By Laura McCann
Every child in the Fifties looked forward to the yearly visit of the circus – even though most of us didn’t have the entrance fee. It was the sheer magic it brought with it.
The gaily painted wagons would arrive overnight and set up camp on the local Fair Green. From early morning the owners and performers would work hard preparing for the one day performance before moving on to the next town.
Loudspeakers fixed to the top of a van crawled through the streets announcing the arrival of either Fossetts’ or Duffy’s circus. We children would follow the music as if we were following the ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’.
Gathering together at the site we would watch the Big Top go up and see the animals being fed. We were allowed to feed the elephant under the supervision of its trainer. A lion, a tiger and sometimes a leopard, were safely secured in cages pacing up and down making me feel nervous. We were warned not to put our fingers through the bars.
A number of gaily painted wagons, which housed the performers, formed a semicircle around the Big Top.
I longed to go to the circus as I had heard all about it from my older siblings. I wanted to experience for myself the thrill of watching the trapeze artists and the clowns. My brothers usually did odd jobs in exchange for free tickets. There was stiff competition between the local children for these prized jobs.
At the age of 7, my brother Liam who was 5 years my senior, took me with him when looking for a job. He told me to stay near the wagons and if anybody needed messages, I was to go for them. In this way I might earn myself a free ticket. My 10 year old brother, Brian, had already found a job with the circus owner sorting out the tickets.
I was caught up in all the excitement around me when suddenly I heard a voice calling me. I looked around and saw a tall muscular dark-haired man with a moustache standing at the door of a wagon.
“Little girl,” he said, “will you go to the shop and get me 10 Woodbines.” “Yes,” I replied shyly, only too glad to do anything that would earn me a free ticket. I ran like wind and was back in no time. He handed me a penny for sweets on my return.
After what seemed like hours, Liam arrived back to say that he had taken on some extra work helping to clean out the animal cages in order to get a free ticket for me too. He was, as ever, my ‘knight in shining armour’.
I could hardly wait for 3 o’clock to come. I waited outside the Big Top for my brothers to arrive with the tickets. A long queue had formed and I was worried that all the seats would be taken.
Five minutes before the performance started, the three of us entered the Big Top together. I was amazed when I saw the inside of the tent.
Rows of tiered wooden seats reaching almost to the roof, went all around the interior; two trapezes were loosely tied to the high-wire for use later and on the ground there was a brightly-coloured wooden circus ring from which the smell of fresh sawdust emanated.
That, combined with the smell of the damp grass and the canvas, gave the whole place a very earthy feel. The roar of the generators outside were hardly audible inside the tent.
Sitting high up, flanked on each side by my brothers, I waited for the circus to begin. Suddenly the Big Top erupted into applause as the ringmaster, dressed in top hat and tails, entered the arena cracking a large whip in time to the beat of the music. He was followed in turn by clowns; bareback riders; jugglers; horses; acrobats; unicyclists; the fat lady, and the wild animals.
The man who I had bought the cigarettes for was introduced as ‘The World’s Strongest Man”’who came from Russia and didn’t speak English!
I watched spell-bound as the Flying Fontaines; a glamorous family of 4, took to the trapeze and the high-wire in a terrifying display of courage. My heart was in my mouth as they caught each other in mid-air without a safety net underneath.
The terrifying silence in the tent was immediately followed by the thunderous clapping of the audience.
I left the circus that day intent on becoming a trapeze artist. I could see myself dressed in a brightly-coloured sequined outfit, flying through the air, to resounding applause. It never occurred to me that with no head for heights (even the top of a double decker bus made me dizzy), I had chosen the wrong profession!