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11 April 2016

The Circus Comes To Hove

Judy Middleton 2002 (revised 2019)

 copyright © J.Middleton
Hove Beach huts are a familiar sight but the Big Top in the background provides an unusual background. 
This photograph was taken when Zippo’s Circus visited Hove in August 2002.

Background and Various Sites

Travelling circuses used to visit Hove frequently and they set up their big top in a variety of locations. For instance, when Sanger’s Circus visited Hove in 1867 the County Cricket Ground was used; that is not the present ground but the old Brunswick Cricket Ground on the seafront and they were there in 1871 too. When the County Cricket Ground moved to its present site the circus camped there too in 1874.

In 1889 the circus was ensconced in a field between Portland Road and New Church Road while in the 1890s and later the circus stayed at Hove Meadow, which was situated west of Hove Street and south of New Church Road, where Aymer Road is today.

Other popular sites were Wish Meadow or a field between King’s Esplanade and Kingsway. According to Winnie Mainstone, her father, who was bailiff to the Duke of Portland, owned some fields and a pig farm in the Wish neighbourhood and he used to let the fields to the circus.

An interesting letter was published in the Argus (12 February 1998) in which it was stated that an elderly gentleman remembered going to the circus at Wish Park when he was a child. Unfortunately, a circus elephant dropped down dead ‘so they dug a hole and rolled it in’.

After the Second World War the circus visited Hove Park, and returned there for many years. The circus has also been located in St Helen’s Park, Hangleton. But in recent times number 1 Western Lawns has become the designated site.

The arrival of the circus in town was duly noted in school Log Books because it meant that school attendances would be low as a consequence. Sometimes it seemed more pragmatic to allow the children a half-day’s holiday so that they could satisfy their curiosity. For example, the following comes from the Farman Street (Boys) Log Book 5 September 1867 –‘a good many boys went to the circus this afternoon, which thinned the school considerably.’ On 28 August 1871 William Hamilton, the headmaster, grumbled that a fresh circus had come to Hove every Monday for the last four weeks and during the two days when each circus paraded through the town, school attendance dropped to 60 pupils.

The Circus Arrives

The following snippets have been gathered from the pages of local newspapers.


In September Sanger’s circus was camped at Brunswick Cricket Ground. There was a memorable incident at Brighton concerning an elephant and Thomas Reed, keeper of the Red House beer shop in Cavendish Street. Reed was near the Horse and Hounds in London Road when he heard that a little girl had fainted with the shock of seeing the circus animals. Reed entered the adjacent yard to enquire about the welfare of the youngster and found instead an elephant walking with his keeper. The elephant had been trained to beg for half-pence and went up to Reed expecting to receive a coin and so Reed obliged. Shortly afterwards, there was a second encounter between Reed and the elephant and a repeat performance ensued. But when Reed felt in his pocket (eagerly watched by the elephant) the only coin he could find was a silver two-shilling piece, which he quickly replaced in his pocket. The elephant was infuriated by his action and rushed at Reed, spearing his shoulder with a tusk that penetrated for five or six inches.


This was the year when at least four circuses visited Hove. On Monday 28 August Sanger’s Circus arrived and set up on Brunswick Cricket Ground; their previous appearance had been at the Royal Agricultural Hall, London. Apparently, ‘the parade was very magnificent’ and there was a large attendance at the ground to see the circus.


Sanger’s Circus came to Hove for two days in September. On the bill were Roman sports, horses, elephants, racing camels, a great Australian ostrich chase plus a version of Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West show. The tickets cost from six pence to three shillings.

copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
Major John Olliver Vallance (1847-1893) 
was photographed wearing his uniform of 
the Sussex Artillery Militia c. 1870.

It was announced that ‘by kind permission of Major Vallance, Messrs John Sanger & Sons’ largest and grandest show in the world will take up a position in Hove Street Meadow.’ The circus was there on the 12 and 13 of August. Among the novelties to be seen was the amazing horse Blondin who could walk along a tightrope some 30 feet above the ring; there was also a wonderful riding lion straight from Paris, a marvellous tightrope-walking bear and a sensational performance by the Stellios on the flying trapeze.


Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill and his celebrated Wild West Show came to Hove Meadow in October. Previous to their arrival carpenters had been busy for nearly a fortnight erecting covered stands around the arena capable of seating some 15,000 spectators. One hundred workmen were recruited locally to help set up the grandstands.

The enormous company arrived at West Brighton Station (now Hove Station) early on 11 October. They had travelled from Portsmouth in three special trains consisting of 76 cars. The weight of the plant came to something over 100 tons and besides the horses, wild cattle and buffaloes, there were 250 employees including Indians (Native Americans) and Mexicans. The original show had caused a sensation in 1887 at the London Exhibition. The show at Hove was exactly the same as had been seen in Earl’s Court, Naples, Paris, Marseilles and Vienna. Cheap train trips were arranged from Horsham, Bognor, Tunbridge Wells, Hastings, Eastbourne, Seaford and East Grinstead to bring people to Hove to see the show.  

