Bertram Mills: The Quality Show

Bertram MillsBertram Wagstaff Mills was born in London on 11 August 1873, the son of Halford Lewis Mills of Smarden, the proprietor of a coach building firm and funerary company. Bertram Mills joined the family business as a carriage builder and only became involved in the circus through a wager of £100 he made in 1919 with Sir Gilbert Greenhall, a fellow coaching enthusiast, to put on a first-class circus after watching what was, in his eyes, a very disappointing show at Olympia. Mills has originally planned to win the wager by engaging Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey to come to London for the 1920/21 season, but cancellation of the contract resulted in Mills deciding to put on his own show.

He rose to the challenge and the following year he presented a circus which became an annual highlight for London audiences and introduced world-class performers to the British public. From 1930 until 1964, along with the annual shows at Olympia, the Bertram Mills Circus toured the country under the management of his sons Cyril and Bernard. Following the principles of the excellent production and performance standards set by the Olympia shows, 'The Mills Circus,' said Bertram Mills, 'will perform like professionals and live like gentlemen.'
After approximately nine years of exhibiting in London, he created a tenting show which was said to have cost £40,000 to launch and £2,500 to run weekly. With the crème de la crème of circus performers forming part of his touring repertoire, regional audiences thrilled to some of the leading artists of the day appearing in the specially designed German big top which travelled to their towns by rail, the first British showman to do so.

Bertram Mills' status as an innovator and re-invigorator of the circus was heralded on both sides of the Channel. He selected only the best and most polished performers in the world. One of his major impacts as a producer was his ruthless ability to select the best five minutes of a twenty minute act. Circus historian Don Stacey lists these as part of Mills' five principles, the others being the ability to attract and convert influential people to the cause of the circus, using individual acts to promote as the star of the show (his treatment of Koringa being a case in point) and finally, his skill in using publicity and marketing for the benefit of the show. As one contemporary commentator observed, 'It is not an exaggeration to say that he brought back the circus to England at a time when it seemed that it was about to quietly expire, killed by the War and mechanical entertainment'.

Mills believed in attracting and encouraging the attentions of the great and the good. Following on from a tradition laid out in the nineteenth century when circus was patronised greatly by the Royal Family, he aimed to make the Quality Show part of the Establishment. From 1926 onwards, following a visit by the then Prince of Wales, the association between the Bertram Mills Circus and the royal family resulted in over sixty visits to the shows during its time in Olympia and other venues.

Bertram Mills became President of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain in 1935, only the second circus showmen to hold such a position and the first and only time in its history that the position was occupied by someone not born into the business. He proved to be a successful and capable president, often travelling thousands of miles on Guild business, including attending the First International Showmen's Congress in Paris in 1937. Mills died at the age of sixty-four of cardiac syncope and bronchial pneumonia at his home, Pollards Wood, Chalfont St Giles, on 16 April 1938. His death provoked heart-felt tributes to Britain's No. 1 Showman and King of the Circus. The legacy he built was second to none. The principals that were laid down by the Quality Show with its attention to detail, model professionalism and quality of acts would be continued by both his sons and provided a template for the industry to follow.

This article has been translated into Czech and Swedish. Please notice that all translations have been provided voluntarily by external bodies and the National Fairground and Circus Archive cannot take responsibility for their accuracy.