Wirth's Circus, also known as Wirth Brothers' Circus, was Australia's largest and most prestigious circus company for eight decades.[1] Billed as Australia's own 'Greatest show on Earth' (a reference to the slogan of the American P. T. Barnum Circus), the travelling circus held an international reputation.

Wirth's Circus
Wirth's Circus, 1941 by Sam Hood
Founder(s)Philip Wirth
George Wirth
Year founded1882
Traveling show?Yes (Australia; global)

The company edit

The company started with the children of brass musician and German-born Johannes 'John' (1834–10 July 1880) and his English-born wife Sarah Wirth:

  • John James. He died 16 April 1894, aged 35, at Burghersdorf, South Africa, where the company was performing;[2]
  • Harry, who could do a double somersault over a row of fixed bayonets.[3] Harry died 19 July 1896, aged 36 while near Hong Kong on the SS Kwang Lee, from sunstroke.[4] He left a wife and three children;
  • Philip Peter Jacob (26 June 1864 – 29 August 1937, aged 74),[5][6] ringmaster, acrobat, animal trainer, musician. He married twice, and had seven children. Wirth built a two-storey Federation mansion, Ocean View in 1915 at Coogee, NSW;
  • George (1867–16 October 1941, aged 74),[7] ringmaster, acrobat, animal trainer, musician. He married Margaret Bain but had no children. George retired from the circus in 1930;
  • Mary Elizabeth Victoria 'Marizles' (1868–1948, aged 78), an equestrienne, remembered as the 'Grant old Lady of the Circus', who died in New York on 31 March 1948;[8]
  • Mina; and
  • Madeline.

The parents had arrived in Australia in 1855, worked as itinerant musicians, including with Ashton's Circus.[9] Commencing as a small travelling band of the Wirth family members, getting their first tent and performing under canvas in Sydney in 1880,[10] they had formed a small circus by 1882.[1] Established in Ballarat, the brothers first provincial tour commenced from Ararat in 1885, and Adelaide their first capital.[11] Shortly after, the circus went to Nouméa.

Their bitter rivals were the FitzGerald Brothers Circus, although this subsided in 1906 of the death of the FitzGerald brothers:[12] Dan (1859–Saturday 3 February 1906, aged 45)[13] and Tom (died on Friday 27 April 1906, aged 40).[14] At this time, the Wirths acquired the FitzGeralds' circus.[9]

Philip Wirth's children, Eileen, Doris, Madelaine, Phillip, George, and Marizles 'Rillie' (died 1988),[15] continued to run the circus until its closure in May 1963.[1] Although the Bullen Brothers circus competition started impacting the family operation,[15] the decline of the circus was principally attributed to rising transport costs and the introduction of television.[9][15]

Travelling circus (1882–1963) edit

With the Australian banking crisis of 1893, the Wirths went on a seven-year overseas tour.[16] While giving a performance in October 1895 at Mount Video, Uruguay, the Politeama Theatre burnt down and was completely destroyed.[17] Returning to South Africa, they found the Second Boer War in progress, but made their neutrality clear; but on one occasion, the circus train narrowly missed demolition as the Boers were about to blow a bridge over the Modder River.[5]

While Philip Wirth was a ringmaster standing 6 feet (1.8 m) tall and weighing 14 stone (200 lb; 89 kg), he was also an expert horse trainer. In 1893 in South Africa, he trained a gnu to ride on the back of a horse, and broke and trained six zebras, which according to Wirth, The Bible allegedly said to be the only animal that could not be trained.[18] When in South America in 1895, he trained two wild mustangs to waltz together. In another instance, a pony would enter the ring dressed as a woman, undress, put on a nightgown, blow out a candle and get into bed; teaching all done without cruelty, but patience and some sugar.

With an extending family and adopting family members, the troupe undertook significant world tours additional to travelling extensively by horse-drawn wagon and special trains around Australia.[1] In 1901 May Wirth (1894–1978) became the adopted daughter of Mary,[19] to become "greatest bareback riding star".[20] She later was inducted in 1963 into the Circus Hall of Fame.