The Grand Procession included a ‘mounted detachment of Wild West Indian chiefs, cowboys, scouts, Mexicans, frontier girls and marksmen’. The procession went along Church Road, Western Road and North Road to the Old Steine, then turned south and came back along the coast road.

The Indians had their own camp on Hove Meadow consisting of wigwams (tepees) covered with rough canvas decorated with paintings of men, buffaloes and horses and they were expected to arouse much curiosity. Unfortunately for the Indians their visit to Hove proved to be a somewhat melodramatic experience because a tremendous gale arrived to batter the coast and the show had to be postponed for two days – the first cancellation due to bad weather since the troupe arrived in England. Beside the gales, there was thunder, lightning, hail, large flakes of snow and rain. Buffalo Bill thought it was just too risky to try placing the canvas roof on top of the portable grandstand. He was heard to say that he was prepared to put on his show come rain or shine but he drew the line at typhoons. The Indians became so alarmed at the ferocity of the storm that they spent the night of 13/14 October singing to the Great Spirit for deliverance. Their prayers were answered and on 15 October the bad weather abated sufficiently to allow the show to go on although the site was somewhat waterlogged.

copyright © Robert Jeeves of 'Step Back in Time'
This photograph was taken on 13 June 1909 and so it was some years after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. 
But it seems an appropriate place to display a souvenir of some Native Americans seeing the local sights.

Although Indians on Reservations were not treated particularly well, Buffalo Bill’s troupe of Indians received the best of care. In fact it could be said to be a case of positive discrimination. The Indians were paid from $3.50 to $10 per month but they did not have to pay out for any expenses. There were even portable bathing vans for the Indians whereas white members of the troupe were obliged to travel into town and pay for a bath. If the Indian had a headache or toothache medical attention was sought and they were excused from performing. When an Indian terminated his contract, he was given a civilian suit and sent back to his own country.    

With regard to the performance itself; Buffalo Bill was there in person and naturally he was received with great acclaim. His single-handed combat with Yellow Hand, Sioux Chief, proved to be a memorable episode. .

Also present was the far-famed Annie Oakley ‘who scarcely looks a day older that when she appeared in London four years ago, and seems to have, if possible, acquired even further dexterity in the use of her weapon. Among her most astonishing feats are firing with almost unerring certainty at balls thrown at some distance with the rifle upside down, firing over her shoulder, sighting by a looking-glass etc feats very surprising in themselves but rendered more surprising on their success yesterday afternoon when every now and then a strong squall of wind would break across the arena, evidently diverting the course of the balls thrown in the air to be broken with such dexterity by the famous Little Sure Shot.’

Other exciting items on the programme were as follows:

An Indian attack on an emigrant train
An attack on a settler’s cabin with Buffalo Bill and his cowboys coming to the rescue
The Pony Express
The capture of the Deadwood Stage by Indians
A buffalo hunt in which Buffalo Bill played a prominent part, displaying his feats of sharp shooting from horseback    
A charming Virginia Reel on horseback
Cowboy Fun in which cowboys tried to stay put on the backs of bucking horses

Cowboy Fun caused a great deal of amusement but being a British audience there was some concern on behalf of the horses although nobody seemed to give a hoot about the cowboys who kept landing on their backsides. However, Buffalo Bill was able to convince the audience that there was no cruelty to horses involved in the act.

But the demonstration of Indian life and customs went down like a lead balloon. The reporter from the Sussex Daily News was singularly unimpressed. Although he admitted it was interesting he said it had ‘a very ludicrous side to English eyes’.

The show ended with a parade of all the participants. Seats for the show cost 1/- 2/- 3/- and 4/-.


The Sussex Daily News (20 May 1898) printed a story about a travelling circus with a most enterprising showman in charge. He distributed a number of advertisements proclaiming that at the next performance the magnificent elephant Timbuctoo would play the piano. When the crowded tent was full of anticipation a grand piano was duly wheeled in and after a fanfare of trumpets Timbuctoo plodded into the arena. The elephant was led towards the piano but he refused to perform his party trick. The showman pretended to have a little, private conversation with the elephant, then turning to the audience he announced in a sombre voice, breaking with emotion, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen I regret to tell you that Timbuctoo finds it impossible to go through with his performance this evening. The poor animal tells me that in the keys of the piano he recognises the tusks of his unhappy mother.’

