How King's Lynn Mart launched our greatest showman
PUBLISHED: 11:19 10 February 2018
As we celebrate the 250th anniversary of circus in 2018, Trevor Heaton explores how a traditional Norfolk event played a key part in the career of one of its most famous names.
He was England’s very own P T Barnum, a born showman who married a flair for showmanship and publicity with a brilliant business mind. He called himself a ‘Lord’ and his shows were beloved by everyone from street urchins to Queen Victoria.
And Norfolk played a big part in helping shaping his early success.
But where we still remember the larger-than-life Phineas T – there’s even been a recent Hollywood film about him - Lord George Sanger has slipped out of the public consciousness in comparison.
It wasn’t always that way; back in his day everyone knew his name. But maybe 2018 will help redress the balance, with a year-long national wide event, called Circus250, marking the 250th anniversary of circus across the UK and Ireland.
Here in Norfolk we already have strong connections, with events in Norwich as one of the main circus centres for the UK. Circus owner Pablo Fanque, famously name-checked by The Beatles – was born in the city. And Great Yarmouth has its magnificent Hippodrome Circus, built in 1903 and one of only two venues in the world to have a water spectacle.
But King’s Lynn can claim its place in circus history too. And it is all connected with its famous Mart, the traditional start of the showfolk’s calendar and beloved by generations of families in West Norfolk and beyond.
The funfair will once again have its traditional opening on Wednesday at noon, when in a feast of pageantry and colour the nine-day event will be declared open, and the Tuesday Market Place will once again be filled to the sound of the fairgoers and the thrum and music of the rides.
The Mart has evolved and changed radically over the centuries, and today’s event is very different from that of 1854 – the year that two ambitious young showmen made their visit to Lynn that was to change circus history.
The old tradition of the medieval fairs as places for merchants to meet and trade, or as hiring fairs, were fast disappearing by the Victorian era. For 100 years or so before, the stress had moved from buying and selling to pure pleasure. That gave the mart – like its counterparts – a rather racy reputation, just the thing to get up the collective noses of local civic worthies.
Where the Norwich Mercury could content itself with the merely factual - “On Tuesday last the Mart commenced with its usual proclamation by the town crier. The number of stalls, booths, shows & co is almost the same as last year.” – its county rival the Norfolk News was much more outspoken.
It thundered about ‘the return of this vanity fair, with its few advantages and host of evils.’
You could see ‘waxwork models, and minor theatres’. There were also peep-shows, nothing to do with their later, much racier Soho counterparts, but instead perspective boxes, gradually including photographs and waxworks, in which you could see – as in 1854 - the Battle of Waterloo and the Massacre of Sinope.
There were, even then, still some echoes of its ancient market role, with a ‘whole series of bazaars, containing every variety of the “newest fashions” [the quote marks are from the Norfolk News] in fancy goods, useful or ornamental; and cakes, oranges, and gingerbread for juveniles.’
But one thing neither newspaper mentioned was a modest-looking attraction by the two Sanger brothers, John and George. The brothers were second-generation showfolk – their father, James, had survived being press-ganged and fighting in the Battle of Trafalgar to set up as a showman.
George and his older brother began a small-scale conjuring exhibition at Birmingham, but they were ambitious for more success. Still in his early twenties, George, who had married a lion tamer, Ellen, in 1850, was anxious to expand the business. The brothers bought and trained a white horse and a Shetland pony in the summer of 1853, and hired three or four performers.
They decided to launch their travelling show and circus at the mart. It would have been a good ‘toe in the water’ for the brothers, giving them ample time to fine-tune the attraction before the bigger dates on the calendar.
Their biggest rivals for public attention came not at the mart, but outside it. Over at the town’s Albion Hall there was a ‘panorama of the Arctic regions’ being displayed – a recent big hit at Cambridge, according to its promoters. And, as national patriotic fervour grew over the Crimean crisis, there was the visit of a Recruiting Party the day after the mart began, with many recruits taking the Queen’s shilling and marching (unsteadily) through the town’s streets.
Even nature demanded its share of the limelight. An extreme high tide forced unlucky inhabitants of the houses adjoining the town’s fleets – river channels - to bail out their homes.
After a couple of weeks the stalls were packed up, the rides dismantled, and the showfolk moved on. Almost as soon as they were clear of the Tuesday Market Place, workmen arrived to start work on the town’s Corn Exchange.
Back on the road, the brothers counted their takings and realised their fledgling circus had been a hit. It proved to be no fluke: as they toured round the country they met with ‘unvarying success’.
Soon they decided to set up a permanent base at Liverpool. Expansion was ambitious – and fast. The brothers invested heavily in new equipment, performers and attractions. Within six years of their Lynn debut they had set up a ‘world’s fair’ at Plymouth, with dozens of extra attractions as well as the circus. The brothers also established more than a dozen permanent sites around the country – in effect, the first-ever circus franchise.
Sangers’ Circus on the road was soon a wonder to behold. It was impossible to miss, its sheer size blocking country roads for miles. On a tour of Europe in the 1870s, for example, the circus took 160 horses, 12 camels, 11 elephants, 230 employees and 46 carriages. It was pure spectacle – and on a truly grand scale.
The two brothers had gone their separate ways by now, with ‘Lord’ George far outstripping his brother in the sheer audacious scale of his shows. But he never forgot his roots: in 1887 he established (and generously supported) the Showman’s Guild, of which he was president for 18 years. He was also much-loved for his kindness towards his employees and the animals in his charge.
The pinnacle of his career saw Sanger bring his circus for the delight of Queen Victoria and her family at Balmoral and Windsor in the closing years of the century. But times were changing, with rivals for the circus not only coming from the even-brasher American touring show but also the likes of the music hall, football matches and the early days of cinema.
Sanger sold up in 1905, penning a memoir, ‘Seventy Years a Showman’, in 1910. With a foreword by Wind in the Willows creator Kenneth Grahame, this is a vivid account of life on the road, with such eye-catching chapter headings as ‘Secrets of the Freak Show’, ‘The Body-Snatchers’ and ‘The School for Learned Pigs’.
Sadly, he was not to enjoy his retirement (or his considerable fortune) for long. The following year he was murdered by a disgruntled servant, a sensational end to a life lived in the glare of publicity.
As for Lynn Mart, that took its own innovative path, thanks to the creations of Frederick Savage, the brilliant engineer whose cutting-edge steam-driven gallopers and other rides took the ancient fair to new heights from the mid-1860s. The Sanger family renewed its connection with the town in 1880 when William, another of George’s brothers, ordered a steam road locomotive from Savages.
In 1897 came the first display of ‘living pictures’ – the cinematograph – at the mart. Change was on the way again.
The Norfolk News had ended its waspish 1854 report with the words: “On the whole, it is very generally thought that the symptoms of decay are rather more palpable than last year; and that this appendage to the history of the past, will give way before the majesty of public opinion, ere a fresh generation shall pronounce it useless.”
But the obituary of the Mart – and the modern circus it helped bring into being – has been written too many times to be believed just yet.
The newspaper thundered about ‘the return of this vanity fair, with its few advantages and host of evils.’