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WAR CIRCUS: FRANK FOSTER

 

Frank Foster balancing man sitting on chair on his head at military hospital, France circa 1917/18. With thanks to his daughter Juliet Powell © Juliet Powell

Frank was a young man at the outbreak of war, working with George Sanger as a performer and animal man. He later became a famous Ring Master at Blackpool Tower Circus. The Narative here is extracted from his Autobiography. See bibliography: Pink Coat, Spangles and sawdust: Reminiscences of Circus Life with Sanger’s Bertrum Mills and Other Circuses. Stanley Paul & Co. 1948.

 

c. SEPT 1914

 

I have recently returned to George Sanger Circus, after I had spent weeks in hospital in Aberdeen recovering from a broken leg after a fall from a horse in the ring. I was still on crutches. Then one day at Dunbarton, we realised that England was at war with Germany. Many of our men are ex-cavalry troopers and are on the army reserve: they were immediately called to the colours. Within a very short time we heard that one of our grooms had been killed at Mons.

   George Sangers reaction was to go south at once and get as near as possible to winter quarters. The toughest journey is from Millom to Egremont, George elected to go by way of the river mouth at Ravenglass sands Cumbria: thus shortening the jump by fifteen miles. We had heard of many circus mishaps there, I looked forward to the thrill of the crossing.

 

   We arrived too early for the tide. The show pulled up to wait. We made tea. We waited and waited but the tide seems to get no lower. Impatient, George ordered the elephants across, they enjoyed the fun, before they were half way out they were awash and had to struggle to the other side. We had to wait. Half an hour later George decided to risk his wagon across. It was a grand sight to see the six big horses plunge into the water dragging the caravan behind.

 

   When they got to the middle only their heads were showing in a sea of foam, and Mrs George, her head out of the window, was in a panic. Mr George jumped into the water to whip them on but they could only float. Jimmy Freeman, Tom Ethardo and I had to bring out three more trace horses and had to swim among the frightened horses to attach them, yelling and shouting we got the horses and wagon safely to shore. We three had to wait in the middle of the river and had to team each of the other 42 wagons up to get them across.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 

c. FEB 1915

   The winter here is severe. The icy streets add trouble to my daily peregrinations with the elephants. Once they begin to slide you cannot stop them, as I found out when Annie slid the last 69 yards to the stage door. I sprinkle ash as a precaution.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 

c. DEC 1915

   For the winter season, Herbert Sanger, Jimmie Freeman and I travelled to Glasgow to Hengler’s Circus. The journey was a nightmare of twenty-five hours from Horley. With three frightened ladies: the elephants were 4 tonnes apiece, their swaying and shifting about caused the shackles to loosen and caused the truck to lurch and rock. We were desperately scared of being squashed to death and constantly dodging their flailing trunks.

It continues to be my responsibility to get the elephants to and from Sauchiehall Street. All obstacles encountered, ramps, narrow passages were surmounted, until we got to the sinking ring, which when the leading elephant, Annie, placed a foot on it, it vibrated which resulted in all manner of cajoling.

 

   My job is to be a Red Indian, as I could swim. The water spectacle this season is “Silver Falls”. I have to take a header from the a side piece high over the lake and swim in the water in the ring. But the real thrill is when the a bridge collapses as riders and horses clip-clip and thunder across. And at every performance a horse slipped and did a backwards slide into the water, the audience thought that they had seen a nasty accident. The rest of the horses jumped in to cross. They were expert divers.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

c. APRIL 1916

   At the end of the Hengler season my leg was healed and strong. On returning to Horley, I told George Sanger that I was off to Preston to enlist in the 5th Dragoon Guards. Preston, is their Headquarters, and their I was given the King’s shilling and sent to Aldershot.

    On the morning I made my first appearance in the riding school together with the other rookies, and mounted, as is usual, with a blanket instead of a saddle, I was singled out. “Which is Foster?… So you are the circus rider… What can you do?” Well said Sergeant-Major Coleman, “Now I’m going to train you for our circus.” He placed three hurdles in front of us.

