Inside the Collection

Wirth’s Circus in the Pacific

Poster, 'Wirth Brothers Grand Circus and New York Equescurriculum', printed in Melbourne, late 1880s. Gift of the Wirth family, 2012.
Poster, ‘Wirth Brothers Grand Circus and New York Equescurriculum’, Melbourne, late 1880s, MAAS collection.

This series of posts on Australia’s own Wirth’s Circus finishes up today with only a few days left to see our exhibition, Circus Factory. Previous posts have looked at when the Wirth’s circus hit the road, how we are exhibiting the Wirth’s Circus collection, the family’s musical beginnings, the diary of John James Wirth and how the Wirth brothers transformed from band to circusPhotographs and documents in the Museum’s collection reveal the rapid growth of Wirth’s Circus as well as a series of disasters and triumphs they encountered on their first overseas tours.

In the late 1880s, Wirth’s Circus was a growing family enterprise, including the four brothers, John, Harry, Philip and George, along with their sisters Marizles and Madeline. Documents in the Museum’s collection reveal that on its first overseas tours the circus met with a series of disasters and triumphs.

After several years of travelling through the colonies of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, Wirth’s Circus returned in 1888 to Sydney, doing good business for six weeks. On 4 July they loaded their circus on a steamer bound for New Caledonia. There was room in the hold for most of the horses, but five had to be accommodated in stalls on the deck. A severe storm struck two days out, heaving water across the deck and into the cabins. The unfortunate horses were swept along the deck. Two, Badger and Cinderella, were washed overboard and lost.

The troupe spent seven pleasant weeks in Noumea and cleared £1000 over their expenses. This was big money in 1888. Unfortunately ‘French Charlie’ Redman, a slack wire artist who also had a stone and sword-swallowing act, was murdered in New Caledonia under bizarre circumstances. One night after the performance he did not regurgitate the 30 stones, which remained in his stomach. He began to drink heavily and got into a fight with a local, who kicked Charlie in the stomach. The impact of the blow on the stones severed an artery, and Charlie bled to death in less than 20 minutes. The assailant went unpunished because of his high birth. The Wirths always took such mishaps in their stride.

Philip later remembered the splendid convict orchestra playing music from the operetta ‘Les Cloches de Corneville’ in the rotunda at Noumea’s Cocoanut Square. As the ship carrying the troupe departed, the local people could be heard whistling the ‘Post Horn Gallop’, which was rapidly becoming Wirth’s signature tune.

In Melbourne in 1888 for the Cup festivities, the Wirths engaged more artists. They headed for New Zealand via Tasmania, spending Christmas 1888 in Hobart. At Launceston two abandoned young sisters, Gertie (aged about five) and May (aged about two) were brought to the Wirths and adopted by John Wirth and his wife Louisa. Gertie and May became trapeze artists, billed as the Wingate Sisters and later known as the St Leon Sisters.

Wirth’s Circus made its first trip to New Zealand in December 1889. At the Dunedin Exhibition they did enormous business. They did a lot of travelling on steamers and bullock teams. At one place the whole circus was swung across a gorge in a cage.

Circuses were in fierce competition. A rival proprietor, Harmston, sent his agent to offer Wirth’s artists double the salary they were getting. All the performers accepted, except Gus St Leon and the Wirth family members. The deserters left for Melbourne to join Harmston’s Circus. However the Wirth family was resilient and, remarkably, their business did not suffer greatly from losing these artists. They were able to perform most of the acts themselves. They did their biggest business yet in the principal towns of the North Island, playing in Auckland for three months.

The Wirth brothers developed a special fondness for New Zealand, and took their circus there regularly for the next fifty years.

To continuing reading about Wirth’s Circus, please see other posts in this series.

Peter Cox, Curator, Circus Factory

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