History of the Sir Robert Fossett Circus Family

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.

Fossett Tree One

Mary Fossett


Fossett Tree two


The clear likeness between Robert Fossett 1st and his grand daughter Carrie, my mother.

carrie fossettROB ONE

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

Fossett tree 3

Emma Fossett married to Ellis Cook. Photograph taken 1906.

emmie fossett

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.

fossett tony 2fossett tony

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!

Fossett Irene

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.

the old show

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.

glass tower

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.

Redbridge Fossetts

Excellent Press Cover – the personal touch!


goodnun two goodnun




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.







Author: Tom Sandow

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

41 thoughts on “History of the Sir Robert Fossett Circus Family”

  1. Diana Carlson, Northampton
    I remember during my school-days the circus farm at Hopping Hill Duston. When the circus left the large area of land and buildings were purchased for housing developement and the estate roads were given circus titles! Fossett’s were well like obviously. Thank you for these pages.

  2. Hello Diana, I do hope you purchase the book. Yes, all the estate roads were named with circus titles following the housing estate placed over the farm. Quite some years since I have been to Duston, I hope they have kept the titles, a very nice acknowledgement.

  3. Hello Brian, thanks for the message. You will see I have placed her on the above family tree! Do try and find a copy of the book The Sanger Story by Sanger Coleman.
    Yes please, do send any memorabilia/photos glad to place them on this thread.

  4. My uncle was Harry Allison and my auntie, in Ludlow, has papers regarding uncle Harry and he mentioned that he had written 3 books about life in the circus but I haven’t been able to trace them. Do you know anyone who may know the titles of the books or whether someone may have a copy?

    Would love to see any photos with him in.

    1. Hello Julia, Thank you for this message. It is many years ago and I only just remember Harry, I know he was promotional manager for Fossett’s. I was not aware of his books, very interesting. You could try the University of Sheffield where they now have a department archive storing circus books, it is possible they have copies there. Do hope you like this website it is to promote the circus variety performing arts. Any photo of interest I would be pleased to place just use the main e-mail.

    2. He’ll Julia. I knew your uncle Harry many years ago (around 1970) when I was a young reporter and travelled with him for a short time with Fossetts. He was a fantastic character. Chris Applebey. Email mrchr15352@hotmail.co.uk

  5. Wow I am so excited to have found this website. Having taken my children to Zippos yesterday which they absolutely loved I thought I would see what info I could find on Fossett’s.

    I was telling them all about Fossett’s having been their insurance broker for many many years. I fondly remember Bailey and Mary together with Kim King. I think her daughter Nikki married Robert who kept the elephants. I wonder where they are now??
    I will be buying the book

  6. This info is amazing ! I am trying to trace my family who worked in the Circus.
    Her name was Georgina Carter who married a Jennings in the Circus. She was my Grandmothers sister & was a Bare Back rider in the Circus. I think her husband played the trumpet. That’s all I know.
    Many thanks
    Celia Rycroft(nee Baxter originally from Carlisle now in London)

  7. Thank you Celia, this is what our website is all about to be an open forum of shared knowledge. Sorry I can not help with your quest, cannot recall meeting the two names. If you have any photos do send them for the nostalgia thread.
    Best Regards

  8. Hello,I’m doing abit of digging. My sons great pap Lewis Farmer used to be trapeze artist in the sir Robert Fossett circus. From what I can gather is was roughly around about 1950 ish. Our pap is 87 now and has a few poor quality pictures of his days in the circus but I just thought it would be lovely to gather more together if any exist. Or any information about him being in the circus at that time. Kinds regards Kathryn Bree

  9. Hello. I was thrilled to see a press cutting of Alec Halls. He was a great family friend. My late father appeared with him as part of a music hall act in the 1940’s. He once parked a Rolls Royce in front of our house when on a visit. He then took a small scooter out of its boot and anchored it to the grass verge. He was an amazing musician.

