When the Greatest Show on Earth came to Lancashire

The recent release of the film '˜The Greatest Showman' in the USA, that recalls the exploits of the Barnum and Bailey circus days, is a reminder of the time when they appeared in Lancashire.

Thursday, 18th January 2018, 10:35 am
Updated Thursday, 18th January 2018, 11:40 am
Original Barnum and Bailey poster

During late Victorian days folk of Lancashire liked nothing more than those days when the circus came to town.

Consequently, there was great excitement 120 years ago when it was announced that Barnum and Bailey would be including Lancaster, Blackpool, Manchester and Preston in their tour of Great Britain.

Described as the ‘Greatest Show On Earth’, they arrived in Preston in the middle of August 1898 and the venue chosen as most suitable was the Holme at Penwortham. The Barnum and Bailey canvas city had been pitched at South Shore, Blackpool, where they had been forced to call off their final performances as gales and drenching rain had overwhelmed them.

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Four special trains were packed up with performers, animals and equipment as they made a midnight exodus to Preston. Under the directions of Mr Bailey, the huge canvas tents were pitched on Penwortham Holme by 9am the following day.

In true tradition to announce their arrival, the Barnum and Bailey entourage then took to the streets in procession. As they made their way up Fishergate the pavements were crowded with onlookers, as a brilliant cavalcade was led by richly caparisoned horses, glittering carriages and stunningly dressed attendants, along with a battalion of clowns, jugglers and acrobatic performers. Bands of musicians accompanied the parade, which included 40 bay horses, and there were cars containing lions, tigers, bears and other ferocious looking caged animals with their keepers in close attention. No less impressive were the 17 
elephants parading through the streets.

Many favourite and famous characters from the nursery rhymes were brought to life and the likes of Bluebeard, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood all brought delight. There were banners and flags and amazing tableaux and the parade was concluded when a magnificent group of white horses brought up the rear.

Not surprisingly, the clamour for tickets was overwhelming and, during the two days of the greatest show on earth, it was estimated more than 30,000 people passed over the bridge into Penwortham.

The area had never known such excitement and the local police were out in force to control the eager crowds. All those who witnessed the events lavished praise, describing it as wonderful, magnificent and magical.

A return visit took place in October 1899 when Moor Park was chosen as the venue for the huge encampment.

Once again a fanfare of trumpets heralded their arrival and a huge parade through town to the park was greeted by large crowds all along the way.

The public inevitably flocked to see the shows and young and old alike watched the performances in awe.

The folk of Preston had certainly been entertained and had shown their delight for the Victorian extravaganza.

There had been a lasting impression from the day the circus came to town and one local landlord keen to cash in was David Taylor, the landlord of the Railway Hotel, who, back in 1889, had recognised the curious nature of 
Lancashire folk by inviting the Nottingham giant Albert Brough, then the tallest man in the United Kingdom, to stay at his inn.

Daily notices in the Lancashire Evening Post of his appearance in town attracting large crowds to his bar nightly.

Once more in March 1904 he saw the opportunity to cash in on the curiosity of folk by inviting Jessie Amos Baker, known as ‘Billy Bonno’ who had toured with the travelling circus of Bostock and Wombwell as the heaviest man in the United Kingdom.

His genial manner and entertaining conversations attracting many locals to the public house.

Towards the end of his month-long stay Mr Baker decided to visit friends in Blackburn. Unfortunately, he caught a chill on the journey and on the last Tuesday of March he was admitted to Blackburn Infirmary where he died on the following Friday.

Arrangements were then made by Mr Taylor to bring Mr Baker, aged 37, who weighed 44 stone, to Preston to be buried. A suitable coffin had to be made considering his measurements were: neck 27 inch, chest 69 in and waist 73 inch. The coffin measuring 7ft in length and 3.5 ft in width.

The funeral of ‘Billy Bonno’ took place at Preston Cemetery the following Tuesday after the grave diggers had dug out a 8ft x 5 ft grave.

Despite inclement weather there was a large gathering at the cemetery as the Rev Price, Vicar of St. Luke’s, conducted the ceremony before 14 men lowered the coffin into the grave.

In July 1935, when the film ‘The Mighty Barnum’ came to Lancashire cinemas, the crowds flocked once more to see the exploits of Barnum and Bailey as they rose from freak show operators to the greatest show on earth.

No doubt when ‘The Greatest Showman’ appears on UK screens folk will be clamouring to discover what the Victorians found so enthralling.

In truth it was a spectacular that will never be repeated.