Singh, and Wirth's Circus advance manager, Charlie Peterson, in Perth, September 1929

Renown wrestler Buttan Singh performed with the company in the early 1900s, billed as one of the 'champion Hindu wrestlers of Australia'.[21]

The 1903 programme, in a tent that held 400 people comfortably, with electric light, included:[22]

  • wild animal performance by Mons. Ragoul, which included bareback riding by a tiger;
  • a tiger-drawn chariot with a tiger coachman;
  • an elephant, bear, camel and monkey took afternoon-tea in the ring;
  • acts of a funny clown;
  • Brothers Howard with memory and object games;
  • the Flying Eugenes in mid-air;
  • Philip's daughter Phyllis performing on horseback like a 'human butterfly';
  • The Cantons, two Anglo-Chinese acrobats, on a revolving ladder;
  • contortionist Masinga;
  • Philip Wirth taking the snow-white stallion' Moncrieff, through paces;
  • a boxing match by a pair of ponys;
  • Mary Wirth undertook juggling on horseback, while William Carl did a bareback riding act; and
  • aerial Roman rings act, tumbling and riding.

Outside there was another tent with a menagerie of animals.

In July 1910, the circus had a lion, two lionesses and two Russian wolves escape at Murrurundi, NSW.[7][23] In September 1917, a lion and lioness by means unknown were able to get loose at Campbelltown, NSW.[24]

By 1930 Wirth's Circus was now operating on a two-yearly national tour, usually staged for August's Royal Exhibition Show in Brisbane, Easter in Sydney, and November's Melbourne Cup.[9][25] The company presented winning jockeys with gold-mounted whips.[26][27] The alternate year was a visit to New Zealand.[5]

The circus was the only one allowed to operate during World War II in Australia, but faced the challenges of travel by road and petrol rationing.[15] The troupe used Muston Park, Sydney, New South Wales as a performance area in 1942.

After World War II, painter Norma Bull (1906–1980) travelled with the company painting scenes of circus life for twelve months.

One of the circus' most famous elephants was 'Princess Alice'.[1] George Wirth's favourite elephant was 'Jumbo' but had to be shot when it went rogue in Brisbane.[7]

In the 1950s, the company used two Victorian Railways wooden bogie passenger carriages as accommodation in the 1950s.[28] The circus staff complained about the poor condition of the carriages, which by that stage were over 60 years old. In 1962 the pair were withdrawn from the circus train.

Wirth's Olympia Circus, Melbourne (1907–1957) edit

In 1901 the Arts Centre site on St Kilda Road, in Melbourne became home to a permanent circus, Olympia, built by the FitzGerald Brothers' Circus.[29] Olympia was the name of their octagonal circus building.[16] In 1904, the area of the site not occupied by FitzGerald's was developed as a fashionable meeting place called Prince's Court. This area featured a Japanese Tea House, open-air theatre, miniature train, water chute and a 15-member military band.

In 1907, with the passing of the FitzGerald Brothers, the Wirth Brothers Circus took over the entire site from FitzGerald's, and remained there for the next 50 years. The adjoining Prince's Court amusement park was acquired, merged, and became Wirth's Pleasure Park.[9] By 1911 they had built a new circus Hippodrome (a 5000-seat auditorium)[12] and a roller skating rink, and had leased the original Olympia as a cinema. During World War I some of the buildings were used as nursing homes for soldiers and nurses. During the 1920s a new Green Mill Dance Hall replaced the Jazz Pavilion and Olympia Dancing Palace.[29]

Dog shows in 1929 were held at Olympia.[30] The Green Mill Dance Hall closed in 1950, and the remainder of the Wirth buildings on the site, valued at £70,000, were destroyed by fire in December 1953.[31]

Elephant from Wirth's Circus in a Sydney street parade (1938)

Wirth Brothers Hippodrome, Sydney (1916–1928) edit

The Sydney Council sought to replace the New Belmore Markets around Campbell Street, Haymarket, Sydney central business district by 1912. The area was initially used by the Wirth Brothers Circus for ten weeks in 1912 as a circus and hippodrome. This was successful and a twenty-one year lease was signed in September 1912.[32] The company opened the new Wirth Brothers Hippodrome in April 1916. Attractions included elaborate circus acts with animals such as elephants and seals, theatre and vaudeville shows. Although performing with some success for a decade, the Hippodrome failed financially. Despite the Hippodrome's versatility, it was not a financial success and by 1926 Wirth's had decided to seek the remodelling of the buildings as a picture palace. With the Capitol Theatre opened on 7 April 1928, the circus moved to a nearby site at Wentworth Avenue and Goulburn Street.[9]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ a b c d e MARYNOWSKY, Tara. "Wirth's Circus home movies". National Film and Sound Archive. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  2. ^ "Wirth monument". The Telegraph (Brisbane). No. 7008. Queensland, Australia. 4 April 1895. p. 2. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  3. ^ "Wirth's circus". The Ballarat Star. Vol. XXXI, no. 274. Victoria, Australia. 23 November 1886. p. 4. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  4. ^ "Footlight flashes". Referee. No. 515. New South Wales, Australia. 9 September 1896. p. 7. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  5. ^ a b c "World's oldest showman dies". The Courier-Mail. No. 1247. Queensland, Australia. 30 August 1937. p. 13. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  6. ^ St LEON, Mark Valentine (1990). "Wirth, Philip Peter Jacob (1864–1937)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  7. ^ a b c "Death at 74 of Mr G. WIRTH". The Herald. No. 20, 102. Victoria, Australia. 17 October 1941. p. 5. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  8. ^ "Death of Mrs. Wirth". Cairns Post. No. 14, 376. Queensland, Australia. 2 April 1948. p. 5. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  9. ^ a b c d e f "Wirths' Circus Collection". Arts Centre Melbourne. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  10. ^ "Philip WIRTH". Warwick Daily News. No. 5651. Queensland, Australia. 30 August 1937. p. 4. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  11. ^ "Mr. Philip WIRTH". Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate. No. 18, 995. New South Wales, Australia. 30 August 1937. p. 7. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ a b Andrew Stephens (24 October 2014). "Heart of the Arts: Arts Centre Melbourne revels in 30 triumphant years". Sydney Morning Herald.
  13. ^ "Obituary". Freeman's Journal. Vol. LVII, no. 3499. New South Wales, Australia. 10 February 1906. p. 21. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  14. ^ "Mr. Tom Fitzgerald". Observer. Vol. LXIII, no. 3, 369. South Australia. 28 April 1906. p. 36. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  15. ^ a b c d BROWN, Malcolm (27 January 2007). "Last of a circus family was shy and quiet". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  16. ^ a b St Leon, Mark. "Wirth's Circus". eMelbourne.net.au. Retrieved 5 September 2017.
  17. ^ "Untitled". The Lorgnette. No. 235. Victoria, Australia. 2 October 1895. p. 2. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  18. ^ "Death of Philip WIRTH circus veteran". Guyra Argus. New South Wales, Australia. 2 September 1937. p. 5. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  19. ^ St LEON, Mark Valentine (1990). "Wirth, Mary Elizabeth Victoria (Marizles) (1868–1948)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  20. ^ "It's safer to stand on the horse". The Sunday Herald. Sydney. 12 March 1950. p. 2 Supplement: Features. Retrieved 2 May 2013 – via National Library of Australia.
  21. ^ "Wirth Bros' Circus". The Kadina and Wallaroo Times. Vol. XXXIX, no. 4129. South Australia. 20 August 1904. p. 2. Retrieved 5 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  22. ^ "Wirths' Circus". The Arena-Sun. Victoria, Australia. 2 April 1903. p. 18. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  23. ^ "Escape of circus animals". National Advocate. New South Wales, Australia. 9 July 1910. p. 4. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  24. ^ "Lions at large". Daily Mail (Brisbane). No. 4548. Queensland, Australia. 4 September 1917. p. 7. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  25. ^ "On the road : the wandering Wirth family". John Oxley Library. State of Queensland (State Library of Queensland). 30 May 2013. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  26. ^ "Gold-mounted whip". Sydney Sportsman. No. 1740. New South Wales, Australia. 29 October 1932. p. 16. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  27. ^ "Gold whip to Cup winner". The Argus (Melbourne). No. 32, 503. Victoria, Australia. 3 November 1950. p. 22. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  28. ^ "BL - Second Class Corridor Car". www.pjv101.net.
  29. ^ a b "Our history". Arts Centre Melbourne. Retrieved 9 January 2022.
  30. ^ "Dog show at Wirth's Olympia". The Argus (Melbourne). No. 25, 841. Victoria, Australia. 8 June 1929. p. 23. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  31. ^ "£70,000 circus fire at Wirth's Olympia". Macleay Argus. No. 10, 121. New South Wales, Australia. 29 December 1953. p. 1. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via National Library of Australia.
  32. ^ "Capitol Theatre". New South Wales State Heritage Register. Department of Planning & Environment. H00391. Retrieved 13 October 2018.   Text is licensed by State of New South Wales (Department of Planning and Environment) under CC-BY 4.0 licence.
  • The travelling Wirth family: A history of our ancestors as musicians, miners and Wirths' Circus including descendants (2008), researched and compiled by Gayle Speight, with genealogical research by Gayle Speight, Stephanie Wirth, and Margaret Wright, ISBN 0646446894.

External links edit