  10. Glad you like our website Margaret, It is intended as a tribute to the past performers as well as a great promoter for the new wonderful artistes. Do spread the word! I do remember Alec and worked the season with him in 1965. Great character and knowledegable about most things.

  11. I always remember as a young girl my mum always telling me that she had relations on Fossett Brother’s Circus and Cooks Fairground. She said when she was young she would travel with the circus and fair when it was the school holidays. She mentioned that she did the trapeze. I have found memories of visiting my Uncle Arthur Cooke and Aunty Francis Cooke when they were at base in Leicester when they weren’t travelling with the fairs. I remember how beautiful the caravan was with lavish gold pottery. My mother’s name was Paulette Nail and her father’s name was Arthur Nail. I’m proud to have circus and fairground blood as I love the circus and the fairs. Would love to get this book. Thank you. Alison x

  12. Hello Alison and thank you for your support. She probably performed the trapeze with my cousin Jessie Fossett of Fossett Brothers. Lovely family. I do not think the book is retail but suggest you contact the writers Mark Twitchett or Steve Richley, their link is at the top of the page – Doublecrown books. It may be available to Libraries but certainly Universities so you could contact the circus collection Dept; at Sheffield University. Best Wishes -Tom.

  13. Hellow Tom
    How can i send you a picture that i have of my adopted uncle’s, uncle and aunt, they were known as Rico and May (May Fosset and Frank Rico) my uncle is Robert W D Stansfield/Cook he is the son of Isabelle Fossett and Ellis cook who are on your 3rd family tree illustrated in the article about Fossetts circus he was left with my grandmother in Salford Lancashire when only a few weeks old and is now 85 and still going strong.

  14. From Jim Stansfield
    thanks for you prompt reply here is the photo of Rico and May i dont know when or where this picture was taken i just know it is of my uncle Roberts aunt and uncle i do understand that he worked the slack wire and bob told me that he once was performing over the lions in the ring and fell in and they managed to get him out.

    JIM – I have posted the photo on the Memorabilia and Vintage thread. On the playbills he was Rico yet on the show vehicles it was Reco.

  15. Hi looking for information on W F Hinds who was advance agent at Fossett’s Circus its my husbands family. We have a newspaper from 1924 announcing his death if you have any information I would love to hear about him

  16. Hi thanks for righting my family past down my name is Henry fossett my dad was Harry fossett he past a way 9years ago Bobby Roberts is my cousin but her took his wife last name Wendy Roberts but this is when the family fell apart a bit and one of the last true circus died

  17. Hi all, my great-grandmother was Mazelly Miller (1902-1987) and her grandmother was Charlotte Fossett married to a Thomas Miller but I have have been unable to find any info on her at all. Sadly, my grandad passed away recently and with him we lost the fountain of knowledge about our circus connections. Does anyone remember my great-gran or have any ideas about Charlotte Fossett? Any help would be hugely appreciated.

  18. I believe Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus arrived in Grantham by rail in 1957, does any one know the actual date please. I was five years old and my dad took me to see if arrive.

  19. Hi, I am Jane Hesketh. My dad’s parents are Mahala Leatherland and Harry Letts. Mahala’s sister is May who was married to Reco. My great grandparents are Nellie Fossett and frank Leatherland. Does anyone have any information/photos about them or knew them, particularly Nellie?

    1. Hello Jane, you could try the writers of the book Mark Twichett – Steven Richley, the website link is at the page top for contact. General circus memorabilia has not been catalogued very well as I have mentioned on this website.

    2. Hi my grandmother was Daisy Letts sister to Harry who were from the Brixworth area in Northamptonshire. My mother now 95 often talks about Mahala and May and Mays daughters and the Fossett family – I’ll let her know and see if she remembers Frank Leatherland and Nellie.

