The term ‘circus’ dates back to ancient Rome. It was originally associated with the rectangular arenas built in towns and cities for entertainment and, in particular, for chariot races, re-enactments of famous battles and gladiatorial combat. The modern circus, based on a central ring housed in a circular building or tent, is a more recent phenomenon that celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2018. The format of the modern circus is attributed to Philip Astley who, in 1768, opened an amphitheatre in Lambeth, London for displays of horse riding. To amuse the audience, in between equestrian acts, Astley provided a range of entertainment including jugglers, acrobats and clowns. Given that the horses provided the centre piece of the show, the ring was a minimum of 42 feet in diameter to provide an adequate turning circle and this has remained the standard size for a circus ring ever since. The circus at that time would, in most instances, have been a wooden structure with the first ‘Big Top’ performances under canvas dating from the 1820s.
The idea of a compact circular arena that brought together a variety of acts was a huge success. It was an extremely popular and spectacular entertainment that appealed to all ages, and soon many cities and towns across Britain had one or more circuses. As we celebrate 250 years of circus the records held at Glamorgan Archives provide us with details of the circuses that were built in the 19th century in the heart of Cardiff.
It is likely that, in comparison to other towns, the circus came late to Cardiff, given that the population boom associated with the docks and the coal trade dates from approximately 1840 onwards.
Glamorgan Archives holds plans for two circuses that were built in Cardiff in the 1870s. The first was built and opened in November 1870 on an unused plot of land on the corner of St Mary Street and Wood Street, later occupied by the Prince of Wales Theatre. St Mary Street in the mid-19th century was far from being a grand street, as confirmed in newspaper reports:
In 1854 Cardiff was a very different place to Cardiff today. The rateable value of St Mary Street was not a tenth of what it is now. The site of the present post office was occupied as a “dead house”. On the opposite side to the Town Hall was the old police station and below it a number of cottages let at 2s 6d a week when tenants could be obtained. The southern front of the London and Provincial Bank was an old fish shop and house let at £10 a year….The corner of Wood Street and St Mary Street was a waste piece of ground on which Signor Quagliani’s circus was afterwards placed. At the bottom of the Street was “the bog”…. [Evening Express, 28 May 1895].
From newspaper reports we know that Signor Quagliani and his Company had left Cardiff by 1863, although it is likely that other circuses, including Holbrook’s, continued to use the land as a circus through the latter half of the 1860s. The circus building would have been a semi-permanent wooden construction, using Astley’s format of a central ring and tiered seating probably for up to 500 people. By 1870 there was a very well defined Circus season in Cardiff, from November through to Easter, suggesting that circus companies were combining summer Big Top tours around Wales with town based circus in the winter months.
The plans for the St Mary Street circus submitted by Circus impresarios, Hutchinson and Tayleure, in October 1870, represented a step change in the scale and decoration of the Circus provided in Cardiff. By 1870 the town was expanding rapidly and, with the expansion, there was a demand for popular entertainment. The local authorities, supported by the police, were in favour of ventures such as the circus that provided family based entertainment that helped to keep people away from the drinking houses in the town.
Hutchinson and Tayleure were established circus providers and they saw the potential in Cardiff with their plans to double the size of the previous building so that they could accommodate up to 1000 people each night. In an attempt to cast the net as wide as possible the new structure had different grades of seating, with boxes charged at 2s 6d per person to a gallery and pit at 1s and 6d respectively. The entrance to the Gallery was on St Mary Street opposite Caroline Street and the Boxes and Pit on Wood Street opposite Temperance Town.
Although we do not have a photograph of the building, the plans held at Glamorgan Archives provide a good impression of its layout (ref.: BC/S/1/90484).
The overall building was rectangular in shape, to make best use of the land available, with ticket offices on both St Mary Street and Wood Street. However, once inside, the interior conformed to the traditional circus layout with tiered seating surrounding a central 42 foot diameter ring. There were two tunnels, opposite each other, for people and horses to enter and leave the ring with platforms above the tunnels for a brass band. The provision of accommodation under the seating for artist changing rooms and, most importantly, stabling for horses confirmed that the Circus followed the tried and tested format of equestrian acts interspersed by a range of acrobats and clowns. In addition, the circus would have featured a number of speciality acts, including singing and recitation perhaps more commonly associated with music hall in later years. Caged and exotic animals only became a common feature in circuses at a later date.
It was clear that no expense was spared in what Hutchinson and Tayleure styled …their new elegant Circus and Grand Palace of Variety. The local newspapers reported that the building and furnishings had cost a thousand pounds. A report in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian on 12 November 1870 described the new building:
This really fine building will be opened to the public on Monday. As a place of public amusement it promises to be the best of the kind ever opened in Cardiff.
The timber roof is entirely concealed by a complete ceiling of red and white cloth suspended in festoons from the centre with flags and banners of various colours from points along the roof and the pillars supporting the front of the promenade.…The floor of the boxes is covered with Brussels carpet, the back being richly papered and decorated with curtains.
The interior will be lighted by a number of large gas stars giving out hundreds of jets of light… It is more commodious, more comfortable and more elegant that any circus that has been erected in the town.
Hutchinson and Tayleure had left nothing to chance and had made strenuous efforts to win approval from all quarters. During the first week they invited the Mayor to host a ‘grand soiree equestre’ with proceeds to go to the Cardiff Infirmary. They also provided the Cardiff Board of Guardians with tickets so that the paupers from the Cardiff Union Workhouse could attend a performance. Never known to ‘undersell’ themselves, Hutchinson and Tayleure on the first night of the Winter Season announced:
The Entertainments will be varied nightly and include brilliant equestrian achievement, daring gymnastic exploits, great entrees and cavalcades, brilliant spectacle, historical pageants and a host of novel scenes new to the public of this town [Western Mail 14 November 1870].
The people of Cardiff flocked to the Circus in their thousands and filled the arena night after night. Hutchinson and Tayleure did not disappoint. The Cardiff Times reported on 19 November 1870 that the audience:
…crowded every part of the spacious building… The entertainment was of a varied and most entertaining description. The agility of the acrobats, the extraordinary feats of the other performers, both human and animal, and the buffoonery of the clever clowns afforded a treat to the frequenters such as Cardiff seldom affords.
A month later the Western Mail reported that the crowds at the Circus were still …immense... Even a near tragedy (when the trestle tables and mattresses positioned to break the fall of the trapeze artist, Niblo, gave way as he ended his act with a double somersault) was averted by the …cat like agility… of the artist. As the newspaper reported:
His wonderful escape was loudly cheered from all parts of the Circus [Western Mail, December 14 1879].
Yet Hutchinson and Tayleure’s spectacular St Mary Street circus ran for less than 6 years. The story of what happened next is told through a further set of plans held at Glamorgan Archives that will feature in the second of a short series of articles on the Circus in Cardiff.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer