Inside the Collection

Wirth’s Circus — showing the collection

Souvenir of The Wirths' Circus collection booklet
Mr Philip Wirth trained these brumbies by the word of command … and with a handkerchief. Collection: MAAS

When Rill Wirth, the last surviving child of the great circus proprietor Philip Wirth (1864-1937), passed away in 2007, her relatives kindly donated to the Museum a remarkable collection documenting the family’s involvement in the business from the 1870s until 1963. The Wirths’ Circus collection includes performance costumes, animal handling equipment, a travelling box office, goat carts, tent canvas, performance props, signs, banners, medals, novelty toys, and an astonishing archive of photographs, programs, publications, posters, drawings, tickets, scrapbooks, diaries, documents and ephemera. For those fascinated by Australia’s rich history of circus entertainment, this collection is a treasure trove of source material that sheds light on Wirths’ Circus, the Wirth family, other circuses, performing artists and Australian circus history. Some objects and photos from this collection will feature in Circus Factory, which opens at the Powerhouse Museum on 20 December. Circus Factory is a set of exhibitions combining circus costumes and memorabilia, fairground art, vintage toys and novelties with a set of sideshow experiences for our visitors’ enjoyment, entertainment and amazement. Circus Factory has been conceived by the Museum and designed by the French scenographer Gérard Cholot. He has created a contemporary reinterpretation of some of the traditions and aesthetics of the traditional circus. Among the many costumes on display will be four from the Wirth’s Circus collection, as well as photographs, signs, posters, tickets, a portable office used by the manager George Anderson, and even a lolly boy’s ice-cream vending box. Circus Factory runs until 3 May 2015. Written by Peter Cox, Curator, Circus Factory exhibition

35 responses to “Wirth’s Circus — showing the collection

  • It is wonderful idea for the Powerhouse to present a long running exhibition showing some of the Circus history.
    Travelling circuses in Australia have been one of the best forms of family entertainment since the 1840’s and
    the quality of the artists we have in Australia is outstanding, many of them have been real stars overseas during the last 150 years.
    Members of Circus Fans Of Australasia Inc. from all over Australia are keen to come and see this show and I
    think that many of the thousands of people who attend local circuses every day will be excited also.
    Many thanks to the Powerhouse for this exhibition and we hope there will be many more.

    • Hi my decendent JOE WALTER SOUTTER ,ran away from home and joined Wirths Circus…do not know what age , but I think he was maybe a teen was born 1911 Maryborough Vict….Story gos he was a clown ,a ring master and general cleaner…any ideas please , would he be on your records somewhere….thankyou

  • I think that having a display on Wirths’ Circus is wonderful! I knew Eileen Wirth and Bill the guy that was the lion tamer and trapeze. They had race horses that were at the property we lived on. Eileen and Bill would come up regularly and we would go down to the house in Coogee. They had a trapeze set up in the yard and some other equipment. When they had Sunset Kit Carson in the show they brought him out home and they asked us to be in the show with him when they were at Windsor.
    When doing an historical walk at the grounds where they used to set up their tents at Windsor I was told that the elephants had broken the headstones. They are still laying in the grass all broken after all those years.

    • Hi Carolynne
      Fantastic memories of Eileen! There is a poster for Sunset Kit Carson in our collection. Our exhibition draws heavily on the Wirth’s collection but it is not just about Wirth’s. We are displaying 68 circus costumes from around the world, plus a whole lot of accessories.

  • Omg I would have loved to see this, my mums family were circus people and we have had trouble trying to get information on the history. My great grandfather was a magician, they were Mitchell’s but were known as the “Great Cazelle”, I photos off my great uncle as clowns, my Nanna was the girl who had nails put through her palms and she did trapeze etc Any chance we can still this display?

    • Hi there my name is skye Mitchell and I have been looking into my family history and believe that my great grandfather was one of the Mitchell brothers. I was told the gazelles but may have been mistaken and sounds too similar. Do you have any other history on them ?

  • So sorry I didn’t get to see this. As a child I appeared in a number of pantomimes at Wirth’s circus in Melbourne and have photos of these. I have such happy memories of these days. Can you please tell me what year the fire destroyed the summer home of Wirth’s circus in Melbourne.

