Giuseppe Marino, Pe-Tato La Bonche, in the Imperial War Museum Reading Room 2016



         We do not intend, nor seek, to glorify war, but rather we are motivated to secure a circus narrative within the period of The Great War.


         War Circus is a research project and publication which has been undertaken throughout 2016 by a small team of circus artists and researchers from Circus Central, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K. It was sparked by the discovery of a biography of Grock, a famous Swiss clown (whose story lies within.) It is supported by funding from The North East of England Heritage Lottery Fund, and is part of the National WW1 Centenary programme.

War Circus team with Nollo at the Circus Reunion, Nottingham, January 2016

         When we set out on our research we thought that we would be able to collate a significant amount of oral histories, from circus families, mainly based in the UK. It has turned out we are a little too late. Most families remember World War 2 stories, but not World War 1 family history as it is too far distant. In effect, this publication may now serve to return the stories we have found to the circus community’s descendants and those who have adopted the culture.

         In contrast circus biographies and newspapers have been the gold mine. We have been able to access these online, and in archives, as well as in libraries, including our own, and thanks to loans from individuals.

Kerrin Tatman, Strings La Bonche, looking at The World’s Fair microfiles in the National Fairground and Circus Archives, University of Sheffield.

         Our sources, both public and private  include: The National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield, Arthur J Fenwick’s Collection at the Tyne & Wear Archives, British Library, British Newspaper Archive, Imperial War Museum, The Bostock Family genealogical  project, as well as Wikipedia, Circopedia and other online resources.  Research of this nature cannot pretend to be comprehensive, but we hope it to be of some significance. We are aware that much material remains out of reach at the time of publication. This lies in archives & collections either not yet available for research, or embargoed for the time being.

         Throughout the presentation of our research we have tried to stay neutral, rather than partisan. Inevitably the resources we have access to are mostly British (inc. Irish) and in english. These do put a slant onto the narrative which is jingoistic at times, but there is often a story to counter. We have enjoyed the process of research and experiencing the thrill of receiving and waiting for stories to unravel. We therefore made a decision not to explain or interpret the war circus stories nor their wider contexts, except in the form of war and political event notes in the headers. 

On the War Circus Main Page you will see entries and links to our featured War Circus lives.  You can also browse them via the Blogs.


In the Website we present the newspaper articles in a few collections:

1 – Newspaper Articles in a chronology 1914 – 1918 and a little into 1919. There are around 340 articles. 

  • Transcripts from contemporaneous newspapers, placed in a chronological order. Here you will find many articles relating to many circus families including Sanger, Ginnett, Fossett, Duffy etc. as well as other less well known artists. 
  • Articles & correspondences from the wider Showland community to illustrate more fully the issues that were at play for circuses. 

2 – Biographic Articles. Many of these are derived from biographic accounts in books and newspaper articles, and complemented with some family details. Including these familiar names:  Bostock, Grock, Clicko, Coco the Clown, Ohmy, Frank Foster and Lorenz Hagenbeck.

3 – Themes collections; Poetry, Efforts and Effects,  North East of England News snippets,  and Animals.


War Circus Book Cover, Draft. Book design by Helen Averley.

In the Book Design we have 2 distinct sections:

1 – War Circus Newspapers. They contain:

  • Transcripts from contemporaneous newspapers, placed in a chronological order.
  • Biographic narratives of circus folk. These accounts we have been extracted from biographies and other sources to give a current affairs feeling, rather than retrospective view point. They have then been set in a ‘best guess’ time line within the newspapers. Some have additional information given by family sources.
  • Articles & correspondences from the wider Showland community to illustrate more fully the issues that were at play for circuses.
  • Photographs from newspapers, archives, private collections.
  • Some contemporary reports we have found not to be factually accurate and have included as they are interesting.
  • War news and political events in the header.

2 – War Circus  lists contain:

  • A- Z of Circus people we have identified as from or most likely to be from “circus” or circus type performers. Some served in the war.
  • Serving showmen identified in The World’s Fair newspaper. Some may be circus, but there was no specific evidence of this. This list is less detailed.



         Researching War Circus has been fascinating. It has also emphasised to me the truism that war respects no one.

         These stories bring a shock to the favoured notion of the ‘circus body’ as a superhuman because the nature of jeopardy in war is altogether different to the jeopardy experienced within the artform. The issue is not about the body against the forces of nature, but the forces of ill. War has no concept of a circus body’s prowess, its ability to fly across a ring, to command the wild, to breakdown hostile boundaries or to make people laugh.

         Fortunately the circus community as a whole was relatively lucky through the horrors of WW1. They had a degree of immunity and a variety of ways to advert danger, often due to their international connections. The people of the fairs were less lucky. 

         Although the focus War Circus is mainly on circus lives, the poignant stories of other Showland people are represented. They flesh out the story of boys & men going to war, where a circus voice is missing. Perhaps not unexpectedly we have relatively few women and children’s voices among the original source documents. It will be self-evident from the few that we do have that their lives were also extraordinarily impacted upon whilst the war raged on and on

         The fate of people in wartime, is echoed in the fate of their stories. The stories themselves having been entered into a lottery of remembrance, where a life-story can be forgotten, fêted, reported, documented or privately rehearsed by families, we found some of these.

         In War Circus I hope we have brought back into focus as many stories as possible, real stories, and reported truths. Many of the stories you couldn’t make up. However, we did find few contradictions in newspaper reports. These reflect some of the confusions about what was happening and the resulting rumors led to unintended ‘fake’ news. Two of these types of stories were about Eugen Sandow and  Lorenz Hagenbeck.