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Sanger, John (1819/20–1889), circus proprietor, was born at Chew Magna, Somerset, the eldest son of James Sanger who was supposedly seized by the press gang and fought as a sailor at the battle of Trafalgar, and later became a showman. It has been commonly asserted that after witnessing equestrian performances of Andrew Ducrow at Astley's, Sanger, with his brother , began in 1845 a conjuring exhibition on a small scale at the Onion Fair, Birmingham. Perhaps they had performance in their blood, as one descendant of the family claimed that ‘the Sangers came to England as court jesters in the time of King John’ (Coleman and Lukens, 78). Little is known about their movements in the 1840s and 1850s but like many other showmen, they probably found permanent quarters for the winter season. Few of these accommodations could have been as curious as Enon Chapel in London. It was reported that beneath the chapel floors were buried hundreds of bodies, ‘in a space 60 feet long and 30 feet wide and 6½ feet deep’, many of which were not yet excavated when the Sangers staged a pantomime with the macabre title, The Ice Witch, or, The Frozen Hand shortly before Christmas 1850 (Coleman and Lukens, 88–9).

The Sangers' chief claim to historical notice, however, came in the 1870s when they took over the lease of Astley's Amphitheatre, London's permanent circus establishment. By this time they were already staging spectacular performances such as that during the Christmas season of 1866–7 when they produced the Congress of Monarchs at the Agricultural Hall in Islington, which was said to have been seen in one day by 37,000 spectators. According to the contract between Messrs Sanger and P. T. Barnum, the properties and paraphernalia of the Congress of Monarchs were purchased in 1874 by Barnum for £33,000.

Throughout the 1870s, however, the Sangers were associated with Astley's, although during the summer they also travelled through the country with a large establishment—a pattern which was typical of commercial circuses in Britain. The partnership lasted throughout the decade but by 1884 the brothers dissolved their concern, each taking his share of the company and giving separate circuses and fairground entertainments, with George Sanger remaining at Astley's until the building was demolished in March 1893. John never became as widely known or respected within the profession as his brother George, although he continued in the business.
To John, each audience was a business deal, a mass of heads which could be counted to see how much money the house held … [whereas to George] each audience was a section of that vast public which wanted to be entertained. (Coleman and Lukens, 23)
While on tour at Ipswich, John contracted a cold and soon afterwards on 22 August 1889, at 42 Princes Street, Ipswich, he died of pneumonia at the age of sixty-nine. On 27 August he was buried in Margate cemetery in the family's new vault, where a costly white marble monument, part of which represented a mourning horse, was placed above his grave. In his will, dated 4 March 1882, he left his wife, Elizabeth, the right to carry on the business and £1000, a part of his estate, as well as ‘his furniture and household effects, and the income for her life of all his residuary estate’ (Liverpool, Circus Friends Association, scrapbook clipping). She assumed the management of the company—not atypical of the role that circus proprietors' wives played—for several years, dying on 29 December 1892 at the age of sixty-seven in Manchester, where her circus was performing. John Sanger was survived by three sons, John jun., William, and George, as well as one daughter, Lavinia.

Brenda Assael


G. Sanger, Seventy years a showman (1910); repr. with introduction by C. MacInnes (1966), 158 · P. T. Barnum, Struggles and triumphs: sixty years' recollections of P. T. Barnum (1889), 290 · article, source unknown, Circus Friends Association, Liverpool, scrapbook no. 604, 121 · ‘Death of John Sanger’, Ipswich Journal and Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire Advertiser (30 Aug 1889), 5 · The Era (24 Aug 1889), 10 · The Era (31 Aug 1889), 14 · ‘The last of “Old Astley's”: a chat with Mr George Sanger’, The Sketch (22 March 1893), 493–4 · ‘Sanger's Circus and Hippodrome at the Agricultural Hall’, The Era (13 Jan 1867), 11 · G. S. Coleman and J. Lukens, The Sanger story: being George Sanger Coleman's story of his life with his grandfather, ‘Lord’ George Sanger (1956), 88–9 · ‘Funeral of Mrs John Sanger’, The Era (7 Jan 1893), 8 · d. cert. · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog.


Circus Friends Association, Liverpool




BL NSA, LP 27280 · BL NSA, LP 27597

Wealth at death  

£40,747 17s. 10d.: probate, 12 Nov 1889, CGPLA Eng. & Wales