"Lord" George Sanger: Fit for a Queen
"Lord" George Sanger was the man who brought the flair and showmanship of the fairground to the circus and made it part of mass entertainment culture. His presentations of touring circus were based in part on the success of Howe's and Cushing's Great American Circus in that he toured it to towns and villages throughout the country. Born in Newbury in 1825, Sanger's early life was spent on the British fairgrounds, working with his father's peep show and selling lettered rock. In 1848 with his brother John he bought some canaries and mice and trained them for exhibition. He married Ellen Chapman, the lion tamer 'Madame Pauline De Vere', daughter of Harry Chapman, in Sheffield on 1 December 1850, marrying into, in his words, circus aristocracy.
Sanger started his circus in a small way, with his brother John, on 14 February 1854, at the King's Lynn Charter Fair, with the performers being family friends and two nieces. Tickets were a penny a time, and 3d. for reserved seats. During the next six years he toured the United Kingdom, playing Liverpool, Bury, Bradford and Aberdeen.
By 1858 he had added six lions and then elephants to the show which proved to be a big draw. Sanger's claims that he originated the three ring circus at Plymouth in 1860 have been challenged by circus historians, but it was certainly true that by this date his company boasted 'The Largest Stud of Horses in Europe'. Reputedly Sanger's Circus visited over two hundred towns in a nine month season, giving two shows a day, every day except Sunday. The road train between sites was said to be two miles long and had (according to another proprietor, Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake) 'at least ten wagons to carry the tent and seating, a lamp wagon, eight or ten living carriages, a foal wagon, ten wild beast wagons full of lions, tigers, bears and others, a harness wagon, a portable blacksmith's forge, property wagons, wardrobe and dressing wagons, a band carriage and at least six great tableau cars for the parade.'
From 1874 Sanger also presented tenting shows on the Continent for fifteen seasons. In 1895, a typical year, he travelled with 160 horses, eleven elephants, a dozen camels and about 330 people. Sanger claimed that his huge success on the Continent was due to the variety of the programme, as other circuses were dominated by equestrian acts in permanent buildings. Sanger's shows presented novelty, wild animals and mass entertainment to the general public and by 1871 his fame and fortune was such that he acquired perhaps the most glorious circus venue of all, Astley's Amphitheatre, which he continued to run (with his brother John) until 1893.
During his extensive and impressive career as a circus proprietor Sanger presented two Royal performances before Queen Victoria, the first at Sandringham on 8 January 1885 and the second at Balmoral Castle on 17 June 1898. His beloved wife Ellen died in 1899 and by 1905 he had retired to East Finchley. His circus and effects were auctioned off by showman Tom Norman.
Sanger never forgot his fairground roots and was elected the first President of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain, a post he held from 1890 until 1909, when he was succeeded by Pat Collins. His autobiography was first serialised in Lloyd's Weekly, titled Seventy Years a Showman. It concentrates largely on the later part of his life but contains dramatic and heart-breaking accounts of the ups and downs of life on the road. As George so eloquently writes:
A showman's life, my friends, is not all glory. Beneath the glitter and the tinsel is many a heartache. The open road is often strewn with thorns...
Less than a year after the publication of Seventy Years a Showman on 28 November 1911, "Lord" George Sanger was murdered at Park Farm by one of his employees, Herbert Charles Cooper, who attacked him with a hatchet for reasons that were unclear and then committed suicide. Sanger's death was greeted with shock by the circus and fairground establishment and his funeral was covered widely by the press and attended by many thousands of people, with special trains laid on for the occasion of his burial in Margate.