Review by Tom Sandow
Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus. ‘The Definitive Visual History’ by Mark Twichett and Steven B Richley. Published by Double Crown Books. http://www.doublecrownbooks.co.uk/
Over 300 A4 pages of full colour plates, photographs and detailed history. Hardback edition.
Being one of this huge family I should be most able to review the book with ability but I feel that the past great members are overseeing! The two writers have done a magnificent job – a task I would not attempt. Bringing together so much detail would be a mammoth effort. The Fossett circus family is without doubt the largest in Britain, some families in Europe may be as large, in Italy and most likely the Bougliones in France. The writers have tried to list the numbers but that in itself would be difficult. Since the circus closed so many are now engaged in other ways of life and businesses. The book refers to the past Secretary of the Circus Proprietors Association, Malcolm Clay. He was a most dedicated historian and memorabilia collector and I knew him very well. In the 1960s he constantly said that his intention was to write such a history of the Fossett family but never managed to do it. However he must have found the task daunting. I do have some personal knowledge of course so I hope the writers will not mind my small additions here or there. My mother would be a gold mine of stories and knowledge so I will have to depend on items told to me. I could not place any real critique or wish to, most of the content is educational for me! Credit should be given to the past C.F.A. for this gathered knowledge. As I have said before, collectors of memorabilia are to be praised, I only ever criticise how it is used at times. This book uses it exceptionally well. My mother did possess a family tree up to the mid-1970s and I have reproduced that here to be instructive. Of course the children born since would need to be added.
My family connections.
Upon page 35 is this wonderful poster the book dates to 1883 featuring my grandfather ‘Funny’ Harry. This copy is within the York Museum.
Concerning all the hard found research for the book I will bow to the most dedicated gathered knowledge of the writers unless facts might show otherwise. Upon page 58 is the reference to the Zola brothers acrobatic troupe. I was told that my father was teamed with one brother Jim with their duo acrobatic act touring Ireland in 1912, their act title being ‘The American Swells.’ The page says that the five Zolas including my father were with Fossett’s Circus in 1902 – 03. I was also told that my father toured with Sanger’s Circus in 1908 so I would conclude a split must have occurred with the brothers. There were three Zola brothers so must conclude again that they engaged two other acrobats originally one being my father. My grandfather Harry was a fine Jockey rider like the other Robert. (This act is not seen now but was most exciting artistic and attractive. Fine riding styles with the rider dressed as jockey wearing silk costuming of fine colours). He must have been a fine actor too, for in those days the acting of set scenes like Dick Turpin were included. I know from my mother that he was a brilliant acting clown with many set scripts called ‘patter’ with the ringmaster. My mother stated that his routines would total over one hour if put together. (One such comic sketch we used in our slapstick theatre until last year – great laughter still from children – 120 years later!). I have just learned about the existence of this old poster in the York Museum. Note the name ‘Funny Harry’ with extra large billing.
Two charts of the huge Fossett family tree – link.
The clear likeness between Robert Fossett 1st and his grand daughter Carrie, my mother.
Very interesting inclusions; for some reason my Uncle Tom Fossett has been constantly referred to as a primate trainer, he only had one primate (page 17). Again he was a fine rider, like my mother, was totally dedicated to ‘the equestrian’ I would put this ability over everything else. He was also a fine ukulele player! (He called it his Bing-Bang!) I thank him for introducing me to the instrument. On the same page is the poster for my parents’ first circus but I will return to that later. Upon page 25 it mentions the year 1877 with a split (according to my mother a very big split!) within the original Fossett circus and family with the death of Robert 1st. George Sanger apparently offered to buy the whole concern and settle the issue by returning it to Robert’s wife Emma who told him ‘she could not handle it’. The whole show then went under the ownership of Robert 2nd. Three of his brothers Harry, John and Thomas left to start another Fossett’s circus! Yet, on page 28 there is the poster for Fossett’s Grand Circus featuring the famous Dick Turpin scene with the bill topping Robert Fossett and ‘Funny’ Harry as Equestrian Director. The poster makes it clear ‘sole Proprietor R Fossett’ to mean that he would be employing everybody else. Upon page 30 the same title for 1882 – 1883. Page 36 mentions two units with the same title in Wales for 1885 – without the facts known one would conclude that Robert actually toured two units using the same title Fossett’s New Grand Circus.
