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Under The Big Top: The Circus In Guelph
Bonnie Durtnall
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Under The Big Top: The Circus In Guelph

Today the attraction of traditional circuses has faded. Gone are the days when Guelphites flocked to see exotic animals perform their tricks. However, circuses were common in the 19th century, with their appeal lasting into the 20th. They were something everyone could afford to enjoy. After all, the parade through the centre of town was free to all and, it was something you saved up to go see. In fact, many shop keepers closed their stores so they, too, could take part in the fun. Even farm work was put aside so everyone could attend the circus.

Guelph’s First Circuses

While the late 19th century is considered the Golden Age of the Circus in North America, it came to Guelph for the first time around 1849. This was a small circus troupe called “Man’s Circus.” It drew enthusiastic crowds. At a time where radio and television were in the future, circuses provided people with entertainment. The now famous PT Barnum’s came to Guelph on Saturday, July 5th, 1852 with a cast that included 10 elephants, “Six Beautiful Lions” and General Tom Thumb.

According to a Reverend Mitchell in an interview with the Guelph Mercury on March 21, 1925, the arrival of Barnum’s in 1854 - but it was more likely to be 1852, he was witness to an exciting event. During the evening, 7 elephants had escapes the watchful eye of their keeper. They made their way down Eramosa Road Hill to the bridge. After crossing the wooden structure at the foot of the hill – the elder and larger elephants falling in after the younger and lighter ones, they went down the slope and into the river. Here, they splashed around, to the delight of all who saw them, until their keeper arrived and, with some local help, rounded them up again.  

While this such circuses were a still relatively small ventures, coming by road reduced their size, Guelph also became host for larger circus spectaculars. Spalding and Rogers “New Rail Road Circus” came on August 29, 1856. Then, with the advent of the railroad. Circuses could become larger and travel further distances with greater ease.

Warren and Henderson’s Double Circus Museum, Menagerie and Roman Hippodrome was in town on June 10, 1874 while WW Cole’s Menagerie, Circus and Hippodrome arrived on July 17, 1876. The American Forepaugh’s Circus was scheduled to appear in Guelph in July 1886. However, because of the enforcement of the Scott Act, they refused to enter Guelph, disappointing their expectant crowd.

It was not the only circus to be met with issues. Another American troupe, Robinson’s Circus, planned to set up their show on the Exhibition Grounds on July 21, 1891, but faced opposition from the Bells (of Bell Piano and Organ) and 76 other well-known Guelph citizens. However, there was no opposition against the most famous circus of this period – Barnum’s.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Barnum’s made the trek to Guelph several times. After their 1852 appearance, they came back several times in the 1870s and 1880s. The ad posted in the Guelph paper on August 6, 1874 refers to this as Barnum’s first show in Guelph. It was not, but the event was noteworthy, even though circumstances prevented the always well-watched and highly anticipated Circus Parade. However, this did not deter the “immense crowds” from attending the afternoon show taking place on Coffee’s field on York Road near the Waterworks – a traditional place to hold large Circus events.

As was typical, Barnum’s had two shows – one in the afternoon and one later in the evening. While the reviewer for the paper was not impressed with much of the show, he did note that “The mechanical curiosities such as glass blowing, the speaking automaton, the singing birds, the bell ringers, etc., delighted the curious and puzzled the inquiring.”  As for the actual acts. He was impressed with “Melville’s daring acts on horseback” as well as “the man on stilts.

Somewhat more impressive were Barnum’s returns in 1883 and 1885. The major reason behind the success of these appearances was Jumbo the Elephant. Arriving by the vehicle that made circus travels across North America possible –the train, the Barnum Hippodrome began a stay lasting from July 9 until July 11. The parade was to start at 8:30 am. Performances were to occur on the grounds at 1 pm and 7 pm.

The star attraction of this and the show in 1885 was Jumbo. Naturally, both performances saw record breaking crowds. According to the papers, visitors “flocked” to the city from nearby towns and villages. Steve Thorning noted in an article published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 30, 2001 that the trains between these communities were packed solid during the days the Barnum Circus was here in 1885. They came to see Jumbo but also caught “the Wild Man of Borneo, Zutus, Indians and other species of races…” in Barnum’s “Museum.” Unlike the reviewer of the 1874 show, this one stated “The Circus performance was simply all that was promised.” This view probably encompassed the potentially fatal fall of aerialist Juan Caicedo. The tightrope wire snapped just as he began his perilous journey across it. Caicedo was hurled to the ground but, somehow, survived. He actually rose to his feet and managed to stumble out of the tent.

The show continued with elephants and simulated Roman gladiator races. However, the mounts changed throughout the performance from horses to cattle to camels to elephants. The concluding act was a race around the big top (Barnum had three tents by this time) in chariots drawn by four horses. An impressive conclusion to a circus show. This was the last time Jumbo was to make an appearance in Guelph. On September 15, 1885, the beloved elephant was killed by a train in St. Thomas, Ontario.

The Decline of the Circus

The Barnum (and Bailey) Circus was not the last to visit Guelph. Over the next century, various Circuses arrived to entertain the people who lived in Guelph and its surrounding areas. Notable companies such as Robinson’s Circus arrived in Guelph in 1891, the Sparks Circus in 1927, the Cole Brothers Circus in 1935, Dailey’s Circus in 1950 and the Ringling Brothers - Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1953. Circuses continued to come to Guelph in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s, including the Shriners’ Circus. However, even the Shriners’ Brothers had to adapt to changing times and perceptions of animal rights. Today, the circuses that are successful do not feature elephants or other exotic animals. Instead, they are comprised of daring do actions by people – a classic example being Cirque du Soleil.

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