People of Leeds #5: Mary Brewer

The fifth in an occasional series looking at forgotten contributors to the history of Leeds. This week, we tell the story of Mary Brewer. You can read more about the history of the circus in Leeds elsewhere on the blog, or view all entries in this People of Leeds series. 

Mary Brewer was born in 1820 in Bath and by the age of 20 had met and married the travelling showman, tumbler and horseman, Henry Bailey.

Henry and Mary jointly developed and ran the ‘Bailey’s Ghost and Marionette Show’, a one-time famous travelling concern. “The marionette was the forerunner of the cinema. Young and old rejoiced in it. Its vigorous action, the quaint movement of the little figures, or their headlong dashes from one side of the stage to the other, never failed to provoke merriment” stated the Leeds Mercury, interviewing Mary in 1924.

Mary was also a professional weightlifter of 19 stone and six feet tall. She demonstrated her fantastic strength with numerous acts; one which involved balancing a piano on her chest and another which involved tying her ankle length plaits to two 56 gallon barrels and swinging these with her hair alone.

After more than 40 years on the road together, and after 23 children, Mary often claimed: “I’ve been on every fairground twixt John O’Groats and Land’s End! I well recall being at Holbeck feast when they used to hold a race meeting there”.

After the death of her husband she relocated to Yorkshire and married Frank Walton in 1894, who also had a showman past. He claimed to have brought the first cinematograph show into Leeds and used to run a fair on the old Drill Ground in Camp Road, which he rented to other showmen. He specialised in photography for 63 years as well as running five travelling studios around the various fairgrounds. He also ran a theatre years ago with the old stock companies in the Oddfellows’ Hall at Halifax. However he claimed “my wife was more in the show business than I was”.

Mary died in 1925 at the age of 105 at her home in Crimbles Street, Little London.

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