The Blackpool Tower Circus

The Blackpool Tower Circus first opened on the 14th May 1894. By the nineteenth century circuses in Britain were one of the main forms of entertainment and they were growing increasingly popular around Europe, Australia and the United States. 125 years later, the Blackpool Tower Circus has not missed a single season since it first opened. The Tower Circus is also one of two Victorian circuses which are still in use today in the United Kingdom. The being the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome which was constructed in 1903.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, a wide variety of acts were incorporated into circuses. Equestrian acts remained a central part of the circus and numerous wild animals from around the world began to entertain audiences. Clowns were becoming more significant as features within the circus and soon they were able to have their own comedy acts. Soon, aerial acts, such as the trapeze, were also incorporated into the programmes in Britain and soon the acts were becoming complex. This resulted in larger audiences and a growing popularity of circuses. It is in this context that the Blackpool Tower Circus emerged and became successful.

The Interior Design

Blackpool Tower Circus

The Blackpool Tower Circus is a permanent circus and is situated between the legs of the Tower. Originally, the interior of Blackpool Tower Circus was heavily influenced by Oriental-Styles, which were popular within the nineteenth century. Japanese art was regarded as unique and 'quaint' during the Victorian period. The ideas surrounding Japan were often constructed based on the artefacts which were being brought and displayed in Europe.

The interest in the East and Japan can be observed within the Blackpool Tower Circus because the interior had Japanese landscapes on painted canvases, oriental lanterns and the attendants would wear kimonos. There was additionally a Chinatown built within the Tower in 1904 and later renamed in 1907 as the Oriental Village and Old China Tea House. This was designed by the architect Frank Matcham (1845-1920) and presented the trend of Eastern styles in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Frank Matcham would also redesign the Circus by 1900. The new design created the feeling of luxury with red and white Italian marble walls and floors and a vaulted ceiling with lavish patterns. There was a promenade created around the top of the circus with Spanish tiles decorating the walls and a new box for the band to be seated in. This new design made the interior radiate with opulence, especially with the dark red drapery and the gold colours which illuminated the room. However, the new décor did not detract from the familiarity of the building and the sense of comfort, because there were 1,700 seats which are at the most 80 feet away. The close proximity of the seats to the centre stage allowed for a level of intimacy with the acts and gave an ideal view of the performances.

This change in décor was partially instigated due to the new competition that the Blackpool Tower Company faced from the nearby Alhambra which was opened in 1899. The Alhambra was intended to rival the Blackpool Tower and offered a similar variety of entertainments including a circus which could house up to 2,500 people. The complex also had a large theatre and a wax-works exhibition. However, despite all the cost which had gone into creating the Alhambra, it ultimately failed and was purchased by the Blackpool Tower Company in 1904.

Aquatic Shows

One of the most unique features of the Blackpool Tower Circus is the hydraulic sinking ring which has impressed audiences for 125 years. This sinking ring is only one of four which are still in use in Europe today. This popularity of the Aquatic shows can be observed through the original title of the Blackpool Tower Circus which advertised itself as a ‘Aquatic and Variety Circus’.

The Aquatic shows were often performed as part of the finale and were the highlights of the show. The circus ring is slowly lowered just under 6ft and it fills up with 40,000 gallons of water in less than 2 minutes. The entire scene is a spectacle and each time it would have left a long-lasting impression on the audience. Throughout the years, there have been many themes for the Aquatic shows with titles such as: the ‘Enchanted Cascade’ in 1931, ‘Venetian Nights with the Balzer Sisters & Winston Water Nymphs Vocalist’ in 1933, ‘The Fountains of Versailles’ in the summer 1940 and “Silver Lagoon” in 1948.

One of the more notable Aquatic acts is ‘Arabian Nights’ which was performed in 1936. This act was the creation of Clement Butson who had joined the Tower Company in 1928 and was responsible for staging all the circuses from the period of 1936-1947. ‘Arabian Nights’ was a dazzling spectacle with a large mosque situated on a staircase which no longer survives. There was also a cast of 50 performers who all wore Eastern costumes and the ringmaster, George Lockhart (1883-1979) dressed as the Caliph. Additionally, there was the inclusion of the clowns, with the notable clown named Doodles (1877-1949).

Other Acts

Throughout the 125 years of the Blackpool Tower Circus, there were a variety of acts from around the world which were housed in Blackpool, entertaining and amazing audiences. Animal acts remained central to the Circus until 1991 when they were used for the last time. Clowns and Ringmasters have remained as key aspects of the Circus to this day and some have even gained international fame. In the earlier days of the Circus ‘Midget acts’ endured a lasting popularity within the Blackpool Tower which constructed a ‘Midget Town’. These 'Midget acts' lasted a number of years and a variety of companies visited throughout the years including; The Colibris in 1899 and Willy Pantzer’s 8 acrobatic midgets in 1925. Furthermore, there was a selection of acts including the areal acts of the 'Flying Codonas', High Wire acts, jugglers such as the famous W. C Fields (1880-1946) and trampoline acts.