Ringmasters – the most famous people in circus history

From the first human cannonball to Queen Victoria’s famed lion tamer, we bring you the best in the business

Penhaligon's Christmas

 

The history of the circus has more characters than a Shakespeare play. Some were good, some were bad, many were almost completely bonkers. Then again, it’s hardly surprising the circus attracts eccentrics – just think of those ringmaster uniforms, flying cannonballs, not to mention the contortion artists who could seemingly fold themselves up into a shoebox. Of course, circuses were not all sweetness and light, one only needs to think of the more egregious examples of animal cruelty and the disgusting unkindness of the freak show. But that said, there was good too. We bring you Penhaligon’s guide to the greats of the circus.

TO THE FUNFAIR

Isaac Van Amburgh

Queen Victoria’s favourite lion tamer, New York-born Isaac Van Amburgh, visited England in 1838 drawing in the roaring crowds to Philip Astley’s Amphitheatre. Amburgh – usually dressed in the rig of a roman centurion – and his lions were so popular with Queen Victoria that she visited seven times in six weeks – and even loitered around afterwards to watch them being fed. “You can never see it too often,” she said in her journal.

Rossa Matilda Richter

 

In 1877 at just seventeen years old, Rosa Matilda Richter, known as Zazel,  clambered into a spring-loaded cannon and was shot into the air across a crowd of gathered spectators at the Royal Aquarium and landed in a suspended net. So it was that the first human cannonball was born. Her career ended tragically in 1891 when a circus pole fell on her back in New Mexico during a routine. She survived but would never fly through the air again.

Philip Astley

During the Seven Years War in the mid-1700s Astley became known as a master equestrian, and when he returned from the front, he opened a riding school in 1768. His specialty was showing off riding tricks to his pupils. It was here he thought up the idea that would see him called “the father of the circus”. Astley would open the first circus in France in 1782 – Amphitheatre Anglais – and even performed in front of Marie-Antoinette at Versailles. At 6ft tall, with a booming voice, he was so successful he would go on to have not just one circus, but nineteen all around Europe.

 

Nell Gifford

Nell Gifford – the daughter of TV producer and director Rick Stroud – ran away to the circus at 18, before returning to study English at New College Oxford. She would become one of the undoubted greats of the modern circus. Her great strength was her enormous imagination and her talent for finding the best acts arounds. She brought together such diverse acts as Tweedy the clown; Attila the Hungarian horseman from the Great Hungarian Plain; Ethiopian jugglers Bibi and Bichu; and even a team of jockeys that flipped from horse to horse. For many of its fans it is the highlight of the summer calendar as the circus pulls up at commons and village greens. Each year there is a new theme, including Xanadu, The Hooley, and one themed all around the Greek gods. Nell died in 2019, aged 46, from cancer – but the circus life continues.

 

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley was an American sharpshooter born in 1860 in rural Ohio. She was only eight years old when she made her first shot – the head of a squirrel at the bottom of her garden – and would feed her impoverished family by hunting them. She made her name in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, though she was originally turned down because he already had a marksman with an expert eye. In 1884 a steamboat shepherding the shows performers sank on the Mississippi and the firearms were ruined. When the marksman quit, Buffalo Bill contacted Annie Oakley, and the rest is history. She toured across Europe along with her husband Frank Butler – one act saw her shoot a cigar from between his lips.

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