    • Hi Lois
      Great to hear from a performer with Wirth’s pantomimes. The fire at Wirths’ Olympia broke out at 6.50am on Sunday 27 December 1953. The circus was touring Gippsland at the time but the Beauty and the Beast pantomime had opened at Olympia the day before. Mervyn King and Bruce Johnson risked their lives to rescue animals and required treatment for burns. Circus hands rolled a cage of lions on to the street and also moved a cage containing panic-stricken bears. Four monkeys and a Great Dane dog perished. Valuable circus equipment was lost. Also destroyed was a wardrobe valued at 10,000 pounds that included velvet elephants’ robes, five sets of grand parade costumes, expensive clown outfits and trapeze gear — items that never survived to be preserved by a museum! The skating rink that was part of the Olympia complex survived and was it renamed Wirths’ Arena? It too was destroyed by fire shortly after the Olympic Games.

  • Hi

    I am descended from Wirths circus and am sorry to have missed this exhibition. My mum and Aunt would love to see it too. Is there any opportunity to see the collection from Wirth’s circus that you have stored??


  • Hi my name is Bridie Cooper and I’m a relation to Jacob Wirth who was my great great grandfather who had lived at Charters Towers. He was the father of Elizabeth Wirth who was my great great grandmother, father of my great gandmother Alice Thompson. I was wondering when the next exhibition would be held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, as my family who are doing the research on the Wirths Family would like to view?

    Next weekend I’ll being coming to Sydney to view the The Wirths Family oceanview home in Coodgee.

    Kind Regards


  • Is there any way of getting information about overseas artists who performed with Writh’s Circus circa 1910-12?

  • Hi Everyone,

    Our adopted son is descended from Charles Paul who was being brought up by Johanne and Sarah. Phillip doesn’t mention him in his book but there is a newspaper report on them meeting up in Glen Innes 40 years after Charles left the band in the mid-late 1860s, and settled in Glen Innes aged around 12 and took an apprenticeship. It is possible he came out with them from Germany, or he joined their family while they were working the gold fields in Victoria or back in Queensland before they formed the Circus. I need to do more research. Interesting there is a photo of the sons and some adopted children later on in time. They must have had good hearts.

  • Is there any information on individual members of the Wirth Circus? My ancestor Simon Bray married a P.Wirth and I believe he was a tight rope walker with the circus. Simon died sometime prior to 1920 in Madras, India and his wife and child returned and lived in Adelaide.

  • My 3xgreat uncle Harry Dale was working for the wirths circus. He was killed by a elephant in 1909 while he was working . Does anyone have a photo of him ? Please contact me . My email address is

  • Do you have details of performers who worked in Wirths Circus over 1950,s period . My father Richard ” charlie ” Waaka ( he is a maori from Temuka NZ ) as told by my mother travelled from New Zealand too Australia with Wirths Circus as a teenager and continued to work for them for a number of years . My father was visited in the late 80’s by a man called Larry ( no last name ) who was working in a circus that came to town and he told my mother that dad was one of the best bare back horse riders he had ever seen and because of his dark skin he was apparently dressed as an Indian . I would love to find any information and / or photo’s if possible knowing full well the information I have provided is sketchy at best .

  • Tom Dumpleton…. January 30th 2018.
    To Michael Waaka. I was lucky enough to be a friend of you father while working with Wirths between 1954 & 1956 when Charlie left the show in Dunedin in December 1956. I do have several photos of him with some of
    the elephants that he was so good working with. Powerhouse has my contact details and I would be happy for them to pass them on to you. I hope we can get in touch. Tom D

  • I am trying to gather more information about my great grandmother Minnie Wirth née Geigler she joined the circus and married I think Frederick Wirth. She left the circus and her husband and I believe worked in western Queensland.
    Born around 1870 she lived to the age of around 91.
    Any information would be appreciated.
    Thanking you,
    Diane Shaw

  • As a youngster, I lived in Camberwell, a suburb of Melbourne, in the 1950’s/1960’s. A couple of doors down lived the Worth’s. A daughter, Sanny I knew her as, was a friend and I remember when we went to a circus performance. We didn’t have to pay! I’ve looked up info on the Wirths Circus many times on the internet, but only just found this site. It would have been great to see the memorabilia at the Circus Factory exhibition.

