Those Old Circus Anecdotes

Those old circus anecdotes
Legends of old circus, by Tom Sandow. Anecdotal stories found in enthusiastic books, swapped Olde Tavern  yarns. Totally true – or are they really!

The old circus winter quarters of Jim Wrangler between the wars. By Ted the Tent-hand.

In my older days of circus how to spend any spare time was a problem at the show winter quarters. Jim Wrangler and his wife ran a fine horse drawn outfit and their off season – winter – quarters were south of Halifax on a small farmstead. Quite spooky at times it was to see some black chimneys silhouetted against the soot sky. Rumour had it that the place was haunted and this could be true because some days one could see an extra staff hand unrecognized. Old Jim Senior had a dry humour ‘find the chap a job to do!’ he would muse. In those days there was no electric of course, only oil lamps and we often went to bed at dusk. Old Jim Wrangler had a paraffin Tilly lamp for his horse drawn living wagon and used it to walk around the stables late at night like Florence Nightingale. The lamp could be blinding to look at but rather useless to see anything beyond a yard or two. Some evenings he would invite us into his old wagon to play party games like shadow puppetry against a sheet. Old Jim was a master at this pursuit, rather odd owing to his loss of two fingers suffered in Boer war experiences that he would constantly tell us about. He said he played cards with Churchill. Good accordionist too but occasionally missed the notes of G and F. Being a dedicated horseman from the war he placed total faith in two medics, Morice Evens horse rub and Quinine! He would use one or the other or both for the horses or even himself! Cure alls he would say. He could have been right – never saw him sick. During slack moments in the long day we might have a horseshoe around a peg throwing contest. But jobs to do were the mantra; ‘idle hands make much mischief’ Jim would say. He was quite an insomniac and on tour or in winter quarters, he would knock us up at dawn to allocate jobs for that day – ‘I think you are drugged with sleep!’ ‘One hour before noon is worth three afterwards! He would jest. Whatever that day was would be difficult to know without television, radio or newspapers except Sundays because the distant village church would chime the bells. Sometimes we ventured out to the village hall, a mile or two to walk down a dark lane to see the mobile silent cinema that used to visit once a fortnight but after losing the juggler trying to find the farm in a dense fog Jim suggested against that pursuit unless the weather was good. Good juggler too, never heard from him again. Old Ma Wrangler had a pony and trap so would trot out for food supplies or bring back the paint. Old Jim was a tyrant about painting his wagons. Hands should not be without a brush was his motto. Of course gloss paint was frowned upon– all items for old circus had to be of a matt finish texture. If a gloss finish was used by mistake old Jim would demand that the item was sand papered down to a matt look. Jim Wrangler believed that a matt looking show was best for business!. He was superstitious of course.

Jim Rangler Motorises.

Jim Wrangler’s touring circus modernised between the wars to purchase his first moter vehicle or rather, a traction vehicle. A 1921 Scammel with solid tyres and chain drive to the back wheels. Old circus was based upon the challenge of ‘getting there’ building up and being ready. These challenges sometimes seemed almost welcomed by the participants to, (perhaps?) add some excitment to the tour. Lorries would play a major part in these challenges and were not all that reliable of course. In fact vehicles were the biggest challenge (always made worse, later, when a circus employed a ‘Transport Manager’!) followed by the structure/tent/animals and sites and then dealing with the cast. The audiences were never a problem. The only thing noticable, strangely was, old Jim was always happier with a small crowd and more miserable with a full tent. Never understood that.

Moving the show

With the purchase of this ex-army Scammel Jim Wrangler also bought an acompanying ex-army flat trailer to take the heavy stuff. This flat low-loading trailer would carry the main tent and the main poles. It started out as a tank carrier able to transport 45 tons. This trailer had very large balloon tyres that came without a spare and tyres to fit would be very hard to find. For some strange reason the rear axle had a bulbous central hub to match the rear axle of the lorry but was, of course, non-funtional. This trailer, when towed around a given site would make a very quiet squeaking sound. No one knew what caused it, where it came from or bothered to find out.

Moving Mornings

This might be the typical moving morning ritual of attaching the trailer to the prized Scammel. This vehicle was of course the pride and joy of the proprietor and only he or his son would be allowed to drive it, not that anyone else wanted to. The trailer would have a swivel lock that weighed one ton and would move the front wheels left or right. Old Jim might make the same statement each moving morning that the lock needed greasing. It seemed necessary that the towing bars on old circus trailers would need to be of a special design. Most swivel trailer bars might be lifted by a couple of men but old circus towing bars were reinforced with strange things like a meaningless looking gearing box, of no funtioning point, but looked good. This would add the necessary weight to the bar.

Now the vehicle is situated about 20ft to the front to commence this reverse to hitching process. Three men would be straining to hold up the bar – usually reliable artistes – whilst a fourth is peering around the corner (perhaps the delicate fussy new clown who was on short notice from old Jim). He would motion to number one giving directives whilst also holding the coupling pin in left hand. Number one has his head peering backwards from the cab. ‘Come on – back’, says the shouted command. Why he says ‘back’ is surplus or it is a statement of hope. The lorry will reverse just one inch at a time with each ‘come on back’ command. At about five feet from the bar the coupling pin is to the right or left six inches out of line. The trailer bar can not be moved – specially in mud – so instructions are shouted for number one to go left or right but his blinking face fails to notice or hear. Eventually he will drive forward 20ft for the same process to commence again (and again). Finally the lorry coupling is exactly two inches in front of the bar and this instruction is then given to number one by the delicate holding up the right hand showing the distance between finger and thumb.