Ginnett’s Circus

Ginnett’s Circus performed at Hove in the early part of July. On 9 July 1898 Eastbourne magistrates ‘earned the thanks of all animal lovers’ by sending Claude Ginnett, proprietor of the well-known circus, to prison for a month without the option of a fine ‘for permitting most brutal cruelty to one of his circus horses’. A vet said the horse must have been unfit to travel for weeks but only a couple of days before the charge, the horse was made to walk from Brighton to Eastbourne. An RSPCA inspector found the horse’s foot to be in a dreadful state; there was a mass of maggots and part of the hoof had been eaten away with blood vessels exposed. Ginnett had four previous convictions of a similar kind and he was ordered to pay £4-7-1d  (the cost of the legal action) or take an additional fourteen days in prison. Julian Bloch, his stud groom, was fined 40/- with 8/- costs. Ginnett’s solicitor gave notice of appeal.

 copyright © D.Sharp
The Ginnett Family Tomb in the Woodvale Cemetery, Brighton.

It is ironic that the most beautiful tomb in the Woodvale Cemetery, Lewes Road, Brighton, belonging to the Ginnett family, features an almost life-size statue of a fawning pony in white marble on top of a large oval drum.

Barnum & Bailey’s Circus

Barnum & Bailey’s Circus advertised itself as the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ and it was camped on Hove Meadow on 26 and 27 August 1898. The circus was doing a grand tour of the provinces and the enterprise cost £1,500 a day. The figure was not surprising because the circus employed 1,200 people in addition to the expense of travelling from town to town. But Barnum & Bailey had invested in 70 of its own specially constructed railway cars, each one measuring 60 feet in length, which made four lengthy trains of seventeen cars each.

When the circus was set up in Hove Meadow there were twelve mammoth canvas pavilions. There was a Grand Parade through the streets on 26 August between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. marshalled as follows:

A platoon of mounted police
A grand military band
Forty fine bay horses controlled by one man
A den of tigers
A den of lions
A den of panthers
A den of hyenas
A den of wolves
A chariot carrying novel melechior chimes drawn by six horses
Lady performers and side-saddle experts
Mounted ladies and gentlemen of the Hippodrome
Two 2-horse Roman chariots with lady drivers
Two 4-horse Roman chariots
The band chariot Euterpe drawn by ten horses
Eight golden chariots with rare beasts
A ‘triumphal chariot with queer musicians and comic heads’
A caravan of camels with Asiatic drivers
Twenty performing elephants
Two elephants with howdahs and Asiatic beauties
Blue Beard’s chariot drawn by six zebras
Japanese dragon chariot with performers
Cinderella’s fairy coach
Little Red Riding Hood’s chariot
Mother Goose’s chariot
The Blue Band chariot America drawn by ten horses
Seven golden cages with rare animals
A mammoth organ chariot
A grand triumphal float
A Christopher Columbus section with trumpeters, grandees, nobles, cavaliers, knights and other prominent personages.
A steam calliope
The ticket prices caused some confusion to the Hove public and so the Hove Gazette patiently explained that graded prices were an American custom although they were complete innovation over here. One ticket admitted you to the circus performance with prices ranging from 1/- to 7/6d and of course the more you paid the better the view. But if you wanted to visit the minstrel and vaudeville exhibition after the performance it would cost you an extra sixpence. Likewise, if you wanted to see the freak show that too would cost you sixpence. At the freak show you could see a ‘moss-haired girl, the amiable bearded lady, Johanna the gorilla, Jo-Jo, the Russian dog-faced man, and many others of similar uncanny attractions’.

The circus performance took place in three rings and two platforms all at the same time. The effect caused the reporter to remark ‘the fact that the ordinary individual is only gifted with one pair of eyes is a drawback to grasping the whole show in detail.’ For example, in one act the three rings were full of elephants with the baby animals in the middle. Another act was intended to show ‘how entirely men may be banished’. There was a lady ring-mistress together with bareback riders, clowns and ring attendants – all female. In short the reporter thought it was the most wonderful entertainment ever to come out of the States.

Naturally enough, the circus attracted some rogues as well as ordinary folk. For example, Alice Buckman was watching the show when she felt a hand sliding into her pocket. Detective Parsons arrested John Mack, a London carpenter, for attempted theft.

There was an unfortunate accident at Hove Station. ‘Through some at present unexplained cause the drivers of two of Barnum & Bailey’s trains, which had been loaded up at Hove on Saturday night, received orders to start. Both were going in opposite directions, one forward and the other backing into a siding. They met in the middle with a terrific crash and the engine of one train forced its way on to the rear of the other train. Three of Barnum & Bailey’s railway cars were partially telescoped and had to be left behind, together with seven of their show cars, the lamp van and the band wagon.’ Fortunately, no lives were lost because they were not sleeping cars. Men toiled all through Saturday night, Sunday and Monday repairing the wrecked cars.    


Barnum & Bailey’s Circus

Barnum & Bailey’s circus visited Hove again but they only performed for one day and they camped in a field south of Portland Road. The pupils at Aldrington Infants’ School were given a half-day holiday because according to the Log Book ‘parents were afraid to send their little ones to school’. The circus was even larger than the previous year. The Grand Parade started off at Brighton and went along Western Road, down Montpelier Road, along the coast road, turned north up Fourth Avenue and along Church Road and New Church Road until they reached the field.

