The Lost Circuses of Victorian Leeds

The Victorian era was the golden age of the circus. By the time that Victoria came to the throne, the circus, as we might recognise it today, was barely seventy years old. Founded in London by Philip Astley in 1768 with displays of horsemanship, military, and trick riding, the circus had expanded rapidly in the following years. Astley travelled throughout England giving performances in many northern towns and cities until he eventually made his way to Dublin. Performances were either given in the open air or in hastily constructed wooden ‘amphitheatres’; wood was plentiful and labour was cheap. In modern parlance one might almost describe them as ‘pop-up’ circus venues.

Astley soon had rival companies and this popular form of entertainment spread throughout the United Kingdom. Not only that, but Astley travelled throughout Europe, as far as Serbia. Wherever he went he encouraged the building of circus amphitheatres. He is particularly known for the building of an amphitheatre in Paris, a place which became his second home. His rival Hughes travelled as far as Russia and there built amphitheatres on the instruction of Catherine the Great. The circus became Britain’s largest cultural export, reaching the newly founded United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, and in fact anywhere in the world the British set their feet.

In Britain the circus was particularly popular in the northern central corridor, from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east, and took in many industrial and commercial centres such as Manchester, Preston, Burnley, Huddersfield, Leeds, and York, to name but a few. That is not to say the circus did not visit other places within Britain – it did and was very popular – but the ‘north’ provided rich pickings for many circus companies. There was a demand for cheap entertainment and the circus provided an escape from the everyday drudgery of life for many.

In Leeds alone there were at least ten venues within the centre that were used for visiting circuses during this period. There were also several others just outside of the centre. To date, I have been able to identify fourteen different venues in use during the Victorian era, more I believe than any other town or city within the UK, except for perhaps London. Some of these venues were in semi-permanent buildings largely constructed of timber and were used by different companies over an extended period of time. Other venues were on open lots of land where a marquee would be erected for the duration of the visit.

I would like to take you on a guided journey around these sites. For those of you who know Leeds, the street names will be familiar and the guide easy to follow. But I hope that there will be some of you from outside of Leeds who might want to explore the rich cultural history of the Victorian circus in the city. The (numbers) relate to points on the accompanying map (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Leeds City Centre Victorian Circus Trail.

Let us begin our journey outside of the Grand Theatre on New Briggate (1). This imposing building was opened in 1878. Before this the land was owned by the Leeds Tramway Company and on this site Charles Adams ran his Grand Circus between 1875 and 1876, after which time the land was sold for the construction of the theatre. A visit to Adam’s Grand Circus could cost as little as 6d (six old pre-decimal pennies equivalent to approximately £1.75 today), or for the princely sum of 3s (three shillings equivalent to £10 today) one could sit in luxury in ‘velvet cushioned arm chairs’ or in ‘sofa lounges’.1 Entertainments included William Wallett, the Queen’s Jester and Cee Mee the ‘Man Fly, in his Ceiling Walking Extraordinary’.

With your back to the Grand Theatre, we now walk left to the junction with the Headrow and turn left. Continue down the Headrow and turn right into Vicar Lane until you reach Kirkgate Market (2). This was originally built in 1857 and it was under this site where our next venue was situated in Vicar’s Croft. The Croft was a market area and also housed a cattle market where visiting circuses performed. The earliest record is for Cooke’s Olympic Circus in 1824. Between that date and 1846 several other circuses were to be seen there; Adam’s Royal Circus, Ryan’s Royal Circus, Cooke’s Royal Circus, Ducrow’s Arena, Codona’s Lilliputian Circus, and William Batty’s Circus. The Leeds Winter fair was also held in Vicar’s Croft and menageries such as Wombwell’s were an attraction at this time.

With Kirkgate Market on your left we continue forwards until we see the Corn Exchange. Pass left behind this ornate building and you will find the White Cloth Hall (3). Originally erected in 1711 for the trading of white (undyed) cloth, the yard became the venue for Pablo Fanque’s Great Allied Circus in July 1857 (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Pablo Fanque. Illustrated London News.