    • Hi Graham, I am the “Sanny” you remember…Fancy you remembering The Circus! I remember you and your sister very well and all the time my sister and family spent in Melbourne.
      Glad to hear you are still alive as we are all getting on a little now I guess.

      Take care,

      • Hi ‘Sanny’ and Graham, my name is Libby Conlan. Our family lived at no. 18. I remember going to the circus as well. Sanny you were in the grand parade. I many happy memories of growing up with both of you in Camberwell. Great to make contact.

  • Seeking information on my grandmother Florence Marrion Bongswon a French woman who temporarily tamed lions at Wirths Circus in Melbourne around 1916-17. The story goes that she tried to get work after arrival from France, and was offered the job because the regular guy was attacked by one of the lions.

  • I am wondering and would be grateful, if you are able to answer some memories which intrigue me from when I was quite young. I was born in Melbourne in 1931 and when I was probably about 6/7 years, I think I was taken to Wirth’s Circus. I remember walking over Princes Bridge along St. Kilda Road, possibly past the Green Mill dance hall, to a very long covered walkway at the destination.

    1. Would we have walked on tan bark in this walkway, if this was Wirth’s Circus? I have memories of the smell and yes, I’m 87.

    I also had vivid recurring dreams of a skating rink, whose roof (in my dreams) would lower and almost, but not quite, squash me. We children were sleeping three to a bed, possibly causing the squashing feeling.

    2. Would the Wirth’s skating rink have had white trellis in its decor, inside or out?

    These questions may sound trivial but answers would like fill some gaps for me. All of this was before the WWII started.

    Thanks in anticipation.

  • Was there a Harry Scuthorp working with the circus.. My brother and l remember our Grandmother, prob in the 50 or 60s telling us that her cousin Harry part owned the circus… We wanted grandmother to say something, but she wouldn’t.We were upset cos we thought we might get in for free, instead of just looking at the animals.

  • Hi there,
    I believe my great grandfather Henry shappere may have been a part of the widths family circus between 1890 and 94.. travelling with them to the UK.
    He later went on to become the horse master at duntroon military college. Just wondered if his name may have popped up anywhere?
    It’s possible he changed it though as he stowed away from nz and may have been trying to avoid discovery!
    Any info appreciated (I realise it’s a long shot!)

    • In researching a different solider I came across some information about Henry Shappers (as he was calling himself) was mentioned in a letter to the New Zealand Government in September 1905. At that stage they said Shappers had been employed in the Army for 12 years and one month, meaning he had enrolled in August 1903. I do not know if that helps
      at all.

  • My Grandfathers cousin was Mickey Wislang a lion tamer for the Wirths and from all accounts engaged to Rill Wirth.
    His mother was Ruby Ashton (Ashton Circus)
    If anyone has pics, stories or info I’d love to hear it

  • Hello,
    I am wondering if anyone has any information on Harry Kelly ? My relative. As we only have family stories that he worked for WIRTH circus during the 1950’s as proprietor / publicising two weeks ahead in each town the arrival of circus. He would order meat from butchers for animals and other jobs to be ready for when circus arrived. He drove a big fancy car & wore pinstriped tux & top hat. Any information or photo of him would be greatly appreciated.

  • My Mother and Father were part of this great circus, in the 1930’s Thelma (Gunn) was part of a roller skating dancing group called the flying Lacelles, a bare back and trick horse rider, Dad George Peters, was an all round roustabout, I remember fondly as a child meeting Madeline Wirth, Tony Smaha, Horse trainer and Ray Humpries, clown, I have a photo of an un named Monkey Trainer, I remember sitting next to the Band above the entrance of the circus acts, enjoying every performance, in the Wirths Arena in St Kilda Road,I would dearly like to learn about them in the Circus, I would like to buy the book, The Traveling Wirths, if anyone known where I can buy a copy I would be most appreciated Ray Peters

  • I am researching stay-in strikes in Australia in 1930s and one of the strikes was at the Wirth’s circus. It involved Captain Flyger. Just wondering if there are any photos of Flyger or any further information that the museum may have on Flyger and relationship with Wirth’s. The stay-in incurred in April 1937. Flyger did not agree with Philip Wirth and his dad about changing from the tiger act to the lion act. The tiger act had been running for 4 years and the Wirth’s believed that the public was tired of the act.

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