Wirth’s Circus — musical beginnings

Three of the men in this photo from around 1870 are thought to be Wirth brothers -- Johannes (father of the four brothers who founded Wirth's Circus, probably on the left), Peter and Jacob. Their brother Philipp died in 1859.
Three of the men in this photo from around 1870 are thought to be Wirth brothers — Johannes (father of the four brothers who founded Wirth’s Circus, probably on the left), Peter and Jacob. Their brother Philipp died in 1859. 2012/104/1-3/1. Collection: MAAS

Johannes Wirth (1835-1880) was a young immigrant from Bavaria who arrived in Australia in 1855 with his three younger brothers. They were musicians who performed as a German brass band. Johannes took to the life of an itinerant gold seeker, travelling with his wife and infants, following rush after rush to the gold fields, all the way from southern Victoria to the north of Queensland. He had little luck as a prospector but did better as an entertainer. It was Johannes’ musical ability that caused him to associate with circus companies, which often featured a brass band. Even though he ‘did not care for circusing’, it was there that the Wirths found employment, until he and his brothers went their separate ways

Johannes arrived in the Darling Downs in the mid-1860s and lived there, near where his brothers had settled. However when Ashton’s Circus arrived at Dalby in 1870, Johannes was persuaded to join them as a bandsman. He had already taught his sons to play music and when he returned home, it was to fetch the three oldest boys, John, Harry and Philip, and take them back to Ashton’s.

The Wirth family’s brass band eked out a living in the 1870s by playing at processions, parties and balls. Between 1876 and 1878 they were working as musicians based in Tamworth, where there was a railway construction camp.

John Ridge engaged the Wirths as bandsmen in 1879 and 1880, for his Royal Tycoon Circus. Ridge put the show into wagons, touring western New South Wales and southern Queensland.

Johannes died in 1880 and his sons carried on with band performances, putting into practice the skills their father had taught them. John was an outstanding cornet player, Harry played the bass, George the tenor horn; Philip played trombone but could play any brass instrument well. Soon they were to extend their capabilities beyond music and into circus performance.

Written by Peter Cox, Curator, Circus Factory exhibition

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15 responses to “Wirth’s Circus — musical beginnings

  • My Great Grandfather was John Wirth born 13.11.1875 and was the son of Peter Jacob Wirth. John was also a musician and I believe he was probably a cousin of the founders of Wirths Circus. I was thrilled to read the above as I am keen to find our more about the interesting family history.

    • Hi Margaret
      I believe that Peter Wirth (1830-1889) took up farming on the Darling Downs around 1865. He also taught music and dance with his brother Johannes in or around Dalby. (Johannes was the father of the four brothers who founded Wirth’s Circus.) Are you sure you have the correct birth date for John Wirth? The only source I have says he was born in Toowoomba on 9 October 1865. Was you grandmother’s maiden name Reiss?
      Peter

  • Thanks Peter for sending me a reply to my comment. I am at very early stages of trying to trace grandmother’s family. My grandmother was Blanche Rose Wirth the second born to John Philip and wife May . The information given to me shows that John Phillip was born 18.12.1876. John and Blanche’s father I believe was John Wirth who married Rebecca Freeman 13.11.1875 in Adelaide. The fact that the names are constantly repeated makes it very confusing. But my understanding is that Peter Jacob Wirth (brother of Johannes) is the father of John Phiip and Blanche Rose Wirth (plus 5 other siblings)You have given me a date of birth and death for Peter and I am grateful