   And with arms folded and without stirrups, all the rookies fell of or fared little better. Luckily I realised that what I had to do was the same as circus riding. I sat the first jump, vaulted the second, and did a twisting vault on the third. My performance evoked a round of applause, and the Sergeant-Major told me to practice mounting and dismounting with a rifle and sent me off to the advanced squad to work them in the Riding school.

   I have since spent three months schooling officer’s mounts and my reputation has gained me entrance to the Garrison Theatre. Here, week after week, I played fool to the troops in one act or another.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 

c. SEPT 1916

 

   When I arrived here in France I was a Cavalryman; but having landed we were paraded and told to give in swords, riding breeches and spurs. Cavalrymen are no longer required so we are transferred into the infantry. Now with 16 others am now in the Royal Scots, we are all dressed up in kilts. Whenever I walk along the street I feel like I have come out of the ring and forgotten to change my ring costume. But in the waterlogged trenches, kilts have a real disadvantage. My knees are continually splashed with water and are always wet; the chafing of the Sodden kilts makes them blood-raw. Though a Lancastrian, I have visited almost every town in Scotland and on the strength of this and and my stories of each of these places, I have been accepted as a Scot. On rare but periodic rests from the front line we are given a pay advance of a few francs: this we spend on one good meal of eggs and chips. To raise the wind for more, I and another pseudo-Scot, Jimmy Duck, who plays the piano, sing for our supper in sergeants’ messes and estaminets.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 

Frank Foster – 1917 © Foster Family

c.FEB 1917 

A forced march from Armentières to Arras, where we took part in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, it only lasted 4 days, 9-12 April, anyway it has ended with me a casualty and coming to consciousness in hospital at Etaples. The first thing I noticed was that my feet were in huge bandages, sticking out of the bottom of the bed. I was horrified. I thought: my circus days are over. But a grinning nurse has reassured me that I will be alright they are only frost bitten. Only then did I notice that my head was bandaged as well. Then they told me that I had been dug out of a shell crater with shrapnel wounds in my head and a twisted leg.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 

c. JUNE 1917

   After a few weeks in hospital in Etaples, I have arrived here at Cayaeux-sur-Mer, a convalescent camp. There is a theatre here with a concert party. I am pleased to say that I have found my old friend Eddie Jay, a character comedian, “why,” he said, “ you are the very man I am looking for. Can you still juggle?” … “You don’t want a costume you look funny enough as you are!” I was wearing oversized boots on my feet to cover my bandages, khaki shorts and a Balmoral hat.

   The following night, with the aid of some plates collected from the mess and other odds and ends I juggled the following night and established myself. I could stay here for the duration with the concert party, but you cannot get Blighty leave from a convalescent base. I haven’t been home for two-and-a-half years and after begging to be marked fit, I will have leave and will return shortly to England.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 c. JAN 1918

 I keep half expecting to receive our marching orders to the front but they never come, I have been here at Etaples since my leave in 1917. Instead, I am occupied in entertainments. I met George Doonan, ‘the life and soul of the party,’ of radio and stage; and we started a concert party which is called ‘The Electric Sparks’. It has really caught on.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 

11 NOV 1918

 I am standing here at Etaples, France, on a sand dune with George Doonan. George said,

   “ what do we do now? I have it Jug. We’ll do our burlesque imitation act together in variety.”

   “No,” I replied. “I’m going back to the circus.”

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 

 

c. APRIL 1919

   I’m still in the military hospital at Whalley Bridge, with a recurrence of my knee trouble. Having heard that the old Sanger show was pitched at York, I obtained permission to go and see George Sanger. As soon as I reached the tober and saw the tent standing and a flag waving at the top of the king-pole, I had an overwhelming nostalgia to be in harness again, enhanced when I got inside the tent and watched many of my old friends still performing in the ring and breathed in those smells, even the smell of humanity: artistes and audience, which a circus man loves and never forgets.

When I arrived back at the hospital I heard I was to have a further operation on my knee. I refused and begged for a discharge. Given my “ticket”’ I was packing to leave when a telegram was handed to me, it read:

COME TO DURHAM IMMEDIATELY. GEORGE SANGER.

Narrative extracted from Bibliog. Ref: F F

 

 

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