After the marshal and his assistants came a magnificent 40-horse chariot (four horses abreast in ten rows) driven and controlled by one man who managed some ugly corners with great skill. This chariot contained the show band and was followed by cages containing tigers, lions, leopards, hyenas, wolves, pumas and bears. A handsome bell organ came next, then a body of thoroughbred horses with their riders in costume; a number of gorgeous tableaux cars each drawn by six horses; an eight-horse chariot containing the Hippodrome band; followed by camels, dromendaries, llamas and a troupe of elephants including one very fine animal that towered over the rest. Each elephant had on its back a richly decorated howdah containing his or her trainers. There were more caravans and tableaux cars, dens of rare animals and birds, a team of zebras, a Japanese troupe, the famous stud of Lilliputian ponies and bringing up the rear trundled the steam calliope.

The only things missing were ‘Nature’s most Marvellous Freaks’ left behind at the showground. There were two circus performances, both very well attended. ‘The entertainment comprised 100 acts in three rings, on two stages, a race track and great aerial enclave’.

Immediately after the last performance an army of employees was employed in striking the tents and packing everything up; the next stop was Tunbridge Wells. The circus used four or five special trains, each containing seventeen large cars, to travel between towns.  

Eye-witness account of the circus at Hove in the 1890s

The Collins family moved from London in the 1890s and lived in Portland Road. Young Arthur Collins found a job with Lewonski’s in George Street, followed by a stint at a grocer’s establishment a few doors down in the same street. In 1899 he went to work as a printer and reporter on the Hove Echo located in premises on the west corner of Vallance Road and Church Road. The family moved back to London in 1900. The following is taken from a typewritten account of his memories.

‘It was at Hove that I came to love the circus. In the summer we would have visits from seven or eight of them – Lord George Sanger, Lord John Sanger (two rival brothers), Ginnett’s, Alexander, How & Cushion, Fosset’s and others. As often as I could, I would be on the field to watch the erection of tents and sometimes carry the planks, which were to provide the seating. The lower seats were formed by poles rising from the ground at about twenty degrees, the boards being held by ropes at intervals whilst the back seats were like a series of shelves one behind the other. The best seats were wooden chairs in a separate enclosure.

The speed with which the erection of the tent was accomplished was the outcome of perfect co-ordination. Everyone had a job to do in the right manner at the right time, and it was seldom that anything went wrong.

Imagine a day’s work for the crew of a circus. You must remember that the motor was yet to be invented so all the transport was horse-drawn. The vans would start to arrive early in the morning and continue for some hours. The first thing was to mark out the pitch for the Big Top. The king poles would be erected and the canvas top laid out on the ground and laced together. No sooner was this off the ground than the seating would be erected; the ‘walls’ came last. While this was being completed the artistes would be fixing their high wire, trapeze, or other paraphernalia.

By 12 o’clock the whole of the personnel, crew and artistes alike would be dressed in costume, the horses, animal cages and giant vans ready, and the whole cavalcade would move off for the Grand Parade round the town. And what a Parade! In the front would ride the Master of the Parade, followed by the band on a gorgeous van. Mounted ladies, on wonderful horses, would dazzle the eyes, dozens of clowns, more riders would follow. There were many floats, one usually depicting Britannia mounted high, surrounded by subjects of her Empire, at various levels. Elephants, camels, wild animals in cages and often a real lion on a pyramid of stages. These beautifully gilded vans, with painted scenes on the sides, were telescopic and the stages rose as a crank was turned to bring the top landing 15 or 20 feet above ground level.

Back on the field, a clean-off before a meal, finishing touches put on the preparations for the afternoon show at 3 o’clock. A break for tea and a rest, then another show at 7.30. The programme consisted of about twenty items, including bareback riders, acrobats, wirewalkers, trapeze artistes, liberty horses, lion-tamer, and plenty of clowns and usually closed with a wild west spectacle – a real stage coach, which would be attacked by Indians, the six-horse team pulling it galloping round the ring or arena as the case might be, guns firing, arrows flying – the din was fearful – ‘dead’ lying all over the place; it would be a grand finale to a grand day.

Whilst the last ‘turn’ was in progress the crew would start dismantling the tent by taking down the walls, packing and loading the ‘props’ After The Queen (National Anthem) artistes would go aloft and lower the aerial outfits to the ground, the seating would disappear and before the audience had left the tent, it would be unrecognisable as such.

By midnight the whole of the set-up was down, the vans packed, caravans in line, waiting for the horses to be hitched up, then away through the country lanes to their next patch. The elephants, camels and performing horses have gone under their own steam, with the crew acting as drivers and attendants. Arriving at the next town, the whole business has to be repeated and so on day after day.

