Crowds of children at the Circus, 1941 - SLNSW

Circuses first appeared in England in the late 1770s, but it took until the mid 19th century for this popular form of travelling entertainment to take hold in Australia.

The first circuses were those started by the St Leon and Ashton families in Tasmania in the 1850s.

The circus was the mainstay of popular entertainment from this time through to the late 1960s. Early acts were based around showcasing physical skills and endurance, and included horse trick riders, clowns, wire and rope walkers, high diving, and trapeze and tumbling acts. Most circuses were family affairs, although unusual acts were often booked from overseas, either Europe or America.

Compared to vaudeville, a competing form of popular entertainment in the 19th century, circuses were highly mobile. Troupes travelled all over country NSW, Victoria and Queensland by road, first with horse-drawn covered wagons, and later with the introduction of the motorised transport, by truck or van. 

Ashtons Circus in the streets of Sydney, 1960s

Sydney, with its large population, were an essential and profitable stop on any circuit. Many circuses set up their big top and associated caravans in Wentworth Park in Glebe.

By the early 20th century, the focus of circuses had shifted, due in part to the American influence. Circuses began to amass ‘menageries’, and it was not unusual to see cages full of ‘big cats’, monkeys, dogs, horses and elephants taking to the road.

The pre-eminent circus family after the Second World War was the Bullens circus, which had a collection of lions, tigers, leopards and Himalayan Bears. When the family left the business in the late 1960s, they continued their affinity with wild cats by setting up the African Lion Safari at Wallacia in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Today,  the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and Circus Oz are carrying on an over 160 year old tradition, and are reviving the physical performance skills favoured by the Ashtons, Wirths, St Leons and other families from the 1850s.