Wirth’s Circus hits the road

Harry, Philip and George Wirth (standing); Marizles and Madeline Wirth (seated); the three child performers, Herbert, Carl and Alfred, were orphans adopted as Wirths. Gift of the Wirth family, 2012. Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
Harry, Philip and George Wirth (standing); Marizles and Madeline Wirth (seated); the three child performers, Herbert, Carl and Alfred, were orphans adopted as Wirths. Photograph taken around 1890, MAAS collection, 2012/104/1

The Circus Factory exhibition includes costumes, photographs and documents from the Museum’s Wirth’s Circus collection. The Wirth name has a special place in Australian circus folklore. Billed as Australia’s own ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, Wirth’s Circus toured from 1880 until its demise in 1963. Previous posts on this blog have looked at how we are showing the collection, the Wirths’ musical beginnings, the diary of John James Wirth and how the Wirth brothers transformed from band to circus. Photographs and documents in the Museum’s collection also reveal the rapid growth of Wirth’s Circus.

In the early 1880s the Wirth brothers — John, Harry, Philip and George — travelled their newly established enterprise to rural agricultural shows and country race meetings, where they could make good money playing up to twelve times a day. John would play his cornet till his lips bled, for as many shows as were necessary. Although small and still without performing horses and trained animals, this was a circus in every other respect.

In a business that sometimes attracted tricksters, the Wirth brothers nurtured the value of their good name. Agricultural show committees appreciated the ‘good taste’ of Wirths’ entertainment and often invited them to return.

While in Victoria in 1882 the brothers had Pickles & Sons construct a band wagon, painted orange and green. It provided an excellent advertisement as they paraded through the towns.

Laying up in Ballarat during the winter of 1884, the Wirths purchased their first horses to run the ring, and introduced trick riding into the show. Ararat was the first town they played as a full circus.

Philip became an expert horse trainer. The youngest brother, George Wirth, taught himself the ‘jockey act’, jumping from the ground to the bare back of a galloping horse. As Philip later wrote, “We had no teachers and whatever we achieved was due solely to our own perseverance. We had some severe falls, as trick riding is the most dangerous of all circus acts”.

The Women of Wirths Circus

Around 1886 their sister Marizles joined, making her first appearance at Crookwell. Philip taught her to dance to ‘The Highland Fling’ and ‘A Sailor’s Hornpipe’ but she soon took up trick riding. She developed an act in which she jumped through fifty ‘balloons’ (paper hoops), while standing on a cantering horse. She would jump, land on her knees on the horse, and rise to her feet in time to burst through another wall of paper. She could juggle clubs while riding bareback on a cantering horse. She also walked the slack wire.

The youngest Wirth sister, Madeline, joined the show, and learnt to leap though blazing hoops of fire on horseback in her Hurricane Hurdle act. When their mother Sarah joined the entourage, the Wirths purchased comfortable sleeping wagons. Their horses could, if necessary, travel 60 miles in a day, arriving in the next town in time to set up tents for that evening’s performance. The Wirths could present three different shows on three consecutive nights in a town. Variety was a feature.

They played Adelaide with splendid results, but struggled to gain supremacy against competing shows. In the winter of 1886 they travelled through the South Australian countryside, where they did better business than their rivals but could not overcome days of heavy rain. They drove their horse-drawn wagons eastward through the Meningie Desert, across terrain strewn with mallee roots, from Murray Bridge to Bordertown, where they were drenched in rain again and, abandoned by their workmen, loaded the tent, seats and poles in the rain. During these times of hardship, George later wrote, “we stuck to the business as a loving parent would to a dying child.”

Return to the City

The Wirth brothers’ enterprise grew and, within eight years, was a large, fully established circus. They continued to work overland, visiting rural towns and making regular city visits. By 1888 they had 60 horses, 14 wagons and employed 70 people.

When they returned to Sydney on 19 December 1887, they had adopted the impressive name of ‘Wirth Brothers Grand Circus and New York Equescurriculum’ (an archaic term for a troupe of performing horses, literally ‘school of horses’). They opened in Newtown rather than on their customary lot at Belmore Park, where the Mayor declined to give them permission to perform, having been dissuaded by a petition from certain citizens, ‘the nobs of Sydney’.

By the late 1880s, the Wirths were poised to take his place as proprietors of Australia’s premier circus.

Owing to the setbacks and hardships associated with travelling in wagons throughout the rural outback of the eastern colonies, the Wirths decided it was time to play the capital cities on a regular basis. Life on the road — obtaining their food by fishing and shooting, practising with the band around the campfire at night, driving their wagons to the next town, taking their grand parade through the main street — was losing its appeal. The four Wirth brothers were discontented, and as they grew more mature and ambitious, they had the vision to conduct their enterprise on a larger scale, with up-to-date acts.

Post by Peter Cox Curator, Circus Factory

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2 responses to “Wirth’s Circus hits the road

  • Very interesting reading. One of my ancestors Simon Bray, joined Wirth’s Circus maybe when they were in Ballarat Victoria. Is there a list of employers who worked for Wirth’s Circus? He married and went to India, maybe with the Circus….

  • My paternal Great Grand Mother Ivy May Collins nee Fitzgerald nee Asher OR Usher was part of the Flying Fitzgerald Trapeze Act performing with Wirth’s Circus. They were on a ’World Tour’and performed in New York City. I am guessing that they certainly would have transited through Ellis island (no record found). She was in New York City in 1904 and married James Francis Fitzgerald – said to be born in Newcastle NSW (no birth record found) – in New York City New Year’s Eve 1905 (no record found).

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