Roll up! Roll up! For all the fun of the fair!

Monday 3 February 2020

Maia Sheridan, our Manuscripts Archivist, discovers our very own ‘Greatest Showman’ in one of our archive collections. 

Sometimes fun things happen in the archives. While looking through slightly dull accounts relating to one of the farms in the Douglas of Grangemuir papers (ms38603), my eye was drawn to some faint colour in a pile of folded receipts, which are usually uniformly beige.

Douglas of Grangemuir papers (ms38603)

I investigated further, finding that it was dye leaching through from the other side of the paper, and unfolded it to discover:

Poster for “Bostock & Wombwell’s Gigantic Double Menagerie and Circus of Startling Artists” (ms38603/M28/7)

Circus!! “Bostock & Wombwell’s Gigantic Double Menagerie and Circus of Startling Artists” leapt off the paper.

Imagine all the excitement of the Big Top with its animal tamers and clowns and daredevil acrobats coming to the Corn Exchange in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh? How amazing that must have seemed to the children of the area, and the adults too. The poster mentions lions, tigers, bears, wolves, hyenas and leopards, part of the usual B&W travelling menagerie. But this extravaganza was to be supplemented by leading circus performers, advertising Clowns, Acrobats, Vaulters, Wire Walkers, Equilibrists, Benders, Trapeze Artistes and Samsonian Marvels.

The travelling menagerie was a common phenomenon in 19th century Britain. This one was founded by George Wombwell in 1810, and the Bostocks later married in. They toured all over Britain and even abroad with their host of animals. When it was taken over by Edward H Bostock in the 1880s, he brought in the idea of combining menagerie with circus, leading to our Edinburgh Extravaganza.

The Circus was in town over Christmas and New Year but the poster doesn’t give a year. The Cornish Cornishman on 1st June 1893 mentions the performance of the Bostock & Wombwell Circus including both the animal trainer Darlino and Captain Rowley, as advertised on our poster. Then I found a postcard online which says that the circus was in Edinburgh at Christmas 1891. Both dates would fit well with the bundle of accounts where I found it, which is concerned with a dispute over Crown duties liable from the estate of Grangemuir in the years 1892-1893. Normally this kind of ephemera would not survive, and a quick online trawl did not reveal any examples of the same poster. Fortunately for us this found another purpose in the Grangemuir household, since the back of the poster was used for jottings and rough calculations, which has preserved it for future generations to enjoy.

Reverse of the poster

Grangemuir House and estate is just north of Pittenweem in the East Neuk of Fife. It was bought by Walter Irvine and inherited by his daughter Elizabeth. She married into the Douglas family when she married Lord William Robert Keith Douglas (1783-1859), younger brother of the Marquess of Queensbury, in 1824. The family built Dunino Church of Scotland and Dunino primary school, and endowed the Douglas Cottage Hospital in St Andrews. We hold various family papers, including titles, writs and plans relating to lands at Balhouffie, Grangemuir East and West, Brunton, Clephanton, Pitkerie, Innergellie, Barnsmuir, Dunino, Kingsmuir and Balkathlie, dating from the 17th century onwards.

There is more information on travelling menageries and more images of postcards and posters here:

Maia Sheridan
Manuscripts Archivist

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2 thoughts on "Roll up! Roll up! For all the fun of the fair!"

  • Elisabeth
    Monday 3 February 2020, 4.51pm

    How very interesting. And great detective work to establish the date

  • juliamelvin1
    Monday 3 February 2020, 9.05pm

    Dear Maia How colourful! To add to that my mother (born 1911) can remember a dancing bear being brought to St Andrews!


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