  20. Hi, myself and family lived right next door in Harlston Road on Hopping Hill to the circus winter quarters. I can remember as a child seeing elephants on top of the hill adjacent to our garden and also we used to hear the lions roaring often. This was from the early 1950s to 1959 when we migrated to Australia when I was sixteen. I have been investigating parts of my childhood and this is one of my vivid memories and we had a large garden which I believe is now a housing estate.
    Regards from Catherine Johnston

  21. Hello Catherine, you may know that the family owned two large properties one at New Duston and the other at Tiffield Northampton. I believe that the circus moved to the Tiffield property when the New Duston farm was sold. Best wishes to sunny Australia!

  22. Thank you for the post Stephen. Of course the show you refer to would be the Hoffman’s of that era. The Irish Fossett’s are another branch of the Fossett’s here. Your first photo is my nephew Peter and the comedy car, he is now retired and lives in Lincolnshire.

  23. Well what a history! I grew up with Jack Fossett in my school holidays Bobby and John Roberts, and of course the Reid sisters Connie passed away shortly after Jack.
    Jack I believe was very friendly with Tony Hancock both Gang Show members?
    My Nan made jackets of carpet to protect Jack and Billy from the Kangaroo and Bobby Roberts from the tight wire when he slipped.
    My sister has correspondence from Jack to my mother, but the usual family rift prevents me from access, but after reading through this I’ll try again.
    There are many stories still to be told.



  24. My Grandpop & Nana, Arthur Charles Jeffrey probably known as Charlie and Edith Jeffrey, were care takers for Roberts Brothers Circus (part of the Fossetts Circus I believe). I am trying to find out a little more and whether it was Roberts Brothers Circus. I remember back in the late 50s early 60s going to Polebrook, Oundle where they looked after the animals while the circus was touring. I remember the lions/tigers, baby elephant as well as llamas in the fields. Before I was born Grandpop used to drive traction engines to erect the poles for the big top. He took me to the Olympia in London to meet I thought Coco the clown but now wondering if it was Jacko the clown. I have very fond memories of childhood school holidays visiting them whilst they lived in a caravan with a big wooden platform in the grounds of the circus family in Polebrook. Trapese like swings hung from the trees in the orchard. I have an old tiny badge that was given to my mum ( who unfortunately has altzeimers, so I cannot ask any questions). The badge says British Circus Ring and B C R on the putside with a white clown in the middle. Mum & Dad were given a certificate with a tall clown on their wedding day. Just wondered if you could shed any light on the Roberts Brothers Circus. I believe Grandpop ran away from home to join the circus.
    Kind regards

    1. Hello Debbie, you will find the Robert Brothers link on the family tree ‘three’ – Mary Fossett / Paul Otto. He being a German acrobat. The Robert Brothers being the two sons. They started the circus in 1946 and toured Scotland. A totally independent enterprise to the main Fossett circus. The clown would be Jacko (John) Fossett who toured with them for some years. The two brothers parted during the 1960s to form separate shows.

  25. Hello Robert, quite a few Roberts, I have place the family trees to around the late 1960s. What family branch were yours. My connection is; see War Circus, the best photo of my parents getting married 1917.

  26. Hi from Germany!
    L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, spoke about Sir Robert Fossets Circus in the Student Hat Course, lecture number 2. He mentioned Kit Francis, the circus organ player at the Fossets circus at these times (middle of the 20th century) and how this guy skillfully restructures an organ for his own purpose. I started looking for some pictures in the internet and found this web site. What a great history of the circus and its people!



  27. Great to find this. My family on both sides were involved in the Circus particularly in Ireland. My mother and her family travelled with the Fossetts for a period and somewhere I have a picture of my uncles rehearsing out side a wagon with Heckenbergs Berlin Tower Circus on the side. My mom was taught to ride by ‘Dr’ Powell and we grew up with stories of all the Fossett boys and girls. My dad’s side were with the Turner Hudson circus and he originally came into contact with them as he was apprenticed to his father, a saddler and harness maker. What a family eh?

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