New film celebrates high flying circus women

  • Women in the circus community celebrated in new film for International Women’s Day
  • Ten fascinating facts about circus women also published as part of celebrations
  • Film presents an extraordinary cast of historic and contemporary women from 19th century tightrope walkers to today’s ringmistresses

A new film celebrating women in the circus community is being released this week (8 March 2018) for International Women’s Day.

The film, produced by Circus250, presents an extraordinary cast of historic and contemporary women, from 19th century tightrope walkers to today’s ringmistresses.

It features the most daring Yasmine Smart, the most astonishing Nell Gifford, the most talented Rebecca Truman, the most clever Dr Dea Birkett and the one and only Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Professor of Film and Popular Entertainment at the University of Sheffield.

As part of the celebrations for International Women’s Day, Circus250 has published 10 fascinating facts about women in circus:

  • A 14 year old girl called Zazel became the first ever Human Cannonball in the circus community on 10 April 1877.
  • The first female ringmaster in the UK was Yasmine Smart, granddaughter of the renowned circus owner Billy Smart. There are now many female ringmasters, including Nell Gifford who founded her own Gifford’s Circus.
  • The art of the Strong Woman is enjoying a revival in circus with contemporary acts switching from lifting weights to lifting men.
  • The first circus in central London was led by the founder of modern circus Philip Astley. His wife Patty performed alongside him. A talented trick rider, her speciality act was riding around the ring smothered in a swarm of bees.
  • There are now many women-led circus companies working in the UK, including Upswing, Mimbre and Crying Out Loud.
  • Women make up the majority of circus performers in the UK, however there is a shortage of female clowns.
  • Britain’s biggest circus school, The National Centre for Circus Arts, is led by a woman. But female circus directors are still rare.
  • ‘Dona’ is ‘woman’ in Polari – the language traditionally spoken in the circus community.
  • Degas’s famous 1879 painting Miss LaLa at the Cirque Fernando depicts real life 19th century circus artiste Miss LaLa, a black French woman.
  • The three Cottle sisters – Sarah, April, and Polly – set up Cottle Sisters Circus and continue to tour with their father, circus impresario Gerry Cottle.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, who founded the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield and is also delivering a talk on women in circus at Bradford Museums and Galleries on Saturday 10 March 2018, said: “I’m proud to be part of a community that has so many examples of inspirational women. This new film, together with the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of circus, is shining a light on some of the most high flying women from the circus community. They show that circus women have always been powerful – physically, emotionally and financially.”

The National Fairground and Circus Archive (NFCA) was born out of the PhD research and lifetime commitment and passion of Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Director of the NFCA from its inception until 2016. The Archive is part of the Special Collections and Archive Division of the University of Sheffield Library.

The collection embodies the history of popular entertainment in the United Kingdom from the seventeenth century onwards, covering every aspect of the travelling fair, circus and allied entertainments as well as the culture, business and life of travelling showpeople. The NFCA provides a primary source of research and teaching material to a wealth of popular culture and history from the unique view point of the travelling entertainment industry.

The Archive collects material from the fairground, circus and the allied industries that found a place in the early travelling fair, including early film, circus, sideshows, magic, boxing, variety and amusement parks, until they developed into their own distinctive form of entertainment.

Circus250, which is also co-ordinating more than 200 events throughout the UK to celebrate the 250th anniversary of circus, has launched a social media campaign that enables people to access images and stories from women in the circus community. To follow the campaign, search #WomeninCircus #Circus250 and #IWD2018 on social media.

For more information and tickets for the Women in Circus talk at Bradford Museums and Galleries, visit:

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

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For further information please contact:

Sean Barton
Junior Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852