My Grand-Father Harry Fossett
The Fossett birth chart three from Robert and Isabelle Bailey
Emma Fossett married to Ellis Cook. Photograph taken 1906.
This is the final family tree section showing Tony Fossett. He seemed to be quite close to my Uncle Thomas and, in the early 1950s they toured a small circus together. Here is a photograph with Uncle Thomas (again you see the likeness to my mother) in ringmaster attire and Tony as the clown. He must have been a very talented performer because during the 1950s he went to America and toured with major shows there.
The second photograph shows Tony performing his wire act and this photo appeared in the American magazine Southern Sawdust with the following: ‘Tony Fossett tight-rope clown’ Tommy Hanneford Circus 25th September 1976′.
He was married to the vivacious Irene who earned this ‘Big Top Beauty’ title from the magazine. I would say that the act would be comic with two gorilla costumes the title ‘Irene – Tonga – Tonga!
My grandfather billed as Funny Harry must have been a star turn according to his billing. He returned to the main show and seemed to be there until at least 1920 with his name again for the Gaiety Theatre Birmingham. It could be stated that he was a fine actor, even script writer also of the equestrian. On page 75 it says ‘The first ‘Sir’ Robert (Fossett 2nd) had two brothers John and Harry. The latter in his youth was a great rider but as he got too old for bareback riding took to clowning’ (from a book published in 1946). ‘He died recently at the age of 84, was to my mind the finest old fashioned talking (patter) circus clown I ever saw or heard’. Further nice comment followed by the writer Sir Gerrard Tyrwhitt Drake. It is clear that my mother was with the show until her marriage to father in 1917, it is noted that she returned to the circus in Norfolk (The World’s Fair copy see the War Circus thread). I am not certain exactly what my mother was engaged with during her early years. She was also devoted to the equestrian for sure. My father was stationed at Catterick Barracks in Yorkshire during the last year of WW1 as a P.T. Instructor and my mother was there also. It must follow that they actually practiced their pedestal balancing act during that time because following his leaving of the army they spent time in London looking for and working theatre (Variety) engagements.
On page 85 is placed a poster and programme for Robert Fossett’s Circus, Hessle (Hull) that dates to 1924 with the poster showing ‘Carrie and Dick, the dainty lady and Strong Man in original whirlwind feats’. It is not clear if they toured during 1925 but for the 1926 poster the name ‘Sandow’ is written large as ‘The Great Sandow’ by which it means my father’s strong man act. Their other balancing act Carrie and Dick is also billed. The following year 1927 my parents commenced their own small touring circus using the name Barry.
The Sandow family
My father was a perfectionist, ex sargeant, everything about his circus and presentations had to be right, and he also had a great sense of humour. Everybody liked working for my parents – they toured a happy show. I must stress, he had no opinions about wild animals for those who wanted them for he and mother were totally of the equestrian. He never toured wild animals, however he formed the most successful partnership with Richard Chipperfield who did tour them for a number of WW2 years and the business was tremendous I believe. Chipperfields then started their huge venture and gave to father two small lion cubs as a parting gift. He kept them for six months but gave them back again saying they were not really his style.
Throughout the 1930s they must have done well and changed the name to Sandows Circus in the mid years. Of course my parents acts were still highly bookable on the variety stages so for the winter periods they toured weekly Variety. The poster shown on page 17 is claimed to be for the 1927 season but it could also be the 1929 season that took the first circus to the Isles of Scilly. Why they chose Barry for the first title I do not know. Alongside the poster is a small picture of my father as the strongman Young Sandow, front page of a booklet it seems ‘how to become strong’. Second poster is for the 1947 season- the title being Circus Supreme.