Continue around the Corn Exchange (pop in for a look at the stunning interior) and stand with your back to the entrance. You will now be facing Duncan Street. Walk along this street and continue on to Boar Lane. Just after the Trinity Church on your right is a small entrance, Trinity Street. Just a few yards further along is Bank Street. Between these two streets and stretching back to Commercial Street was a vacant plot of land which was in continuous use as a circus venue for almost 60 years (4). Amphitheatres were constructed and re-constructed by various companies and there were entrances onto all surrounding streets; Boar lane, Bank Street, Trinity Street, and Commercial Street. The earliest record is for a Mr Wild, who set up his New Riding School on the site in 1805. Many well-known companies visited this site: those of Kite, Adams, Mrs Blyth, Cooke, Bannister & West, Batty, Fanque, Bell, Franconi, and Sanger. Sanger was the last recorded occupant in 1862, where he presented a varied programme including Britannia with her tame lion. Britannia was actually Sanger’s wife who had performed as a teenager in her own right as the ‘Lion Queen’, Nellie Chapman.

Continue along Boar Lane to the junction of Albion Street. Before you turn right here, further along Boar Lane to the left is the railway station. In 1882, on New Station Street, the Victoria Amphitheatre2 (5) was erected for ‘Sir’ Robert Fossett’s New Grand Cirque. It could hold 2000 people and had three entrances. The circus was 48 ft. high, with a length of 152 ft. and a breadth of 56 ft. increasing to 100 ft. where the gallery was situated. The ring was the now standard 42 ft. in diameter.

Turn right up Albion Street and then right into Commercial Street. Along here would have been an exit from the Boar Lane amphitheatre. Turn left into Lands Lane and continue until you are standing outside of the entrance to the shopping centre on your left. Beneath this site was King Charles Croft (6). This was another popular venue for visiting circuses. The earliest circus performance here dates back to 1773 when Philip Astley, the founder of the ‘modern’ circus, gave an open air display of horsemanship in a ‘commodious croft on Lands Lane’.3 In 1842 Mr Cooke announced the erection of a ‘circus of magnificent scale’ on the site.4 After Cooke came the companies of Ducrow, Hengler, and Fanque. Perhaps the best known date for the amphitheatre on King Charles Croft is 1848. During an evening performance by Fanque’s company, the wooden supports for the Pit seating area collapsed.5 Many people were injured but the only fatality of the night was Fanque’s wife, who had been in the cash office under the Pit area at the time. She was buried a few days later in the Woodhouse cemetery (St George’s Fields). Thousands lined the streets to watch the cortege pass. Although Fanque remarried, when he died in 1871 he left instructions that his body be returned to Leeds to be buried with his first wife. Their graves can still be visited today. After this accident the site was no longer used specifically for circuses but a new Princess Theatre was built on the plot. Later it became the Tivoli and then the Hippodrome.

Continue the final few yards along Lands Lane and then turn left onto the Headrow. Cross Albion Street and a little further along on the left is Butts Court and just after that Upper Basinghall Street. Between these two streets was an open space known as ‘The Butts’, possibly a former archery practice ground (7). On this site in 1832, Mr Ryan set up his Royal Equestrian Circus for a season.

Walk a little further on until you are at the junction with Park Row on your left. Go right across the Headrow here and before you continue up Cookridge Street look along the Headrow towards the Leeds Town Hall. Just beyond the Town Hall is Oxford Row (8), now the site of the Leeds Combined Court Centre. On this plot in 1854, the visiting Hernandez & Stone American Circus erected a huge marquee for their performances.

Figure 3. The Royal Imperial Japanese Troupe. Illustrated London News.

Continue up Cookridge Street, crossing Great George Street, until you reach the Leeds Museum. This was formerly the Mechanics’ Institute, established in 1819. Standing outside of the entrance steps, diagonally across to your right the building with the Victorian facade was the site of Mr Newsome’s Grand Circus (9). Opened in January 1867 it was advertised as being ‘spacious and comfortable, and has been decorated in a tasteful and appropriate manner’.6 To draw in the crowds, Newsome organised special ‘circus trains’ at 11pm every Tuesday and Saturday to transport circus-goers home to Huddersfield and Halifax. Sanger’s Grand New Circus, Pablo Fanque’s Mammoth Circus, Tannaker’s Great Dragon Company and Japanese Troupe (fig. 3), Hengler’s Grand Cirque Variete, and Henry & Adams Grand Circus all used this venue. In October 1876, Charles Adams bought the site from Newsome and redeveloped it, presenting his New Circus. The new building was 122 ft. long, 84 ft. wide, and could accommodate 5000 people. It was later known as the Hippodrome and Circus, the Leeds Circus, and the Coliseum.

