The History of the Circus in Australia

Cover image of 'Circus: The Australian Story', by Mark St Leon

Cover image of 'Circus: The Australian Story', by Mark St Leon

Jugglers, lion-tamers, bearded ladies and freak shows - the world of the travelling circus is increasingly a relic of a bygone era, before entertainment was hijacked by screen culture. Indeed, the circus is the backdrop for a major Hollywood film on current release, Water for Elephants.

Australia has a proud tradition of circus culture that continues to thrive to this day. Names like May Wirth and Con Colleano may have regrettably slipped out of the public consciousness, but once upon a time they were internationally renowned giants of their craft who travelled in luxury train compartments. Here’s a video of “Australia’s bareback queen” May Wirth in the 1920s, while this video features Con Colleano, an indigenous Australian tightrope walker who was billed as being Spanish. Colleano, dubbed ‘The Wizard of the Wire’, was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1966.

Australia’s tradition of circuses stretches back to the early 19th century, and 2011 marks 175 years of the circus in Australia. Circus: The Australian Story is a new book by Mark St Leon, himself a descendant of a venerable Australian circus family. The book traces the history of the Australian circus in loving, and lavish, detail. In the 19th century, when Australia was one of the most enticing destinations for Europeans in the world, many European troupes would tour the colonies. “So enamoured of Australia were some visiting circus artists,” writes St Leon, “that many remained behind and joined local companies”. Thus, it can be said that they left their own circuses to run away and join the circus.

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