Tales from Circus 250: A Topography of the Circus in Leeds, Part IV

Part IV of a short series of stories from the glory days of the Circus in Leeds and the surrounding area. All the stories can be found in the History of Leeds Circus tab at the top of this page, continuing with today’s fourth and final topographical look at the various Circus sites in and around Leeds…

Map showing the location of some famous Leeds circuses. (C) Leeds Library and Information Service

Mr Newsome first presented his Grand Circus on a site that is directly opposite the Mechanics Institute (now the City Museum). Special ‘circus trains’ were laid on every Tuesday and Saturday at 11pm to transport the circus goers home to Huddersfield and Halifax. Many other circus companies used this venue as well; Sanger’s Grand New Circus; Pablo Fanque’s Mammoth Circus; Tannaker’s Great Dragon Company and Japanese Troupe; Hengler’s Grand Cirque Variete; and Henry & Adams Grand Circus. In October 1876, Charles Adams bought the site from Mr Newsome and redeveloped it, presenting his New Circus. The new building was 122 ft. long and 84 ft. wide, and could accommodate 5000 people. It was later known as the Hippodrome and Circus or the Leeds Circus Building. The building was later developed as a variety venue, and then a cinema, and later a night club. The fascia of the building can still be seen today.

17th September 1999. View shows the Town and Country club on Cookridge Street by the junction with Portland Street. Construction is in progress outside. Traffic and pedestrians are on the street. (C) Leeds Library and Information Service, www.leodis.net

The Engineer’s Drill Hall played host to the Royal Italian Circus in 1913. The Drill Hall has long gone and the area redeveloped. Interestingly the First Direct Arena, which now occupies most of the site, has in recent years been the venue for the Canadian contemporary circus company, the Cirque du Soleil.

This site, between Headingley and Burley, began life as the Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Failing to make any money the site was bought in 1858 by a young entrepreneur, Thomas Clapham. He changed the name to the Royal Gardens and placed emphasis upon popular entertainment and fun. During this period both William Cooke’s Circus and Pablo Fanque’s Circus made appearances here.

(C) Leeds Library and Information Service

As the city centre grew and developed in the twentieth century, vacant ground was no longer readily available to touring circuses. Woodhouse Moor became a favoured location for many companies. In the post second world war golden age of circus, the circus industry was dominated by the ‘Big Three’; Bertram Mills Circus, Chipperfield’s Circus; and Billy Smart’s Circus. All three of these were regular visitors to Woodhouse Moor and drew large crowds. The circus processions, from the Leeds Railway Station up to Woodhouse Moor attracted large crowds, all dressed in their Sunday best to witness the event. In later years, other well-known companies have visited this site; The Moscow State Circus; the Chinese State Circus; Cottle & Austen’s Circus; Circus Ethiopia, to name but a few. Today in Leeds, if you think of circus, you think of Woodhouse Moor.

Lying to the west of the city centre, Cardigan Fields was an open piece of land in the Kirkstall area. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show used this site on two occasions, 1891 and 1903. Local people were amazed to see a small herd of buffalo grazing on the banks of the river Aire! Earlier, in the 1860s, Tom Sayer’s Circus visited the site. Tom Sayer was a famous Victorian bare-knuckle fighter. When he retired from fighting, he invested his money into a small circus and for a short time worked as a clown. Unfortunately his venture lasted little more than a year and he died a few years later in 1865.

This was situated on North Street on the northern edge of the city. It provided ample space for visiting circus companies. In the 1860s and 1870s it played host to several companies; Sanger’s Zoological Hippodrome and Mammoth Circus; Mander’s Grand National Star Menagerie; Footit’s Great Allied Circus; and Howe & Cushing’s United States Circus.

The latter was one of the first American circuses to visit Britain and the circus parade, through the city was led by an enormous organ, mounted on a waggon and drawn by 40 cream coloured horses. A news report of the time states that in turning a corner, the waggon managed to demolish the corner wall of a shop, and that several children were also injured in falling under the feet of the horses. In 1919 the famous American circus belonging to Barnum and Bailey paid a visit, and in 1922 Frank Bostock’s Circus was also there. The site of the Cattle Market is now an open space known as Lovell Park.

All playbills are taken from the Playbills section of the Leodis website and the text is written by Steve Ward, author of Beneath the Big Top: A Social History of the Circus in Britain.

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