Should it be a rainy day, the dismantling of the show was not much fun and I have often seen the heavy vans completely ‘bogged’.

The artistes, for the most part, had their own caravans and got their sleep on the road, but where the crew got a ‘kip’ it is difficult to work out. Usually, they found their rest at any odd place – the horse or elephant tent – or in an odd corner of the circus tent.’  


Sanger’s Circuses

copyright © J.Middleton
Lord John Sanger staged the usual Grand Parade in 1912 through Hove. This postcard was sent to Midhurst and 
part of the message on the reverse ran ‘went to see this lot last Friday. They were here for 2 days, very good’

In August Lord John Sanger’s circus was camped in a meadow south of New Church Road and a short distance west of St Philip’s Church. There were elephants, performing dogs, sea lions and tight-wire walking. Lord John was the nephew of Lord George Sanger (1825-1911) who came from a family of ten children and started off his circus profession by being an animal tamer. Later he teamed up with older brothers William and John to produce a travelling show.

 copyright © Robert Jeeves of 'Step Back in Time'
This photograph was also taken in 1912 on the Grand Parade’s return journey along Hove seafront; 
a delightful gaggle of curious boys (all wearing caps) accompany one of the wild animal cages.

Another member of the Sanger family also visited Hove that year but camped in Hove Meadow. He was Lord George Sanger and he enjoyed promoting his family tradition of a pretence to nobility. He liked to parade about in his landau emblazoned with three crowns and a coat of arms that included fleur-de-lys and an Irish harp. Of course Lord George had no right to title or coat of arms – it was just showmanship. The story goes that Buffalo Bill Cody sued a previous Sanger in the High Court to prevent him from putting on a Wild West show that Cody reckoned was his copyright. Cody won his case and as he was a member of the Nebraska Legislature, he was referred to throughout as the Honourable William F. Cody. Sanger’s comment was along the lines of ‘if that so-and-so’s an honourable then I’m a lord!’

copyright © Ken Lane
Lord George Sanger is seated in his landau and the lady accompanying him is most probably his daughter Georgina.


Sanger’s Royal Circus

Lord John Sanger’s circus visited Hove again this year and camped at Hove Meadow. The difference was that he had now named his show Lord John Sanger’s Royal Circus. Pimpo was the life and soul of the fun and the Brighton Gazette described him as ‘a screamingly funny clown’. The sea lions were a famous act and they could balance, juggle and spin the ball. There were a number of horses and the most popular were pure white twin horses called Snow Flake and Snow Drop, bred at Sanger’s stud in Horley.

Another popular equestrian act involved Miss Victoria George on Emperor and she would guide him through some clever moves and dances. The three Della-Casa sisters performed hair-raising stunts with three horses and three elephants. ‘The Aerial Fishers’ were trapeze artists while the three Sidneys, who hailed from Australia, performed a tight-rope act.

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Lord John Sanger's August 1915 advert printed in the Brighton & Hove & South Sussex Graphic


Sanger’s Circus

Lord John was back at Hove again and this time camped at Wish Meadow on the 23, 24 and 25 August. His outfit was now known as Lord John Sanger & Sons Royal Circus. There were two performances daily at 2.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and ticker prices ranged from 6d to 3/-. It was stated that it would probably be the last visit to Hove for some time because the circus was embarking on a world tour.

There was a Russian Cossack display in three parts including trick riding. ‘Part three will terminate with a realistic exhibition by the daring horseman … while their horses are galloping at full speed they will leap from one horse to another.’ Other attractions were Pimpo’s pantomime representation of the Two Willies, the comedy sea lions and three horse and three elephant tableaux. The elephants were said to be the largest in England.

 copyright © Robert Jeeves of 'Step Back in Time'
Elephants were once an integral part of any self-respecting Grand Parade.


Bertram Mills Circus

Following their tenth season at Olympia, Bertram Mills Circus and Menagerie were camped at Hove from 1 to 13 September. The Big Top was located on a site adjacent to the Coastguard Station on the seafront, now known as number 1 Western Lawns. The circus performance included the following acts:

A tiger riding on horseback
Prieto’s comedy mules
The Silaghi troupe (comedy knockabouts)
The Frank Jackson troupe (cowboys and cowgirls, rope spinners and knife throwers)
Monsieur Alphonse on one of his high-school horses
The Balzer sisters (human butterflies)
Leinert (the human cannon ball)
Cossmy’s nine lions
The Baker boys (England’s foremost boy riders)
Adolph’s bears
Clowns, including Toto Brasso and Nino Febri.

The human cannon ball act was described by a reporter from the Brighton & Hove Herald as follows: ‘ Leinert, the black-garbed and booted gentleman who’s suddenly shot from the cannon and hair-raisingly loops the loop while spinning over the arena, is safe on his back on the stout net just below the bandstand before the audience have recovered from the BANG of the cannon.’

copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Bertram Mills Circus performers on the Level , Brighton in August 1939 

Chapman’s Circus

copyright © Ken Lane
Chapman’s Circus at Hove in 1930.

