‘Evenings of Wonder’: circuses on the Isle of Man in the nineteenth century

Sue King

6.00-7.00pm, Main Hall, University College Isle of Man (free admission, no booking required)

In the summer of 1802 a small company of acrobatic performers from the north of England requisitioned a rope yard on Douglas quay for six nights. The setting was simple and their props were basic – ropes, wooden ladders, springboards and chairs. There they presented acts to the public that were thrilling yet unsophisticated – tumbling, rope walking and leaping over horses. But as entertainers they were revolutionary. Although the concept of circus had been developing in England for thirty years or so it had been slow to reach the Isle of Man and the visit by Ireland and Woolford’s Circus brought Manx people something new and exciting. It also marked the beginning of a century of entertainment that was to take the circus from a dirty rope yard to huge purpose-built hippodromes, furnished with air conditioning, coloured lights, water pumps and seating for two thousand people.

For, as the century developed, so did the nature of circus. Acts became ever more complex and daring; the role of the horse, at first pivotal, gradually declined to be replaced by novelty turns; social attitudes, especially towards women and children, were highlighted by the circus and the Victorian idea of ‘rational entertainment’ became crucial in circus publicity. The Isle of Man, with its expanding visiting industry, was the perfect place for travelling circus companies and performers to develop these ideas – and make a lot of money in the process.

But who were these circus visitors who travelled across the Irish Sea to perform on the Isle of Man? Where did they come from and, after they left the island, where did they go? And why, despite their frequent appearances here, have they left so little documentary evidence behind? Historical records of the Isle of Man’s entertainment scene in the nineteenth century contain plenty of reference to ballrooms, pleasure grounds, theatres and music halls, yet mentions of the circus are curiously thin on the ground. And despite the Island’s groundswell of artists and photographers images of circus and circus folk in the nineteenth century are frustratingly rare.

Could it be because circus people are themselves hard to pin down – this, after all, is an industry that thrives on hyperbole – identities are rarely what they seem, names change from town to town, acts change, ages change, even genders are not always what they seem. Now, thanks to British, Manx and international newspaper archives, family records and the assiduous work of circus historians, Sue King has managed to bring together the stories of these extraordinary performers and their role in the Manx entertainment scene.

‘Evenings of Wonder’ – a reference to a circus advertising slogan – is a look back to these heady days, exploring the themes adopted by the circus companies that pitched up on the Island and showing how they developed with the times. So, if it please you ladies and gentlemen, we invite you to step up and let the show begin

Belle Vue Gardens, Douglas.
Photo: MNH PG.0711.4