Roll up, roll up! Barnum and Bailey’s Circus was in town

Huge crowds watched the circus as it passed through High Street East.
Huge crowds watched the circus as it passed through High Street East.
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Imagine a scene in Sunderland which happened 120 years ago in front of tens of thousands of people.

The fact that we can re-live it is down to Sunderland Antiquarian Society and another of its recent donations.

The massive parade passes the Seamen's Mission.

The massive parade passes the Seamen's Mission.

This one concerned photographic glass slides and they showed the time that the circus came to town.

And it was not just any circus. It was a circus with the name Barnum behind it.

Historian and society member Norman Kirtlan explained more.

“The treasures that people find in their attics never fails to amaze me,” said Norman Kirtlan.

A scene which is quite rightly now banned, as the crowd surround one of the circus' lions in a cage.

A scene which is quite rightly now banned, as the crowd surround one of the circus' lions in a cage.

A recent donation of photographic glass slides to the Sunderland Antiquarian Society has opened up an insight into one of the most exciting days in Sunderland’s Victorian history.

On July 31, 1899, the Greatest Show on Earth finally arrived in Sunderland, after playing to packed-out audiences on Newcastle’s Town Moor.

Travelling overnight in its own specially designed train, Barnum and Bailey’s Circus pulled into Monkwearmouth Station.

Once it had arrived, hundreds of workers set about transferring animals and equipment onto horse-drawn wagons in preparation for the great parade.

Norman told us: “The performers were housed in state-of-the-art sleeping cars where they could retire during the day to rest between performances.”

When the parade did finally get under way, it was headed by a musical band car which was drawn by a 40-horse team.

Norman added: “At ten o’clock that day, the Procession set off through the main streets of town, arriving in High Street East by mid-day. A local photographer was at hand to snap some of the caged animals in the procession and indeed the excitement of the thousands who gathered along the route.”

The procession contained lions, giraffes, tigers, elephants and Johanna, the largest captive gorilla on the planet.

Norman said: “Attendants warned the many boys who were present not to ‘push things through the bars of the lion’s cage lest they lost a hand or two’.

“Needless to say, the boys took no notice and found great sport in tormenting the poor beasts.”

But the animals were not the only attractions of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

“Along with the animals there were many circus acrobats and performers including “The human freaks,” said Norman.

That, he said, was “a term that we would find highly offensive today but which at the time was perfectly acceptable.

“The group included the woman with moss green hair, the human skeleton dude, the elastic skinned man and of course, the bearded woman.”

It was a massively popular occasion and the people of Sunderland came out in their droves to see it.

“An enormous marquee was erected at Roker where daily performances took place to packed houses of 15,000 people. At a cost of £1,500 per day to run, Barnum and Bailey’s found that an individual charge of three shillings (15p) per person admirably covered their costs,” said Norman.

Some of the glass slides show the moment when the procession made its way along the streets of the old East End.

It was said to be a chance for those who could not afford the entrance fee to – at the very least – get to join in the excitement.

“It was to be a moment that those present would never forget,” Norman added.

Sunderland Antiquarian Society was founded on November 21, 1899, and held its first meeting on February 1, 1900. It is based at 6 Douro Terrace.

It encourages interest in the history of Sunderland and its region.

The Society holds extensive archives which have been amassed and donated over the past century by the people of Sunderland and these are available to members and visitors.

However, for those who would like to get more involved, membership is open to all.

To find out more about the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, people can visit its base which is in Douro Terrace, and is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays between 9.30am and noon.

People can also visit the society’s website at