Hove was also visited in 1930 by Chapman’s Circus and they used the same site as Bertram Mills. It was the first year that George Bruce Chapman had taken his circus on the road and before that he kept a menagerie. Later on in the 1930s Chapman took to doing Christmas promotions in some large south coast stores, using his animals to attract crowds.  


Hove Council stated that no circus would be allowed in Hove Park


Chipperfield’s Circus

In early August Chipperfield’s Circus was camped in Hove Park. One afternoon Nigel Vaughan Thomas, a 13-year old schoolboy, decided to have a closer look at the elephants. He crawled under the tent wall and in doing so disturbed a 10-year old bull elephant. No doubt the elephant was frightened and he picked the boy up and then threw him down. Two women walking past the elephant tent heard noises and raised the alarm. Ringmaster Michael Tunicliffe said ‘In 40 years of keeping elephants we have never had anything like this happen before.’ The boy was taken to hospital for emergency surgery and made a good recovery.


Since 1984 Hove Council had refused permission for circuses with performing animals from visiting the town. But in 1987 it gave permission for Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus to stay at Hove Park from 24 August to 2 September. This was despite the fact the circus used performing horses but councillors felt a distinction should be made between trained horses and wild animals performing circus acts. The fee for the use of Hove Park was set at £3,500.

However, earlier in August there was a row between Fossett’s Circus and Worthing Council because the circus flouted the ban on wild animals by including elephants in the show. Hove Council told Fossett’s that a similar action at Hove would not be tolerated; the circus bosses then decided that they would not visit Hove after all.


Hungarian State Circus

In July the first circus to visit Hove in nine years was camped at Hove Park. It seems odd there were two elephants in the show after the 1987 rumpus but perhaps it was because it was the Hungarian State Circus. There were horses and dogs as well. The circus was at Hove from 24 July to 2 August.


Zippo’s Family Circus

This circus was at St Helen’s Park, Hangleton in July.

In August it was stated that the Circus Europe wanted to stage shows in Hove Park but a rule made in 1957 meant there had to be a three-year interval between circus visits. However, Hove Council decided it could visit in 1991. Gerry Cottle owned this circus and there were horses but no wild animals.


Continental Circus Berlin

This circus was camped at Hove Park in August but Rani the elephant did not join the show because of the ban on wild animals. Instead, she took a rest at the circus’s headquarters at Weybridge.


The Moscow State Circus

This circus was at Hove Park from 12 to 21 August. The Russian circus started their British tour the previous November. But it was expected to be the last time the circus would tour because the Russian Government could no longer afford to support it. Under communist rule the circus was considered one of the leading art forms and was lavishly financed. At one time the State Circus had over 70 buildings and employed over 15,000 people.

At Hove Park Elena Chtchoukine was the girl on the flying trapeze while Elena Iniakina could keep five hula-hoops rotating at the same time. There were also the clowns Liouk and Valla. But many people thought some of the acts were too sophisticated for young children.


Zippo’s Circus

copyright © D. Sharp
Zippo’s Circus on the Western Lawns Hove (August 2016)

The Cirque du Pink (Britain’s first gay circus) was supposed to take place on 27 August in Hove Park. In July advertisements stated the ‘big top extravaganza promises lots of glam and glitz with Russian clowns, high wire acts and a selection of drag queens’.

Zippo’s Circus was going to lend them a suitable tent for the performance but the event never came off and instead Zippo’s circus staged a special charity show with the profits going to Sussex Beacon.

Zippo’s Circus was at Hove Park from 19 to 31 August but not everyone welcomed them. Animal rights protesters from Justice and Freedom for Animals handed out leaflets outside the Big Top and persuaded more than fifteen people not to go inside. But circus fans were annoyed at being branded ‘perverts’ and ‘scum’ by protestors who were unhappy about Palomino horses and a dog being used in the show. David Hibling, the circus’s artistic director, said the animals were well treated and that the circus worked with animal welfare organisations. A spokesman for Zippo’s also said that people could inspect the horses before buying tickets.

One of the clowns working at the circus was 19-year old Alan Wilson from Omagh, Northern Ireland who was present the previous year when a bomb went off killing five close friends. The article in the Evening Argus was headed ‘Tears of a Clown’.

Martin Burton (Zippo the clown) founded the circus and he has been performing for over 25 years. Zippo’s Circus is now the most successful touring circus in Britain as well as being the largest.

Also travelling with the circus was Zippo’s Academy of Circus Arts – the only touring circus school in the country.

The show at Hove included the bouncing clowns from Russia for the first time; the Russian juggler Albert Arslanov who only uses his mouth; and the Hungarian Karchi, another juggling act. The South Americans Ramore and Jesus performed an exciting high wire act.

