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Sanger, George [known as Lord George Sanger] (1825?–1911), circus proprietor and showman, was born at Newbury, Berkshire, on 23 December probably in 1825, the sixth of ten children of James Sanger (d. 1850), a naval pensioner who served on board the Victory at Trafalgar and afterwards became a showman. His mother, a native of Bedminster, was named Elliott. In keeping with the tradition of intermarriage within the itinerant performing community, in Sheffield on 1 December 1850 George married , who, as Madame Pauline de Vere, was an accomplished lion tamer; they had two children.

Sanger's chief claim to fame was in the mid- to late nineteenth century when the commercialized entertainment market expanded, his enterprise evolved from a small fairground type to a large-scale exhibition. This evolution helped to distance his entertainment from the traditional perception of the itinerant performance world as ‘low’. Starting off with his brother, , he ran various travelling exhibitions in the 1840s and 1850s throughout Britain. By 1854 he had taken over a large piece of ground in ‘Paddy's Market’ in Liverpool where he constructed a ‘semi dramatic cum circus sort of entertainment’ (Sanger, Seventy Years, 138). It was around this time that Sanger became aware of the competition posed by American companies, such as Howes and Cushing's Great American circus which was said to have ‘eclipsed all English circuses’ (ibid., 141) with its display of Native Americans. In many respects, the Howes and Cushing show was an early example of the influence of American popular culture on Britain's emerging mass leisure market, a trend that affected not only the circus, but also the theatre and later, film. By 1860, at Plymouth, Sanger's show had grown to even larger proportions: ‘I collected about a hundred of the smaller shows to make a fair,’ Sanger recalled, ‘giving them their standings free. I had three circus rings, and two platforms going at the same time with a gate admission to the whole show’ (Sanger, Seventy Years, 158). It was small wonder, then, that two decades later, when P. T. Barnum made his appearance in London with his three-ring circus, Sanger insisted that the American's attempt at grandeur was nothing new. Sanger's rivalry in this period with another American showman, the ‘Honorable’ William Cody, otherwise known as Buffalo Bill, led to his adopting the title Lord.

The period between 1860 and the late 1880s was a time when Sanger expanded and consolidated his enterprise. By purchasing Astley's Amphitheatre in 1871 for £11,000, he and John effectively ‘arrived’ in London's legitimate theatrical world. The building had had a formidable reputation in the capital since the late eighteenth century, being one of the first of its kind to offer equestrian exhibitions. The Sanger brothers also maintained exhibitions at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, and erected circus buildings in many provincial towns, notably Ramsgate and Margate, at the latter of which they had their headquarters at Hall by the Sea. Despite their success, the brothers broke up their partnership in 1884. George remained at Astley's until 1893 when the London county council ordered the theatre to be closed because of his failure to make necessary improvements to the house.

In consequence of his professional interests, Sanger sought to protect the rights of showmen, especially in the late 1880s when the latter were under attack by George Smith (1831–1895), of Coalville, who considered them to be dirty and lacking in decency. Smith drafted the Moveable Dwellings Bill to parliament, a bill designed to ensure that showmen, Gypsies, and other itinerants obeyed the public health acts and registered their children with local school board authorities. Although nine versions were brought before parliament (1884–1894), it never reached the statute book. However, in response to the threat, Sanger supported the United Kingdom Showman and Van Dwellers' Protection Association, founded in 1889, and was one of its first presidents. It united small and large showmen alike in a campaign which resulted in the eventual defeat of the proposed legislation in 1894. From 1902 it became known as the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. Sanger also involved himself politically with the Conservative Party at a time when its machinery was developing at grass roots level. It was said in 1898 that he had practically established the Margate Beaconsfield Working Men's Association, of which he was president for over twenty years (East Kent Times, 24 Aug 1898, 8).

By 1905 Sanger had disposed of his circus and retired to Park Farm, East End Road, East Finchley, later publishing his highly readable autobiography, Seventy Years a Showman, in 1910. One year later, on 28 November 1911, he was murdered at Park Farm by Herbert Charles Cooper, an employee, who attacked him with a hatchet for reasons that were unclear, and then committed suicide. The event, as one might expect given Sanger's fame, received sensational attention from the press. He was buried with municipal honours on 4 December by the side of his wife in Margate. According to Sanger's great-grandson who travelled to the funeral from London by a crowded special train, ‘the occasion was almost like a national event’ (‘Sanger's circus’, Mander and Mitchenson theatre collection).

Brenda Assael

Sources  

G. Sanger, Seventy years a showman (1910); repr. with introduction by C. MacInnes (1966) · ‘Our portrait gallery no. 88 Mr George Sanger’, East Kent and District Advertiser (24 Aug 1898), 8 · Circus Friends Association, Blackburn [various articles relating to the murder of Lord George Sanger] · DNB · ‘A showman's tricks revealed’, Tit-Bits (3 April 1926), 158 · ‘Sanger's circus’, Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts, London, Mander and Mitchenson theatre collection · ‘Sanger's circus’, The Clipper (14 Sept 1923), 13 · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog. · ‘The last of “Old Astley's”: a chat with Mr George Sanger’, The Sketch (22 March 1893), 493–4 · G. Sanger, letter to lord chamberlain, 15 Oct 1889, TNA: PRO, LC1 526 · T. Murphy, History of the Showmen's Guild, 1889–1948 [1949], 12–27, 68–70 · 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) · G. B. Burgin, ‘The oldest circus’, Some more memoirs (c.1925) · E. Hodder, George Smith (of Coalville) (1896)

Archives  

Circus Friends Association, Blackburn, Lancashire · V&A, theatre collections

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, call nos. LP27597, LP27280


Likenesses  

photographs, Circus Friends Association, Blackburn, Lancashire

Wealth at death  

£29,348 13s. 1d.: probate, 6 Feb 1912, CGPLA Eng. & Wales