Wirth’s Circus — showing the collection

Mr Philip Wirth trained these brumbies by the word of command … and with a handkerchief.
Mr Philip Wirth trained these brumbies by the word of command … and with a handkerchief. Collection: MAAS

When Rill Wirth, the last surviving child of the great circus proprietor Philip Wirth (1864-1937), passed away in 2007, her relatives kindly donated to the Museum a remarkable collection documenting the family’s involvement in the business from the 1870s until 1963. The Wirths’ Circus collection includes performance costumes, animal handling equipment, a travelling box office, goat carts, tent canvas, performance props, signs, banners, medals, novelty toys, and an astonishing archive of photographs, programs, publications, posters, drawings, tickets, scrapbooks, diaries, documents and ephemera. For those fascinated by Australia’s rich history of circus entertainment, this collection is a treasure trove of source material that sheds light on Wirths’ Circus, the Wirth family, other circuses, performing artists and Australian circus history. Some objects and photos from this collection will feature in Circus Factory, which opens at the Powerhouse Museum on 20 December. Circus Factory is a set of exhibitions combining circus costumes and memorabilia, fairground art, vintage toys and novelties with a set of sideshow experiences for our visitors’ enjoyment, entertainment and amazement. Circus Factory has been conceived by the Museum and designed by the French scenographer Gérard Cholot. He has created a contemporary reinterpretation of some of the traditions and aesthetics of the traditional circus. Among the many costumes on display will be four from the Wirth’s Circus collection, as well as photographs, signs, posters, tickets, a portable office used by the manager George Anderson, and even a lolly boy’s ice-cream vending box. Circus Factory runs until 3 May 2015. Written by Peter Cox, Curator, Circus Factory exhibition

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15 responses to “Wirth’s Circus — showing the collection

  • It is wonderful idea for the Powerhouse to present a long running exhibition showing some of the Circus history.
    Travelling circuses in Australia have been one of the best forms of family entertainment since the 1840’s and
    the quality of the artists we have in Australia is outstanding, many of them have been real stars overseas during the last 150 years.
    Members of Circus Fans Of Australasia Inc. from all over Australia are keen to come and see this show and I
    think that many of the thousands of people who attend local circuses every day will be excited also.
    Many thanks to the Powerhouse for this exhibition and we hope there will be many more.

  • I think that having a display on Wirths’ Circus is wonderful! I knew Eileen Wirth and Bill the guy that was the lion tamer and trapeze. They had race horses that were at the property we lived on. Eileen and Bill would come up regularly and we would go down to the house in Coogee. They had a trapeze set up in the yard and some other equipment. When they had Sunset Kit Carson in the show they brought him out home and they asked us to be in the show with him when they were at Windsor.
    When doing an historical walk at the grounds where they used to set up their tents at Windsor I was told that the elephants had broken the headstones. They are still laying in the grass all broken after all those years.

    • Hi Carolynne
      Fantastic memories of Eileen! There is a poster for Sunset Kit Carson in our collection. Our exhibition draws heavily on the Wirth’s collection but it is not just about Wirth’s. We are displaying 68 circus costumes from around the world, plus a whole lot of accessories.

  • Omg I would have loved to see this, my mums family were circus people and we have had trouble trying to get information on the history. My great grandfather was a magician, they were Mitchell’s but were known as the “Great Cazelle”, I photos off my great uncle as clowns, my Nanna was the girl who had nails put through her palms and she did trapeze etc Any chance we can still this display?

  • So sorry I didn’t get to see this. As a child I appeared in a number of pantomimes at Wirth’s circus in Melbourne and have photos of these. I have such happy memories of these days. Can you please tell me what year the fire destroyed the summer home of Wirth’s circus in Melbourne.

    • Hi Lois
      Great to hear from a performer with Wirth’s pantomimes. The fire at Wirths’ Olympia broke out at 6.50am on Sunday 27 December 1953. The circus was touring Gippsland at the time but the Beauty and the Beast pantomime had opened at Olympia the day before. Mervyn King and Bruce Johnson risked their lives to rescue animals and required treatment for burns. Circus hands rolled a cage of lions on to the street and also moved a cage containing panic-stricken bears. Four monkeys and a Great Dane dog perished. Valuable circus equipment was lost. Also destroyed was a wardrobe valued at 10,000 pounds that included velvet elephants’ robes, five sets of grand parade costumes, expensive clown outfits and trapeze gear — items that never survived to be preserved by a museum! The skating rink that was part of the Olympia complex survived and was it renamed Wirths’ Arena? It too was destroyed by fire shortly after the Olympic Games.

  • Hi

    I am descended from Wirths circus and am sorry to have missed this exhibition. My mum and Aunt would love to see it too. Is there any opportunity to see the collection from Wirth’s circus that you have stored??

    Cheers
    Leah

  • Hi my name is Bridie Cooper and I’m a relation to Jacob Wirth who was my great great grandfather who had lived at Charters Towers. He was the father of Elizabeth Wirth who was my great great grandmother, father of my great gandmother Alice Thompson. I was wondering when the next exhibition would be held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, as my family who are doing the research on the Wirths Family would like to view?

    Next weekend I’ll being coming to Sydney to view the The Wirths Family oceanview home in Coodgee.

    Kind Regards

    Bridie

    • Hello Bridie

      Be sure to look for the book that Gayle Speight published in 2005

      “The travelling Wirth family : a history of our ancestors as musicians, miners and Wirths’ Circus including descendants”

      http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/3426336

      It has a *LOT* of information about the Wirth family, to which I’m related.

  • Is there any way of getting information about overseas artists who performed with Writh’s Circus circa 1910-12?

  • Hi Everyone,

    Our adopted son is descended from Charles Paul who was being brought up by Johanne and Sarah. Phillip doesn’t mention him in his book but there is a newspaper report on them meeting up in Glen Innes 40 years after Charles left the band in the mid-late 1860s, and settled in Glen Innes aged around 12 and took an apprenticeship. It is possible he came out with them from Germany, or he joined their family while they were working the gold fields in Victoria or back in Queensland before they formed the Circus. I need to do more research. Interesting there is a photo of the sons and some adopted children later on in time. They must have had good hearts.

  • Is there any information on individual members of the Wirth Circus? My ancestor Simon Bray married a P.Wirth and I believe he was a tight rope walker with the circus. Simon died sometime prior to 1920 in Madras, India and his wife and child returned and lived in Adelaide.

  • My 3xgreat uncle Harry Dale was working for the wirths circus. He was killed by a elephant in 1909 while he was working . Does anyone have a photo of him ? Please contact me . My email address is murraybal@yahoo.com

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