Now it was a constant strange anomaly with old circus lorries that they could reverse one inch at a time but the final two inches changed all physical logic and the lorry would shoot back twelve inches so that the bar and ones fingers might disappear into the bodywork. On the other hand, if one is fast enough to avoid this the bar might fall on to ones foot so it might get you one way or another.

The Build-Up

Number one being the tentmaster and the twin main poles can only be raised by him and the stated lorry. One might explain to him that the site location is a bit narrow and the vehicle might disappear into the side hedge but he would ignore this suggestion with a frown. The result would be the Scammel cab touching the side hedge so all is dropped again and all the poles and the rigging must be reversed to be raised the other way around to cause great friction with the hand-balancers wife who may have to pack everything to move her caravan out of the way having been set for three hours.

Now it has always been the policy to wake the show cast at 4.30 a.m. on moving mornings with a loud bang on ones door, usually son number one saying ‘are you up? It was the policy in the age of the horse drawn wagons so nothing must change. It was always wise to count any grazing ponies when leaving because one or two may have been left in the darkness and one would not wish for any following show to gain two ponies. More often than not the next site location – a park – would not be opened until 8.30 am as everyone knew but the show column would wait on the road from 7.30 a.m.. Sometimes with a side event like; ‘we have time to have breakfast! Only when it is ready the gates are opened so the order is to enter the park. This always pleased the ladies having to pack away the breakfast! (In those days no yellow lines). Petrol was always most valued and each journey would be very precisely measured. A slide rule would be useful for this calculation. One often saw reliable Martin the tent hand pocking a stick into the open tank to measure the petrol depth before adding fuel from a ‘jerry can’ through a large funnel, perhaps smoking at the same time,  never seemingly to blow himself up.

Number one would report that his engine sounded peculier so would strip down the magneto,  the water pump, and the carburettor only to find that two plug leads had been placed in the wrong order so the problem was easily solved but then, of course, the water pump and the magneto and the carburettor would need renewing. Old circus had wonderful lorries like the Thornycroft, the Dennis, the Bedford and the Foden. All had long bonnets with huge headlamps. They were also fitted with a brass starting handle that had to be vigorously swung clockwise to start this six cylender engine. One had to be very agile because after about ten swings the engine would backfire and the handle would swing anticlockwise at 60 rpm throwing one some yards. To avoid this danger it was deemed important to have a couple of tent hands attached to a rope attached to the handle. This process would be continuous for about half an hour of failier before the ancient tried and tested method of starting circus vehicles would be  applied – towing them around and around the field.

Fit for the road.

Now all vehicles were fit for the road at the start of the tour and one of would be allocated for a given person to drive. Upon entering the cab one would see a carpet of cigarette ends accumulated. The windscreen would be in two sections meaning that the top section could be folded outward in hot weather but not so necessary at 6 a.m. This windscreen might be rust welded one inch open so a cold draft is upon ones face during the journey. The dashboard would be full of dials and things but may not work like the speedometer – that worked to a fashion – meaning that everytime the engine reved it would swivel to mark 80 mph but as the top speed of the lorry was only 20 mph this would not be a problem. There was always a dead insect in one or more of the dials and one would wonder how it got there. Directions to other road users was via ones arm thrust out of the drive side window that once lowered could not be raised again so one would have a draft from two directions. Each lorry would have a drivers tent hand ‘mate’ who would also be the traffic indicator for the left or nearside.

He would be seated upon an old overcoat alongside the driver, the legally required ‘trailer man’. One would never find conversation with these fellows all that intellectual but in any case over the noise of the engine one would need only to shout one or two syliable words. It was also his job to peer backwards out of the nearside door to confirm that the trailer is still attached which he would confirm with a nod of the head. He was also useful in holding the gear stick in place that sometimes would shift by itself into neatral.

Drivers were informed at the season start that the vehicle had a tool box. This would be an ex-army metal box situated under the passenger seat. It was dented a bit and brown with paint. Upon opening the lid one might find these items. Quite a lot of old nuts of various sizes some rust welded to the box floor. One old Player cigarette packet. One torn map of North Wales but the tour this season would be Devon and Cornwall. A length of quite useless rotten half inch rope. A dead beetle. A tyre presure gauge that was stuck at 45lbs. A rusty (non) moveable spanner. An empy grease tin. A screwdriver. A ball of hay string (this item was standard old circus necessary). All vehicles were fitted with one item deemed essential, a small tin of Radweld!

Below each tool box was situated a most important item – a very large cooking tray about two inches deep. Once the lorry had been placed on the site this tray would be placed under the engine sump so to catch any oil drip. At the end of the stay the tray would have a level of oil in it to be put back into the engine before starting the journey. Journeys were always a great adventure if only for 15 miles. Drivers were given a route plan to follow but it was rumoured that a towed trailer once came of passing through a forest and disappeared down a side track! Quite a few days to find that item. Show seating was reduced for two locations. Of course all sign posts were removed during the war to confuse the enemy but totally confused the locals and circus drivers. Asking the way at a house was the best option but not wise to send the French balancer who might be mistaken as a foreign spy to bother the local policeman on  bike. Animals? Well, that would take another page.

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Author: Tom Sandow

born into showbusiness - full life entertaining, management, agency, engager of acts and artistes - show producer presenter.

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