A large programme including The Konyots. Brother Richard then met with his first wife and decided to leave the family in 1948. Being the only performing son and the fact that my father was not in great health the family sold the show the following year to concentrate upon the Variety stage and gala bookings that were most lucrative until his death in 1957 when I then commenced my own career with Lord George Sanger.
My first season 1965
Of course family members met with each other from time to time but the first season I actually toured with Sir Roberts was in 1965 under the directorship of the brother and sister Mary and Bailey Fossett. As stated one would address them as ‘Aunt and Uncle’ but they were always known as Mary and Bailey. In those days a ‘medium’ circus but it was still larger than most circuses touring currently and quite a task for the two relations to run. The tent was of a four mast structure and seating for over 1,000. Not a light circus to move and the show moved three times each week with two days at each location. All artistes would need to assist with putting the structure together and dismantling. Hard work in those days. The poster for that season can be seen on page 203 and my name is along the blue panel Tommy Sandow (balancing). A nice photo is below of the tent structure of blue and white colouring which was very attractive. I not only supplied the balancing act, I also supplied stilt walking and support for cousin Jacko Fossett and Co – the clowns. The book says I supplied the glass tower balance but the act also consisted of rolo rola balancing. One large problem with a solo specialty act is finding a reliable partner to assist, and glamour (as we all know), must be a part. I was most lucky that season to find that Jacko’s wife Connie Reid (see the Reid Twins) did this service for me. This is a poor photo below taken from the seating and one will spot Connie in the white dress. The proprietors ran a very smooth show with the best of people including Mr Harry Allison for the publicity management, several years. The two were exceptionally skilled ‘politicians’ as one needs to be to run a large circus! They were of course, as this book states, the very best when it came to the understanding and management of animals – a Fossett quality. They also engaged the very best of people in the departments. Joe Barry, equestrian trainer from Bertram Mills who trained my father’s Shetlands and toured with my family for quite some time. Ivor Rosaire the real prince of style who managed and performed the Fossett elephants. Terry Duggan who managed and performed the Fossett lions. The best of hands all. Of course Bailey Fossett himself was wonderful with animals. I would like to mention too the outstanding organ sound of George Marshall from the band-stand.
My last tour with Sir Roberts was a rather short one and this was with agreement. We had long established our children’s show and Variety bookings but there are always vacant dates. We received an invite from Uncle Bailey to call down to Hopping Hill (the winter quarters) to discuss taking over the P.R.O. situation for the 1974 season. I telephoned him and explained that we had arranged our own summer season for the Little Theatre in Rhyl as from June but would be able to manage the period prior to. We learned that the then (first class) P.R.O. Peter Featherstone was not touring that season and made the vacancy. We toured with the show for the places around the South East until it reached Liverpool. Several places in London were covered well with poster/panels on London Transport. It has always been my way to tie-up local promotions with local events and you will see this excellent letter to me from Redbridge Carnival Association. Generally the local press were first class.
Excellent Press Cover – the personal touch!
The master of eccentricity Alec Halls (MBE) toured with the show for some years. So this will conclude my contribution to the forwarding of the book. It is a worthy look at ‘old circus’ as they call it now. Others say ‘real circus’ but whatever the circus the public came first. I never met with the older Fossetts but I knew personally Mary, Bailey, and their brother Robert. Wonderful showpersons all. Robert Fossett and his wife Nikki are now the centre of the old dynasty, we wish them every good fortune to keep the Fossett name to the fore.The final touring season for the old circus was 1993.
Just to conclude. The large circus of the great days (like Sangers) toured fabulous parade wagons for the inspiration and excitement of the public. During the 1970s these, no longer used, vintage collectables were sent to America to be restored and displayed within the Ringling Brothers museum in Florida. Here is one being used in a parade over there! See the Union flag on display.