Facts About the Contribution of the Popular Entertainment Sector to WWI

Olympia, famous for being the site of some of the greatest circuses in the world, including the Paris Hippodrome, directed by the Ginnett family, P.T. Barnum’s Circus and of course Bertram Mills Circus, was used as a German civil prisoners’ camp in the latter part of 1914. Between 1915 and 1918 it was taken over by the War Office and turned into the Royal Army Clothing Department and in 1919, it became a store for the Disposal Board.

Vesta Tillie, the famed male impersonator, was known as ‘Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant’ for her work enlisting men during her shows before the introduction of conscription. Find out more

Pierrot Troupes formed by soldiers became popular entertainment groups in army camps. They fulfilled a dual purpose to raise soldiers’ moral and to collect funds for comrades on the front line. The popularity of the shows triggered the increasing awareness by the authorities of the importance of recreation for the physical and mental health of the troops.

The War Seal Foundation was founded by Sir Oswald Stoll in 1915 as a tribute to all who fought and suffered in the Great War. Its purpose was to erect specially designed homes for disabled service men where they could integrate back to civilian life with their families and receive medical care. The Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation still operates today, committed to the same purpose. Find out more

The Showmen’s Guild Ambulance Appeal was launched in 1916 at Bury Fair to buy ambulances for the Red Cross to help the war effort. Contributions were received from individual showmen and showmen’s societies from all over the country. In January 1917 the Showmen’s Guild presented specially equipped ambulances to the cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, Walsall and Hull.

Showmen at home put their steam engines to good use by working in the timber industry, which supplied raw materials for the British government in desperate need for supplies. The timber gathered helped build airplanes, ships and even dummy soldiers used to fool the German army. Over 800 steam engines belonging to showmen across Britain worked in logging duties between 1914 and 1918. Find out more

Lord John Sanger’s Circus staffing was reduced from 150 members before the war to 5 members after the war.

Charlie Chaplin made ‘The Bond’ in 1918 at his own expense, a film to promote the sale of Liberty Bonds in America. Together with other film stars of the time such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, he made personal appearances, visited the wounded and led rallies to sell war bonds and promote other good causes.

Pat Collins, the President of the Showmen’s Guild during the war, together with his wife and son donated a total of £7,000 (an equivalent to £386,326.78 in today’s money), to the ‘Tank Bank’, a fundraising campaign set up by the British government in 1918, to promote the sale of War Bonds and War Saving Certificates.

Alderman Tuby, fairground showman from Doncaster, contributed £1,000 to the 'Tank Bank' (an equivalent to £54,001.51 in today's money) when battle-scarred tank Egbert, one of six tanks that toured England, Scotland and Wales to raise funds for the war effort, was paraded around Doncaster in April 1918 during Tank Bank Week. These campaigns were a huge success raising a total of £178,000 (an equivalent to £9,612,268.34 in today's money) in this town alone.

The Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain’s contribution to both the First and Second World War is commemorated in November each year during the Remembrance Day Parade in London. Find out more

George Green, Scottish fairground and cinema proprietor arranged benefit shows at all his picture halls to raise funds for the National Relief Fund.

Elizabeth Kayes, found herself forced to take on the role of lion tamer in 1916 in order to keep the family business afloat after her three older sons enlisted in the army.

The Prince of Wales National Relief Fund, by 1915 members of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain had raised between £2,000 and £3,000 pounds for the Prince of Wales Fund, the equivalent to between £195,000 and £293,000 in today’s money.

Fairground showmen in the North East of England were involved in building submarines at Jarrow. It is estimated more than three million tonnes of shipping were built in the yards in this location, the River Wear and other north east yards between 1914 and 1918. The yards also battled to repair damaged vessels and replace the vital cargo ships being preyed on by U-boat warfare.

Over 16 million animals served during the First World War. On the battlefield they were used for transportation, communication, mine searching, pest control and the retrieval of wounded soldiers, while at home they served in factories, forestry and the farming industry amongst others. Additionally, animals continued to fulfil their role as faithful companions providing comfort and raising morale amid the horrors of the war. Trained animals from the entertainment sector were especially desirable due to their unusually tame manner and their willingness to work closely with humans performing extraordinary tasks. Horses, elephants, camels and donkeys were amongst the most sought after animals. Find out more

‘The Kaiser’s Ass’ throwing game was launched in 1914 by the showman and cinema proprietor Edwin Lawrence. As many of the attractions of the time, the intention of this game was to ridicule the enemy. Created by Orton and Spooner, the game consisted of a German fort with a mechanical figure of the Kaiser riding a donkey while being chased by John Bull on the front. The aim was to hit the bull’s eye, to make John Bull kick the Kaiser’s ass and the ass buck causing much hilarity amongst the crowds.

Gertie Gitana, the famed music hall entertainer, was known as ‘The Tommies Favourite Songbird’ and ‘The Forces’ Sweetheart’ during WWI. She often entertained the war wounded in hospitals, performed at charity events and raised funds for disabled servicemen. Some of her songs were very popular among the forces at the Front and could often be heard at war camps sung by the soldiers with their own modified lyrics.

Hetty King, was one of the main male impersonator acts of her time together with Vesta Tillie. Her career spanned both World Wars when she performed in uniform either as a soldier or a sailor drilled with a real rifle. In the First World War she sang patriotic songs as well as "Songs the soldiers sing" which were cleaned-up versions of songs invented and sung by soldiers in the trenches. She also toured France and Belgium entertaining the troops, where she became a great favourite with the lads.

The travelling showmen community raised funds to support the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ free buffet initiative at Victoria Station. The buffet provided free food for soldiers on leave and transit at railways stations around the country. This enterprise served free meals to over 200,000 men supported by donations and volunteers. 

Frederic William Jowett organised one of the first open-air anti-war speeches in the country. Jowett was the Labour M.P. for Bradford, who like many socialists of the time, opposed Britain's involvement in the war. He targeted his audience at Mannigham Fair, an historically industrial workers’ area of Bradford, where he addressed his audience from Brose Harvey’s tattooed lady show front on Sunday 2nd August 1914. Throughout the war, Jowett supported those who resisted conscription, and demanded heavy taxation on wartime profits. In the 1918 general election all Labour MPs who opposed the war, including Jowett, lost their seats.

Edward Henry Bostock’s Zoo building in Glasgow was commandeered by the armed forces for billeting purposes on 19th August 1914 to accommodate the overflow of troops from Girvan. Bostock had over 1,000 beds built out of paillasses and straw in 3 days to ensure soldiers didn’t have to sleep on the floor. The zoo was later also used as a hangar for war planes until October 1917.

John Swallow, equestrian performer, specialised in Wild West shows, gave all his horses circus to military service. Additionally, he worked for the army breaking and training horses and riders.

Sarraqua, a Native American performer of the Blackfoot tribe, renowned for his feats of strength, donated all the proceeds of the sales of his promotional photographs after his appearance at Inverkeithing Theatre in 1914, to the Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund.