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Wirth’s Circus – Old Photos of Melbourne

Wirth's Circus arrives at 9 platform Spencer St. Alice, 102 year-old elephant helps to unload the train. Courtesy: SLV

Wirth’s Circus was Australia’s greatest circus of all time. Though not comparable with Barnum & Bailey Circus of USA or Kamala Three Ring Circus of India, in size or grandeur, considering Australia’s population on those years, Wirth’s Circus remained as the Greatest Show on Earth for Australia. It had an enthralling mix of animal acts, acrobatic feats and the best performers from Australia and around the world which could captivate an audience for a good three hours.

Wirth’s Circus travelled from camp to camp within Australia in special trains with 8 passenger coaches and 20 trucks. People watched with curiosity as the circus company unloaded their gear and animals. ‘’The Life of Phillip Wirth – The Great Circus Man’’, written by Phillip Wirth himself in 1934, narrates it, ‘’ The ten elephants are carried in 8 Trucks, and the other vehicles contains 14 cages of wild animals. 40 horses and ponies, and the tents of which there are 8 of varying sizes. The Artists number of 40, and give superb programme consisting of 25 different acts- the whole performance taking 3 hours. In additions to actual performers, there are grooms, tent hands, agents and others, so that actually the company numbers around 150 people. The transport men with their elephants unload the 500 tons of equipment in 1.5 hours, and the huge beasts, then proceed to pull the wagons, on which all of this has been loaded, to the spot chosen for the erection of the tent. Within 3 hours contents of a railway train has been transformed into a splendid circus of 7 tents”.

The Birth of Wirth’s Circus was in the making when four brothers Johannes, Jacob, Peter, and Philip arrived in Melbourne from Jettenbach in Germany in 1855, seeking a fortune in the Goldfields. That region of Germany was famous for its wandering musicians in the 19th century. The brothers were musicians and performed as a German brass band, as they travelled through the Australian Colonies.

Like everyone with an adventurous spirit in the1850’s Australia, johannes Wirth and his wife Sarah separated from his brothers and became prospectors looking for Gold. Hoping to strike rich, they moved from one Goldfield to another searching for Gold in vain. Their journey took them from South Victoria to North of Queensland. Continued bad luck as prospector forced John Wirth to abandon his search for Gold and to commercialize his talent for entertaining others. He was a musician and a composer.

Wife Sarah supported every money losing endeavour of Johannes without murmuring a word. With the little money they have, Johannes and his brothers built a dance hall and restaurant in Tamberoora. Johannes trained his children in music and dance. The business was a loss which put Johannes back to prospecting days of wandering. Phillip Wirth died in 1859. The other two brothers Peter and Jacob settled in Queensland.

Many memorable incidents happened in Johannes and family’s wandering days. They shared a camp with the exploring party of Burke and Wills and was attacked by notorious bush ranger Morgan who took all their possessions. They even had an encounter with bush ranger Thunderbolt who stripped them off  £70. Johannes pleaded with Thunderbolt not to take money as it was set aside for sending to his destitute mother living in Dalby, Queensland. Thunderbolt promised to return the money, if he would call at the Post office at Warwick. To his astonishment, Thunderbolt kept his word.

Johannes settled down in Dalby in Southern Queensland. In 1870 Johannes joined Ashton Circus and later took his three sons John, Harry and Philip with him and younger brother George soon followed them. Johannes started a touring music band and made a name for the band. When Ridge bought Royal Tycoon circus and renamed it Ridge Circus, Ridge engaged their band for his shows. Johannes died in 1875.   The brothers left Ridge Circus after a pay dispute with its owner. But by then, they have mastered some of the circus acts.

The brothers were talented musicians: John on the cornet; Harry on bass; trombonist Philip and George on tenor horn.

In 1878, the brothers started their own touring show named, ‘’Star Troupe of Varieties’’. Their troupe comprised of four Wirth Brothers, John, Harry, Philip and George, a Japanese name Cooma and a German Comedian named, Fritz Christu. Their show had acrobats, horizontal bar, trapeze acts, Bamboo perch, Stilts, Roman Rings, Clowns, Throwing and Spinning hats, Boxing and Comic songs. With the money they earned, they bought a secondhand Cobb& Co Coach and spend every spare moment in making a 45foot tent. In the 1880’s Wirths toured across the country performing mostly on agriculture shows. By 1883, the touring company had made a transformation into a full-fledged circus. Soon the brothers were joined by their sisters Marizles, Mina and Madeline, who were also trained to become accomplished performers.

In 1883, Wirth’s Circus came to Melbourne for the races to perform at Flemington. On their first day in Melbourne, their tent was blown to shreds by the wind. Moreover, Melbournians didn’t show any interest to watch circus, when races were going on.  So the brothers ended up going to the races instead of conducting their show.

From 1889 onwards Wirth’s started using railways for transporting men and equipment from one camp to another.

By 1887, the circus was well established and became the biggest circus in Australia. The deaths of John in 1894 and Harry in 1896 had left control of the circus in the hands of Philip, George and Marizles.