Retrace your steps for a few yards and turn left into Rossington Street. At the top of this is Woodhouse Lane. Cross this and turn right until the junction with Merrion Street on your left. At this point in 1849, William Wallett, the King of Jesters, set up his Royal Olympic Circus (10). The entrance was on Merrion Street, next to the Barracks. During his stay there Wallett also presented the solo Pablo Fanque with his famous trained mare Beda. Continue forwards on Merrion Street until you reach the Grand Theatre, where we began our tour.

Outside of this central area there were several other sites used for circuses during the Victorian period. Further north from the Grand Theatre is what is now known as Lovell Park. Previously this had been the site of the Smithfield Cattle Market. In 1858 the giant Howe & Cushing’s American Circus performed there ‘in a commodious building’.7 They visited this site for several years. Sanger’s and Cooke’s circuses also used this site through to 1866. The cattle market was also a popular venue for travelling menageries, such as Mander’s Royal Menagerie that visited in 1860. With this company was the famous black lion tamer named Maccomo (fig. 4).8

Figure 4. Poster featuring Maccomo the African Lion Hunter.

To the west of the city centre, along Kirkstall Road is a leisure complex known as Cardigan Fields. On this site, in 1891 and again in 1903, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show appeared. Local people were amazed to see a small herd of bison grazing along the banks of the river Aire. The footbridge across the river from Cardigan Fields to the Armley Mills complex is known to this day as ‘Buffalo Bill Bridge’. Earlier in the 1860s, Tom Sayer’s Circus visited the site.9 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 he also worked as a clown. Unfortunately the venture lasted little more than a year and he died shortly afterwards in 1865.

North-west of the centre, between Burley and Headingley, was the Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Failing to make money, the site was bought in 1858 by a young entrepreneur named Thomas Clapham. He changed the name to the Royal Gardens and placed emphasis upon popular entertainment and fun. During this period both Cooke’s and Fanque’s circuses appeared here.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the popularity of circus was waning due in part to the rise of the Music Hall and the Cinematograph. As the city centre developed commercially, vacant ground was no longer available for circuses and Woodhouse Moor became a favoured location, although it had been used as early as 1846 when Pablo Fanque performed there. In the post-WWII second ‘golden age’ of circus, the industry was dominated by the ‘Big Three’; Mills’, Chipperfield’s, and Smart’s circuses drew large crowds. Woodhouse Moor still operates as a ‘central’ circus venue today, but visiting circuses have now also been pushed to the further suburbs of the city, such as Roundhay and Killingbeck.

The circus in Leeds has a rich cultural heritage. Most of the Victorian circus venues have long disappeared, but we can still see Buffalo Bill’s Bridge or visit the graves of Fanque and his wife. It is a culture that we should celebrate as we move forwards into the twenty-first century.

Dr. Steve Ward is a social historian and has written several books on aspects of the social and cultural history of the circus. His latest book, Artistes of Colour; Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus was published by the Modern Vaudeville Press in February 2021. See for further details.

Notes & references

  1. Leeds Times 15 January 1876
  2. The Era 7 October 1882
  3. Leeds Intelligencer 21 September 1773
  4. Leeds Mercury 8 October 1842
  5. Leeds Times 25 March 1848
  6. Leeds Mercury 1 January 1867
  7. Leeds Intelligencer 6 February 1858
  8. A copy of this poster can be viewed on the Leodis online picture archive; Leeds Play Bills ( Select ‘Circus Bills’ in the ‘Select a Theatre’ box
  9. A copy of this poster can be viewed at NEW : Leeds playbill ( Navigate as above.







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