John James Wirth was one of the four brothers who founded Wirth’s Circus. One of the gems of the Wirth’s Circus collection is his handwritten diary from 1879, describing daily life on tour in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland performing with John Ridge’s Royal Tycoon Circus.
John James Wirth was born in Ipswich in 1858, the eldest son of Johannes Wirth. Between 1876 and 1878 John and his brothers made a living as musicians based in Tamworth, where there was a railway construction camp. At this time there were quite a few foreign circuses competing in Australia. The Royal Tycoon Circus arrived in 1876 with a group of acrobats known as Buhicrosan’s Troupe of Japanese Performers. However in Rockhampton the Royal Tycoon Circus was knocked out by a competitor, John Wilson’s Circus. John Ridge seized the opportunity to buy the ailing Royal Tycoon Circus. He engaged Johannes Wirth and his sons as bandsmen in 1879. They left Tamworth to join Ridge in Sydney. Ridge put the show into wagons and the Wirths quickly found themselves on tour.
John’s first diary entry is for 1 January 1879: ‘We stopped in Kempsey and played the old year out and the new year in and we had a pretty good house with the show and we all had a good spree after the show.’ He describes travelling with the circus to Coopernook and Camden-Haven; visiting his mother and sister in Tamworth; talking the show to Barraba, Gunnedah, Boggabri, Narrabri, Bingara, Warialda and Goondiwindi. The entourage experienced rain delays, they lost horses and were trapped by a massive flood. They moved their wagons across swollen rivers to get to St.George, Surat, Roma and Cunnamulla.
On some days they would travel 23 miles, while on other days they managed just a few miles. John describes the daily grind of riding on the bandwagon, setting up camp, living off the land, shooting game for food and working diligently. He hints at the pleasures of partying, drinking and gambling, and occasionally finding comfortable accommodation at hotels in town. We gain a sense of the daily grind as the troupe moves relentlessly from town to town — to Blackall, the Barcoo River, Tambo, to Charleville, then down to Bourke, Cobar, Warren, Quambone and Coonamble.
The Wirth brothers joined the Royal Tycoon Circus as musicians but they made good use of their spare time, learning to tumble, dance on stilts, and perform on the horizontal bars, the trapeze and the Roman rings.
At the end of the diary is text John wrote for an advertisement, describing the circus acts in the sort of flowery language typical of circus posters. He writes of tumblers, men on stilts and comical antics. The artists mentioned have exotic names — Coomee Kettetche, a Japanese acrobat, gymnast, contortionist and wire walker; Mr Hambretto, a trapeze artist; Signor Rubiel, who performed on the Roman Rings; Mr Bicard, the strong man; and Montgomery the comedian. John notes with modesty that ‘This Great Combination is headed by one of the Best Bands in Australia’.
A loose page contains a record of the small amounts of money John has sent home. After six months with Ridge’s Royal Tycoon Circus, the Wirth brothers asked for a pay increase of a few shillings. Ridge could not pay. As a result, they left Ridge and set themselves up as the Star Troupe of Varieties. This was the beginning of Wirth’s Circus.
Written by Peter Cox, Curator, Circus Factory