  • Hi, I am researching the Ridge’s Tycoon Circus as I am connected to it through Edward Ridge (Ted Ridge/Teddy Ridge) acrobat/Trapeze. I have researched Trove and find that Edward was involved with many circuses after his fathers death in 1891. He was also involved in our Weston Family Circus that travelled the south coast of NSW. (I have information regarding his involvement with this.) He ended up marrying my Great Aunt Bernice Weston in 1908 and divorced in 1916. I feel that (Trove #181760677) is him, too many coincidences for it not to be him but I need confirmation). He was in the employ of Gills Circus. I have been trying to find out who his mother was as it’s unknown on his marriage Certificate. His father was John Ridge. John married Julia Kallick in 1875 and they had, as far as I know, one son Tom, who is listed sometimes in their advertisements. The other 4 children I am still trying to find out their names…. so far I believe them to be Leopold, Clara, George, Dickie.
    Would you have any further information on this Circus, I have researched it through the Royal Tycoon Circus and Hiscox & Watkins, also have the references where James Ashton criticised this Circus and Hiscox & Watkins replies, perhaps these public outbursts contributed to the financial failure of the Royal Tycoon Circus as noted in your research
    (Ref Trove: Article #70590117, 70590137, 70590674, 218322216, 70590691,
    Hope you can assist
    Regards,

    Margaret Weston

    • Dear Margaret

      Thank you for contacting the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) with your enquiry. The only information we have about Ridge’s Tycoon Circus is from the period around 1879 and 1880, when John Ridge engaged Johannes Wirth and his sons as bandsmen. I have no knowledge of Edward Ridge, the Weston Family Circus or Gill’s Circus. My research has focused on the Wirth family.

      Have you been in touch with the eminent historian of Australian circus, Mark St Leon?
      Email: markstleon@bigpond.com

      Regards
      Peter
      Peter Cox, curator

    • Hi Margaret Weston. I am the great grandaughter of Edward Ridge. My grandmother was named after her mother Bernice (born the year of the divorce). Bernice Weston was a bareback horse performer and her sister either Eleanor or Lillian performed on the tightrope. I have also been searching for details regarding our circus history. I have some information from word of mouth and draw a blank with Edward Ridge. I would love to share the information with you. Jodie

      • Hi Jodie,

        Would love to share this information with you, I have since found out more, how do we make contact, are you in Sydney?

        Margaret

    • Hi Margaret. I would be interested in getting in contact with you. I am the great grandaughter of Edward Ridge and Bernice Weston. I have some word of mouth information regarding Edward and Bernice, who was a bareback horse performer (her sister Eleanor was a tightrope performer). I would love to contact you to give you the information I have. Jodie

  • Hi Peter, yes I have been in contact with Mark previously as Edward Ridge partnered one of the St Leons on the Trapeze. I have also discovered that Madam Ridge (Julia Ridge) stayed friends with the Wirths right up until her death in 1925. I shall contact Mark again with what I have discovered. Many thanks for your reply.

    Regards
    Margaret Weston

  • I believe my family tree traces back to the Wirth family – but only have this information through word of mouth. Trying to trace back to the Millers in Toowoomba.

  • Our family has links to Charles Paul who was playing with the Wirth’s Band until they were in Glen Innes sometime before 1870 and he wanted to leave, remaining in Glen Innes until his death in 1931 aged 82.

    • Hi Caroline,

      Charles is my 3rd great-grandfather. His son George had a son named Rollen (Roland) who had my grandmother Moyra.

  • Peter,

    My husband is the great great great grandson of Peter Wirth. Does the MAAS produce reproductions of the posters and photos of the Wirth Circus. I have searched for years trying to buy some. We no longer live in Australia, and would be unable to visit the Powerhouse Store.

    • Hi Jemima,
      Thanks for contacting us. Peter has since retired, so I hope you don’t mind me replying on his behalf.
      Unfortunately we don’t sell reproductions of the posters (though that would be amazing). You can read more about the archive containing the posters here: https://ma.as/442987. The archive hasn’t been photographed yet though we would hope to do so in the future. We also have in the collection various photographs (https://ma.as/146917) and other items used by Wirth’s (like these circus boots: https://ma.as/443016). You can find many more items on our collection search here: https://collection.maas.museum/.
      I’m sorry we couldn’t help you with the poster reproductions you were after but I hope you find the other information interesting.

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