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Astley, Philip (1742–1814), equestrian performer and circus proprietor, was born on 8 January 1742 at Newcastle under Lyme, one of three children of Edward Astley (fl. 1725–1772), cabinet-maker and veneer cutter. Apprenticed to the family trade at nine, the forthright Astley had a traumatic relationship with his father and when he was seventeen left to join the ...

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Butlin, Sir William Heygate Edmund Colborne [Billy] (1899–1980), fairground proprietor and founder of holiday camps, was born in Cape Town, Cape Colony, where his parents had emigrated, on 29 September 1899, the elder child of William Butlin and Bertha Hill (d. 1933)...

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Chapman [married name Sanger], Ellen (1830/31–1899), lion tamer, was the daughter of Harry Chapman, a peep-show proprietor. As a child she was brought up by the Manders family, at that time associated with George Wombwell's menagerie. She had no formal education: at her marriage, neither she nor her husband could sign their names. She performed at ...

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Chipperfield, James Seaton Methuen (1912–1990), circus proprietor and inventor of the safari park, was born on 17 July 1912 in a mahogany wagon on land belonging to Paul, third Baron Methuen, near Corsham, Wiltshire, the second son in the family of three sons and two daughters of ...

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Cody [formerly Cowdery], Samuel Franklin (1861–1913), showman and aeronautical designer, was born on 6 March 1861 in Davenport, Iowa, USA, the fourth of five children of Samuel Franklin Cowdery (1833–1902), a former Union soldier and jobbing carpenter, and his wife, Phoebe Jane (1834–1900)...

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Collins, Patrick (1859–1943), showman and politician, was born on 12 May 1859 at 58 Broughton, Chester, the son of John Collins, agricultural labourer (later, general dealer), and his wife, Annoia McDermott. One of five children, he attended St Wedburgh's School in Chester, but left at the age of ten and travelled ...

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Ducrow, Andrew (1793–1842), equestrian performer, was born at the Nag's Head, 102 High Street, Southwark, Surrey, on 10 October 1793, the eldest of at least six children. His father, Peter Ducrow (c.1765–1815), a native of Bruges in west Flanders, and his mother, ...

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Fagon, Alfred (1937–1986), actor, playwright, and poet, was born on 25 June 1937 in Clarendon, Jamaica, where his parents were smallholders and also kept a post office and store. He had eight brothers and two sisters. After leaving school at thirteen he worked with his father as a cultivator on his orange plantation....

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Fanque, Pablo [real name William Darby] (1796–1871), equestrian performer and circus proprietor, was born in Norwich on 28 February 1796, the third son of John Darby, a butler of African descent, and his wife, Mary, née Stamps. He was baptized on the same day because he was not expected to live. Orphaned at an early age, he was apprenticed to ...

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Frowde, James Henry (1831–1899), clown and evangelical preacher, was born on 17 April 1831 at Portsea, Hampshire, the first son of James Frowde (1800–1850) and his first wife, Georgiana Margaretta Hengler (1808–1837), an equestrian performer, the daughter of the circus rope-dancer Henry Michael Hengler...

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Gravelet, Jean-François Émile [performing names Blondin, Charles Blondin] (1824–1897), tightrope walker, was born on 28 February 1824 at Hesdin, near St Omer in France, the son of André Gravelet (c.1789–1832/3), himself a tightrope walker and a soldier in Napoleon's...

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Haggar, (Arthur) William (1851–1925), travelling showman and film-maker, was born in Stratford Road, Dedham, Essex, on 10 March 1851, the son of an unknown father and Mary Elizabeth Hagger (b. 1830). He had a hard childhood, despised for his illegitimacy, and brought up by various distant and uncaring relatives. He gained skills in carpentry through his employment in a sawmill, then when aged twenty he joined a touring theatrical troupe, encouraged by ...

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Hengler, (Frederick) Charles (1820–1887), circus proprietor, was the second of the four sons of Henry Michael Hengler (1784–1861), a circus rope-dancer, and his wife, Jane, née Pilsworth (c.1790–1869). He came from an established family of circus performers: his grandfather, (John) Michael Hengler (...

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Hengler, Jenny Louise (b. 1849), equestrian performer, was born on 23 March 1849, at Lewes, Sussex, the second daughter of the circus proprietor (Frederick) Charles Hengler (1820–1887) and his wife, Mary Ann Frances Sprake (c.1828–1902). She performed as a juvenile artiste in her father's arenas from an early age, her first recorded appearance being in the 1856–7 winter season at ...

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Maccomo, Martini (1835/1836–1871), lion tamer, was said to have been born in Angola, though it has also been suggested that he was a sailor born in Liverpool, or that he was Arthur Williams, a West Indian. He was recruited into British fairground life by ...

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Mills, Bertram Wagstaff (1873–1938), circus proprietor, was born on 11 August 1873 at 53 City Road, London, the eldest son of Lewis Halford Lupton Mills, secretary to a joint-stock company, and his wife, Mary Fenn Mills (née Wagstaff). He left school by the age of fifteen, and began to work with his father, who had since become a proprietor of a coach building works and owned two small farms in ...

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Mills, Cyril Bertram (1902–1991), circus proprietor, was born on 27 February 1902 at 56 Norfolk Square, London, the elder son of Bertram Wagstaff Mills (1873–1938), circus proprietor, and his wife, Ethel Kate, née Notley. Educated at Harrow School and Cambridge, where he studied engineering at master's level, ...

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Polakovs [Poliakoff, Poliakov], Nicholai [performing name Coco] (1900?–1974), clown, was believed to have been born near Riga, in Latvia in the Russian empire, probably on 5 October 1900, the son of Peter Polakovs, a cobbler who eked out his meagre living by working as a property master in the local theatre, where his mother was a wardrobe mistress. Nothing more is known about her. As a youngster he persuaded his father to allow him to follow a circus career, and during a four-year apprenticeship with the circus of ...

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Sandow, Eugen (1867–1925), strongman and physical culturist, was born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller in Königsberg, East Prussia, on 2 April 1867. According to conflicting sources he had an older brother or half-brother, and his father was either a prosperous jewel dealer or a greengrocer. His mother was Russian, or of Russian descent, and her maiden name, ...

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Tarlton, Richard (d. 1588), actor and clown, became a legend in his own lifetime and was constantly reinvented for two decades after his death. As a result, fictions about his life have become inextricably tangled with its facts. Thomas Fuller, who was at some pains to verify the facts that informed his ...