Zippo’s Circus was camped in Hove Park but because it was occupying sports pitches it was decided that next time it visits an alternative site must be found.

Zippo’s Circus

The circus was on a new site at number 1 Western Lawns, Hove, and they were there from 17 to 29 August. In fact it was not a ‘new’ site for a circus because it was in use for the same purpose in the 1930s.

The Argus printed a story about Tweedy the clown who was appearing at the circus and had been with Zippo’s for five years. Tweedy’s 16-inch custom-made black shoes for his size 11 feet badly needed to be repaired and he appealed for help. Dennis Manville of Hove Shoe Repairers at Montefiore Road agreed to help. Mr Manville had to strip the shoes down before he could start work on repairing them. Also he could not use leather because Tweedy is a vegetarian. He said a new pair of shoes would cost around £150.


Zippo’s Circus

copyright © Zippos Circus Productions Ltd 2001
Norman Barrett ‘the World’s greatest ring-master’ with Clive and Danny the Clowns

The circus was again pitched at number 1 Western Lawns where it stayed from 18 to the 28 August. At the first show there were a few animal rights protesters complaining about the use of horses and budgies; many of the posters advertising the circus around the city were defaced with bogus ‘Cancelled’ stickers. Their protests struck an ironic note because the six beautiful Palomino horses could not receive better care and indeed in February 2001 their trainer, Tom Roberts, received a special award for outstanding animal care and husbandry. The Palomino act also included their diminutive friend Flick, billed as the smallest horse in Britain. As for the budgies, they performed an entertaining routine under the guidance of Norman Barrett ‘the World’s greatest ring-master’. Both Norman Barrett and Tom Roberts came from circus families.

Zippo’s had a cosmopolitan flavour with acts from the Ukraine, Italy and Tanzania besides some home-grown talent such as Robert Foxall whose stint on the aerial straps was akin to a flying ballet.

The proceedings were also enlivened by a (very loud) live band, which led a touch of authenticity to the old concept of a rip-roaring circus show.

 copyright © J.Middleton
Roll up! Roll up! Tickets for Zippo’s Circus on sale in August 2002.


Zippo’s Circus

The pre-performance publicity for the circus had a headline ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’. There was a photograph of Norman Barrett, ringmaster, Chico Marinhos, high-wire expert, and 43-year old Father Jerome Lloyd, a Brighton-based missionary priest from the Catholic Apostolic National Church, all smiling broadly. The two latter had just performed a stunt on a high wire strung across the top of the Big Top without safety gear on behalf of Sussex Beacon. Chico led the way along the wire holding his long, flexible pole for balance and behind him came Father Lloyd with his hand on Chico’s shoulder. Father Lloyd was attired in full clerical gear including his shallow wide-brimmed black hat. 


Zippo’s Circus

The circus was back on its usual pitch at number 1 Western Lawns from 16 to 28 August. There was a useful piece of pre-performance publicity when trapeze artists Blaze Birge and David Jones were photographed going through their routine in the Oxford Suite at the Hilton Brighton Metropole Hotel, which conveniently had a ceiling that was 26 feet above the floor.

Nearer to the performance dates another publicity stunt showed glamorous Jackie Armstrong demonstrating her high-flying skills by hanging from an ornate balcony at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, while Norman Barrett clad in customary top hat and tails beams from the balcony above her.

The circus performance is different every year and this year it was called ‘Gold’. Animal rights campaigners from ADI Animal Defenders were on hand for the usual concerns about horses and budgies at Zippo’s. They claimed that some 200 councils in Britain had exercised their right to ban all animal performances on council-owned land but Brighton & Hove City Council was not amongst their number.  A spokeswoman for Brighton & Hove City Council stated ‘We do currently allow events involving equestrian acts such as Zippo’s in line with our Animal Welfare Charter. Our animal welfare officers also undertake inspection of horses at Zippo’s and to date have always reported high standards of care, including veterinary care.’ Martin Burton, founder of Zippo’s said ‘The animals in our care are well treated …we are regularly inspected by the RSPCA and have never been prosecuted or criticised.’


Zippo’s Circus

The circus was back on its usual pitch in August and stayed until 3 September. The performance was called ‘Carnival’ and publicity promised a brand new adrenalin-packed show with legendary ring-master Norman Barrett. The programme included equestrian stunts; the funny clown duo Delbosq; the Havanna troupe of flying Cuban acrobats; Hercules, the Ukranian strong man, who allows a car to drive over him; and the Globe of Death, which is a steel ball packed with roaring motor-cycles. 


Zippo’s Circus

On 22 August the animal welfare inspector descended on Zippo’s Circus camped as usual on number 1 Western Lawns. The report noted that ‘conditions and facilities were of the highest standard and that animals were in excellent condition.’


