoots, whoops and barrel organ music of “exquisite sweetness”.

Perched upon 14 camels were Sudanese riders beating tom-toms and “rocking in quaint desert dress” behind which tramped a herd of 18 elephants that included some “sprightly” young ’uns.

Its leader, the mighty Fritz, towered trunk, tusk and flapping ears above his fellows as Roman chariots and nursery rhyme characters trailed in their wake – carefully side-stepping impressively discharged heaps of steaming dung, no doubt.

The “piece de resistance,” according to the Adver, was a sensational representation of The Discovery of America involving 140 artistes draped in elaborate costumery while a steam-driven concoction that emitted billowing clouds of vapour brought up the rear.

The whole shebang was eagerly followed back to the Big Top by “immense throngs of people” keen to witness what Barnum & Bailey had billed – without exaggeration, according to us – “A Most Amazing Exhibition”

(see panel.) The Greatest Show On Earth returned to Swindon for a repeat performance the following year, and in 1903 similar excitement abounded when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show rolled into town... quite literally with all guns-a-blazing.

However, it seems highly probable to me that the first Barnum & Bailey parade saw more people line the streets of Swindon than on any other occasion... at least until the Swindon boys heroically brought home the League Cup more than 70 years later.

  • WHEN Phineas Taylor Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum in 1841 it set him on course to becoming one of the world’s greatest – he would say THE greatest – showmen. Swiftly re-naming it Barnum’s American Museum, PT, as he was known, deployed almost comically overblown publicity stunts to promote his travelling show which became a roaring success. Circus operators Dan Castello and William Coup were so impressed that they persuaded Barnum to join them, creating PT Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome in 1875. Later re-branded as The Greatest Show on Earth, it attracted national and then international fame. Ever keen to add to his roster, Barnum tried to buy a baby elephant called Columbia – billed as “the first to be born in the US” – from a circus run by James Bailey and James Cooper. They couldn’t reach a deal but instead agreed – possibly over several beers – to combine their two concerns into the Barnum & Bailey Circus. PT died in 1891 after which Bailey purchased his share from his widow before taking the circus on a triumphant five year traipse around Europe in 1897, which included visits to Swindon in 1898 and 1899. Bailey died four years after returning to the States and the show was snappedup by rivals the Ringling Brothers who, after running the enterprises separately, eventually incorporated them into The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After numerous buy-outs and mergers PT’s venture still continues today as part of an international company called Feld Entertainment.
  •  DESPITE fierce rain, up to 12,000 people saw each of the 90-minute Barnum and Bailey shows at 2pm and 8pm – the equivalent of more than half of Swindon’s 40,000 population. Special excursions were laid on by GWR from nearby towns. “The gathering at Shrivenham station was the largest ever known there,” we reported. Once through the showground gates, visitors to the ten-acre site that “brimmed and bustled” with “1,000 wonders” would have had much to marvel and gawp at. Among ‘The Freaks’ (sorry) was Ju-Ju “the dog faced man,” Lalloo “the double-bodied Hindoo” and other individuals with peculiar and enhanced physical attributes. We reported that James Coffey was “a skeleton dude who walks gravely about” while the towering Queen Mab licked and chewed hot iron. However, Mr Frank Howard and Miss Annie Howard, the tattooed man and woman, perhaps would not cause such a stir today.
  •  BARNUM & Bailey’s 1898 Tour of Great Britain was organised on a vast military scale never before seen on these shores outside of the field of conflict. As the Advertiser was keen to point out, it featured 840 people, 420 horses “and a whole forest of beasts.” Our reporter was on hand at 3am to witness four long trains – together comprising 70 circus coaches – pull into The Transfer Shed at Swindon station from the previous day’s engagement at Reading. It was, he wrote, a sight which anyone who witnessed would remember “for as long as they live.” Anticipating noise, commotion and chaos, he was instead greeted with the calm and orderliness of a well-drilled operation. “Scores of Yankees, bronze and rugged looking fellows, leapt from the vans and in a trice the sides of the horse boxes were let down and 400 beautiful draught horses trooped out. “These animals knew their business as well as the men, and without bustle, confusion or noise they ranged themselves in pairs around the goods yard… there was no whipping, no shouting... everything was conducted as quietly as a funeral.” Elephants and camels followed, all trooping “mechanically” under the moonlight to the show ground quarterof-a-mile away. At the site a colossal canteen was set up first so that everyone could tuck into their ham and eggs before the two-hour task of erecting the globe’s biggest big top swung into action.