In 1889, Wirth’s Circus went to New Caledonia and then to New Zealand for performing. In 1890, Harry Wirth happen to watch Barnum & Bailey’s Three Ring Circus Hippodrome and Wild West Show, which gave the inspiration to turn Wirth’s to a three-ring circus, where shows are performed on three rings simultaneously.

In 1893, Australia was in recession, with many banks going bust and people had no money to spend on entertainments. So Wirth’s circus decided to go to England via South Africa. The circus continued to South America, Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Singapore and Indonesia making a seven-year absence from Australia. Their world tour was a success by any standard. They performed before Paul Kruger, then President of the South African Republic. Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and Kruger    gave them especially cast medals. They attracted enormous crowds in South America and lost all their possessions at Montevideo in Uruguay. They were a smash hit in England. When the circus returned, among many new animals, they brought Australia first two giraffes with them.

In 1900, the circus was back on Australian soil only to find that Australians have forgotten them. FitzGerald Brothers’ Circus were their main rival in Australia at that time.  In a short time, Wirth’s circus was successful in re-establishing its place in Australia. Wirth Brothers Circus Ltd was incorporated in 1913.

The circus also established many customs in Australia like the presentation of Gold mounted whip to the jockey of the winner of Melbourne Cup and instituted the distribution of Hot Cross buns and ginger beer to the poor children of Sydney on Good Friday.

After the death of FitzGerald brothers in 1906, Wirth’s Circus took over  lease of land in St Kilda Road near Princes Bridge, named ‘Olympia’ and built a permanent Circus Site named Wirth’s Park. Wirth’s Park was in use until it was destroyed in fire in 1953. The Victorian Arts Centre currently occupies the site.

A mosaic commemorating 150 years of circus entertainment in Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne Where Wirth’s Park stood once

In 1916, Sydney City Council erected a 3000-seat multipurpose venue at the Haymarket and named it ‘’The Hippodrome’’, which the Wirth’s circus leased for its annual Easter season opening on 3rd April 1916. After the conclusion of the inaugural season, the Hippodrome was used for Wirth’s production of Leonard Durell’s aqua- drama Kultur, which was not a success. This war drama was written by Mr. Durell from actual events in the siege of Brussels and has had some record runs in London. ‘Kultur’ was preceded by a short variety program by Jack Waller’s Variety Co., ‘The Ideals of 1916.’ The hippodrome was leased to Union Theatres Limited in 1928, which was refurbished and reopened as Capitol Theatre.

By the 1940’s children of Philip Wirth took over the management of the circus. By the mid 1950’s, Circuses around the world were taking a belly bottom hit with the advent of Television and Wirth’s Circus was facing its own woes of financial difficulties with the rising cost of the upkeep of the animals and increased rail travel costs.

In May 1963, The Chief Judge in Equity, Justice McLeliand, ordered the winding-up of Wirth Bros. Pty. Ltd. circus and menagerie for a debt to the Taxation Department of £2,134. The Deputy Commissioner of Taxation applied for the winding-up order and the company did not appear and did not oppose the application. That was end of an era for Australian Circus.

The Wirths may not be operating, but they have expensive properties in Melbourne and probably can live comfortably on their interest for the rest of their lives, wrote the Bulletin on 27th July 1963. The Bulletin continued and we quote here for the enjoyment of our readers, ‘’ Outside the £60,000 Wirth Circus family house at Coogee, three white stone lions squat proudly staring defiance at the visitor. Ponies crop the parched grass of the three-acre lot, derelict power plants (one of them to be powerful enough to light a town) stand idle, a seal cage with disused swimming tank nuts quietly on silent wheels. The once beautiful garden, where passers-by reported seeing lions, tigers and leopards is now run to seed. Yet inside the house itself, the furniture, huge stuffed dolls used in riding acts, Queen Anne China, Strange Maori carvings and massive rooms (each bedroom with private bath) still carry and opulent and bizarre flavour of a better circus past.’’

The Wirth Family house in Coogee is heritage listed. The house was in continuous ownership of the Wirth family since its construction in 1916 until the death of Marizles Wirth, daughter of Philip Wirth in 2007.

Wirth’s Circus arrives at 9 platform Spencer St. Alice, 102 year-old elephant helps to unload the train. Courtesy: SLV

References:

https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/wirths-circus-home-movies

‘’The Life of Philip Wirth – The Great Circus Man’’, Author Philip Wirth

https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=2310020

https://www.smh.com.au/national/for-sale-one-grand-old-mansion-with-great-bones-20090508-axzu.html

https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wirth-philip-peter-jacob-9159

The bulletin. Vol. 85 No. 4353 (27 July 1963)

The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), Tue 7 May 1963, Page 3  COURT ORDERS CIRCUS END

Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), Sun 21 May 1916 , Page 16 “KULTUR”—AN AQUA DRAMA

Sydney Sportsman (Surry Hills, NSW : 1900 – 1954), Wed 21 Jun 1916, Page 2 – WIRTH’S HIPPODROME.

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