In the footsteps of itinerant jesters and strolling players of the past, the world of circus emerged, illuminating the glimmer of wanderlust in the hearts of their audiences. As the late 18th century dawned, troupes began touring to even the tiniest hamlets, bridging the gap between imagination and reality. In the 19th century, when the veins of the railway reached across the land, these circuses carried the magic of their performance further still. Majestic enterprises like Astley’s Circus would traverse through Britain, visit the quaint avenues of Paris and other European cities, and persist despite the often grueling conditions of travel.

Richard Sands’ “Splendid and Novel Pavilion”

One such intrepid wanderer was Richard Sands, an American circus proprietor, an acrobat, and a “ceiling walker” of notoriety. In 1842, his company, Sands’ American Circus, made its English debut with a retinue of 35 horses and 25 equestrians, adding a whole new dimension to the circus culture. His infamous “air walking” act, a daring demonstration with rubber suction pads affixed to his feet, kept audiences on the edge of their seats. However, this stunt, as thrilling as it was, ended in tragedy in 1861, reminding everyone that even within the glistening fantasy of the circus, the harsh reality of life could intrude.

Despite this tragedy, Richard Sands gifted England an enduring symbol of the circus – the tent we so fondly associate with these spectacles of wonder. His “splendid and novel Pavilion” was met with an enthusiastic reception and was rapidly imitated by other troupes.

Charlie Keith’s Circus Building on Wheels

The evolution of the circus Big Top buildings is credited to Charlie Keith. He was a celebrated clown and circus owner, who, in 1892, patented the first portable circus building. Tired of circuses with leaky tents and muddy floors, Keith dared to dream of a sturdier alternative. His invention – a flat-packed marvel of wooden planks and a canvas roof – offered the convenience of mobility with the stability of a permanent structure.

The danger of the hastily built, transient circus buildings of the early 19th century was a grim reality. Tragedies such as the gallery collapse in Bristol in 1799 or the fatal accident in Leeds in 1848 served as stark reminders of the risks. Keith’s innovation, his “circus building on wheels,” although not entirely original, was a significant step towards the more stable Big Top structures we associate with the circus today.

W R I T E   T O   F R A N C O

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