Inside the Collection

The Wirth brothers — from band to circus

Illustration of George Wirth performing as a clown, from his scrapbook
Illustration of George Wirth performing as a clown, from his scrapbook. He was a talented tumbler, clown and horseman. Gift of the Wirth family, 2012. Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

After leaving Ridge’s Royal Tycoon Circus in 1880 the Wirth brothers established themselves as the Star Troupe of Varieties. With just six artists, including Japanese acrobats and a German comedian, they assembled a program of acrobatics, clowning, contortion, spinning hats, boxing and comic songs. They padded the evening out with a few polkas and cornet solos. Audiences responded with repeated encores. The Star Troupe of Varieties developed into Wirth Brothers Circus.

In 1881 they arrived at Armidale, where 5000 people were gathering to see the Duke of Clarence officially open the railway line from Tamworth. The Wirths pitched their tent on a vacant lot opposite the station and, as the Duke was late, gave four 25 minute performances to a packed tent. Then they moved their tent to the showground where they gave nine more shows, before a final performance on the main street. In one day they had erected and dismantled the tent five times, given 14 performances and bagged over £40.

In 1881 they were again with Ashton’s Circus, until they left after a ‘rough-up’ at Goulburn, early in 1882. By this time they were becoming versatile circus performers. The eldest, John James Wirth, was bandmaster and a talking clown. Harry was a springboard leaper and somersault tumbler. Philip took on strong work such as being the bottom man in acrobatics, but he was regarded as too good a musician to be left out of the band. George, the youngest of the Wirth boys, soon joined his brothers.

The Wirths made their way to Sydney and pitched their small tent at Haymarket Reserve. This space was a market during the week but on Saturdays was occupied by amusements like merry-go-rounds and tent shows. The Wirths did good business, presenting their quick and lively, ‘in and out’, 45 minute variety act seven or eight times a day, and charging one shilling admission.

Soon other copycat line-ups were populating the Haymarket area, so after six months the Wirths, having tasted success, bought six horses and some wagons and took off once again for the country. The Wirth Brothers Circus did not stop travelling for the next 80 years.

Peter Cox, Curator, Circus Factory

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