Zippo’s Circus

copyright © Zippos Circus
Zippo posters for their August-September 2016 visit to Hove Lawns

Zippo’s Circus was to be seen at Hove Lawns from 20 August to 5 September and they were fortunate during their stay to enjoy some fine weather. But shortly before they arrived, number one Western Lawns was occupied by an illegal group of travellers who broke into the site. By contrast, it should be noted that Zippo’s pay the council to rent this site.

Zippo’s publicity machine was well into action for the start of their 2016 national tour with a full-page article in the Daily Mail (2 April 2016). Much was made of a new act from a French troupe of performing cats, dubbed inevitably as ‘acrocats’. It could be said that the circus was truly in the blood of Rosline Borissov because for seven generations her forbears have earned their living by performing in circuses. Rosline, aged 40, her husband Boris aged 48, and their daughter sixteen-year old Nora have been training their cats for five years and now have 27 trained animals.

It is not easy to train a cat because of their independent nature and the fact they get bored easily. The cats start their training as youngsters, being rewarded for their work by treats of duck pate or Strasbourg sausage; the training lasts for six months and each cat has its own speciality. But only a few cats will be seen at any one performance to ensure they do not lose interest or become too tired. These cats were not specially bred for a circus life but were all rescue cats, found abandoned mostly in the streets of Angers, although their first cat was found in a park.

While 7-year old Felix is the superstar, others worthy of note are the following:

Rundi, aged 3, jumps through a hoop
Junior, 9 months, walks along a tightrope
Valentine, aged 1, makes his way sinuously between glittering pedestals
Pattatina, aged 6, does a balancing act on top of a ball

David Hibling, Zippo’s creative director, had this to say. ‘They are one of very few acts of this sort in the world. It’s all done with such a spirit of affection.’

It was inevitable that animal rights protesters should be present at the circus site. But circus performers are forbidden to interact with them and the protesters stand outside number one Western Lawns. In order to forestall complaints and for the sake of transparency the horses are stabled at the front of the circus and everyone can see they are well treated and cared for; indeed council inspectors always check on the circus before it opens. There were between ten and 20 protesters on 5 September when a scuffle broke out and police were called; a woman was arrested on suspicion of assault.

The Argus (5 September 2016) published a fact-file:

Zippo’s circus has
7 horses
27 domestic cats
12 budgerigars
One dog

The horses and ponies have three or four hours of exercise a day
The cats and birds have their own custom-built quarters

Animals were introduced into the show in 1996 in response to public demand. Martin Burton, owner of Zippo’s, who 40 years ago started his circus career as a clown at Brighton, said ‘Zippo’s Circus has done nothing illegal and has a great record of animal husbandry.’


Zippo’s Circus

Zippo’s Circus was at number one Hove Lawns from 16th to 18th August. This was something of a change for local residents because it was a legal encampment authorised by the council, after a succession of illegal incursions by travellers and their vans, despite deterrent bollards.

There was the usual line-up of campaigners from the animal rights movement, protesting about the involvement of budgies and horses in the circus. Towards the end of the run, a legally-placed poster was apparently torn down, which led to two persons being arrested on suspicion of criminal damage.

However, Zippo’s was in a celebratory mood and called their latest show ‘Legacy’. This was to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the creation of the circus in England, it being the brainchild of showman Philip Astley who in 1768 produced the first circus show in the Waterloo area of London on a piece of wasteland.

As ever ‘Lord of the Ring’ Norman Barrett, now a sprightly 82 years of age, acted as ringmaster. He still takes a great deal of enjoyment in his role, and has been with Zippos’s for eighteen years.

It was Totti the clown’s first experience of Brighton and Hove and he said he was loving it – his parents were also performers and so he has been used to circus life since he was four years old.

Other performers were:

Pablo & Vicky Garcia – space rocket acrobat feats
Paulo Dos Santos – aerial acrobat
Hermansito Troupe  


Zippo’s Circus

In January 2019 Zippo’s announced that there would be no horses or budgies when the circus returns to Hove Lawns in the summer. It is ironic that protesters planned to present a petition banning the use of animals in circuses to Brighton & Hove City Council on 31 January 2019 but Julia Knight, whose husband Martin Burton owns Zippo’s, said plans for a new circus called Cirque Berserk were already in place. Indeed, Martin Burton stated that ‘Cirque Berserk was a sensational success at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018.’ (Argus 19 January 2019)
copyright © D. Sharp
Zippo’s Circus on the Western Lawns Hove in August 2016


Brighton Gazette
Daily Mail
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Gallop, Alan Buffalo Bill’s British Wild West (2001 reprinted 2009)
Robert Jeeves of Step Back in Time, Brighton
Sussex Daily News

Further Reading

Delaney, Michelle Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Warriors: a photographic history by Gertrude Käsebier (2007)
 Piet-Hein Out's Photographs-

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp