On 28 February 1889, the South Wales Daily News carried a report headed ‘Interesting Sale’. The newspaper described a grand sale of circus equipment in Cardiff belonging to Mr J Tayleure, the famous circus impresario. Tayleure, with his business partner, Hutchinson, had run city centre circuses in Cardiff initially on St Mary Street and, from 1876, on Westgate Street. Tayleure was planning to retire and the sale probably marked the end of the Westgate Street circus, built on land owned by the Bute family that was earmarked as a suitable plot for a new post office building [South Wales Daily News, 28 February 1889].
One of those bidding that day was Tayleure’s son, David, who acquired a large circus tent for £70. In the following years David Tayleure carried on the family business as a travelling circus, possibly in recognition that the cost of a permanent site in a booming town centre no longer produced a reasonable return. However, the paper also reported that a Mr J Sanger was present at the sale. John Sanger was the head of a large and well known circus family based in London, John Sanger and Sons, famous for lavish circus productions that toured the country. It is just possible that Sanger, having noted the demise of the Westgate Street circus, saw an opportunity. In the following year, 1890, he submitted plans to the Cardiff Borough Surveyor for a circus to be built in the town centre on Penarth Road, on land used today as the car park for Cardiff Central Station.
The plans for this circus are held at the Glamorgan Archives along with a letter from the firm charged with its design and construction (ref.: BC/S/1/7869).
They show a circus on a scale never before seen in the city. It is a breath taking design on a number of fronts. Whereas the Westgate Street Circus had stunned the public with an arena that could accommodate up to 2000, the Penarth Road circus had seating for up to 4500. To facilitate this it used a completely new design, abandoning wood in favour of corrugated iron. Sanger had hired a company from Nottingham, Thomas Woodhouse, to undertake the design and construction. The company’s letter to the Cardiff Borough Surveyor contained references from 5 local authorities confirming the quality of their work and supporting the claim that they had built over 40 such structures in recent years.
The plans show an unremarkable rectangular building, 124ft by 131ft. As always the luxury and style was reserved for the interior dominated by the traditional circus format. The 44ft ring was marginally larger than usual, allowing Sanger to claim that it was the biggest ever seen in Wales. A central cupola some 50 feet above the centre of the ring provided light and ventilation for an array of banked seating, including boxes, stalls, a pit, a gallery and a promenade. Beneath the seating there were separate dressing rooms for the artistes, a wardrobe department and offices. The circus was to be lit by 4 large chandeliers each with 32 gas burners, with further arched lights running around the arena. There were clearly concerns surrounding safety and much was made of the woodwork being covered with an inflammable paint and provision for multiple exits. In case of fire it was estimated that the arena could be cleared in less than two minutes. Clearly no expense was to be spared on facilities for both the staff and public. However, in one area there was a major departure from the structures used for the Westgate Street Circus. Hutchinson and Tayleure’s circuses had followed the traditional formula of equestrian acts interspersed with acrobats, gymnasts and clowns. The design for the Penarth Road Circus, however, while accommodating a large area for stabling of horses, also made provision for a menagerie. The circus had moved on with the introduction of exotic and wild animals and Sanger and others were increasingly using lions, bears and elephants as the centre piece of the circus.
It is testimony to the skills and enterprise of the designers and builders that the plans were submitted on 7 October and approved on 23 October 1890. In less than 5 weeks the building was complete and Sanger’s Royal Circus and Menagerie was open for business. The Western Mail reported on 28 November 1890:
For some weeks past a considerable body of workmen have been employed night and day in erecting a huge circus or hippodrome on the Penarth Road, Cardiff….With regard to the adornments, something may also be said. They consist of innumerable shields, flags bannerets and other devices representative of every nation. This work has been carried out by Mr Dominic Hand the well known London art worker.
The menagerie is situated on the west side of the circus, and it is a beautifully lighted building, 80ft long by 40ft wide with accommodation for six dens of beasts, ten elephants, six or eight camels, dromedaries, llamas, yaks, beside “side shows” in the shape of illusions, freaks of nature &c….The whole of the artistes engaged, as well as the elephants, camels, carnivores and stud will be conveyed from London by three special trains….
As noted in the in the Western Mail, the circus opened on 1 December to a packed auditorium and was …undoubtedly one of the best circus performances seen in Cardiff”.
Messrs Sanger have an excellent stud of horses, including some well known thoroughbreds, a good zoological collection, a fine troupe of educated elephants and a staff of clever artistes. Just to mention a few items in the programme, Tarro, the Japanese wire and rope walker performs some marvellous feats. Miss Lavina Sanger introduces a fine horse “Black Eagle” in a unique performance and the Romah troupe of horizontal bar performers are very good gymnasts. Lieutenant Hartley exhibits his troupe of trained elephants which appeared at Sandringham on the occasion of the coming of age of His Royal Highness, Prince Albert Victor. The programme is replete with equestrienne, bicycle acrobatic and jockey performances. The circus is open each evening and on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.
Although off to a good start Sanger had a further surprise for the Christmas period. The builders had been asked to accommodate a last minute change in the construction. Using a design drawn together by a Cardiff man, Charles Elms, provision had been made for the arena to be flooded to a depth of 2 to 3 feet with 40,000 gallons of water. It was planned that the Christmas performance could incorporate a ‘nautical pantomime’ styled on a set first seen at the Paris Hippodrome.
…the arena is filled with water forming a, by no means, miniature lake, dotted with islands, spanned by bridges and with boats, canoes and a steam launch, each with a freight of pleasure seekers floating thereon….This has been seen and enjoyed by thousands; many more thousands will see and enjoy it, too, for the whole thing is so excruciatingly funny that is it bound to have a long run [Western Mail, 31 December 1891]
Those who saw the Christmas show would have witnessed a performance that, in addition to the Pantomime, included horses, bears, lions and elephants with a supporting cast of acrobats, gymnasts and clowns. Ticket prices ranged from 1 shilling and six pence to 3 shillings. However not all of the performances went to plan. The water was heated by a network steams pipes that failed one night. As noted the next day, the performers showed …a good deal of pluck in entering the cold water [South Wales Echo, 30 December 1891]. No doubt the Pantomime was also enjoyed by the school children from Ely who were provided with free tickets for a Wednesday afternoon performance.
At the conclusion of the performance, which was hugely enjoyed, the youngsters were treated to buns and oranges. They were conveyed to and fro by brake [South Wales Daily Echo, 22 January 1891]
In the following month the circus continued to attract large audiences as Sanger regularly refreshed the acts. In February the centrepiece was ‘The War in Zululand’ …employing over 200 men and horses and assisted by a detachment of the 41st Regimental District. This led to an odd exchange in the newspapers. Striking dock workers, seeing soldiers being moved around the city centre, assumed that it was an attempt to break the strike. Subsequently it was explained that the soldiers were simply being transported to a performance at the circus [South Wales Echo, 10 February 1891]. The circus was also not without a near tragedy. It was reported, on 20 December, that a circus keeper had been taken to the Infirmary with severe bruising after being woken by an elephant pulling him from his bed [Cardiff Times, 20 December 1890].
Yet despite its popularity, anyone visiting the site on Penarth Road just months later in April 1891 would have found it deserted with the circus having departed, the building dismantled and many of the remaining fittings advertised for sale. As the letter in Glamorgan Archives from Thomas Woodhouse confirmed, it had been a condition of the approval of the plans that the circus be dismantled and removed by 31 March 1891. To an extent, this followed the traditional format, with the provision of a city centre circus during the winter months and a touring circus in the summer. However, the circus plans held at Glamorgan Archives end at this point.
It is likely the Penarth Road Iron Circus was the last town centre circus to be built in Cardiff. No doubt land in the centre of Cardiff was at premium and suitable plots for a permanent circus were, therefore, difficult to find. While Tayleure and Hutchinson in 1870 had only faced competition from one town centre theatre, Sanger would have operated side by side with the Philharmonic, The Theatre Royal, The Empire and the Grand Theatre. In addition, there was a suggestion that attendances fell away in February and March as a lengthy strike by docks workers resulted in many families being unable to afford a circus visit.
It seems that the costs of a purpose built circus for a limited winter period were simply too high. Despite the demise in Cardiff of the city centre circus, the circus itself was very much alive and well. The scale of several of the town centre halls and theatres was such that they could be used to provide a circus. For example, St Andrews’ Hall on Queen Street hosted a series of circus seasons in the first decade of the new century, provided by the Royal Italian Circus. However, for most people the circus was increasingly associated with the big top. Sanger’s and many other circus companies continued to visit Cardiff, but using bigger and better big tops, often pitched on Sophia Gardens.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer