1859; William Cooke’s Great National Circus Equestrian & Zoological Establishment Arrives in Weymouth.

One of my childhood memories was visiting the annual circus that came to town.

I know nowadays that using performing animals is not politically correct, rightly so, but as a child in the 50’s people never considered that darker side of circus life.

Excitement would bubble up in my chest as we were walking down towards Lodmoor where they often pitched their site, streams of people would be making their way down Dorchester Road towards the music that could be heard on the early evening air. Your first sighting of that gaudily coloured tent, pennants flying in the breeze. As you got closer, the smell of the animals… you knew you were in for an exciting, if not sometimes, scary evening.

Entering the heavy flaps of the tent, and climbing what seemed very rickety steps up onto the wooden circular bench seats perched high above the ground, well, as a small child they seemed high!

Now the wait…!

Circuses have been around for centuries, regularly touring the country and  abroad, entertaining the masses with exciting acts of daring and skill.

William Cooke's equestrian 1859

In July of 1859 Mr William Cooke’s Equestrian Entertainment arrived in Weymouth.


Crowds had gathered to watch the colourful procession as it entered the town, great fun was to be had, children gazed in awe as the circus carriages rumbled past on their way to Lodmoor.

First act through the curtains was mighty Ajax, the performing elephant, doing seemingly impossible tricks and movements that defied his immense size. His trainer, crop in hand, his voice commanding this intelligent levanthian quadruped from the centre.

William Cooks circus Ajax and Salamander warhorse

Things were about to get even more exciting, as next into the ring raced a troop of gleaming horses, perched on top were the beautiful ladies who pirouetted, and jumped as easily on their backs as if they were on solid ground, the bare-back riders drew gasps of astonishment at their amazingly agile acrobatics.

They knew no fear as they galloped around the ring .


Next came dashing Mr Pearson, who in his brightly spangled tight suit performed the most incredible acrobatics… thrilling the audience with his twists and turns, leaps and  rolls. His lithe body bending in the most unnatural ways as he contorted himself across the arena from one side to the other.

Bringing light relief and laughter into the mood of the audience, in through the entrance flaps tumbled the performing dogs and monkeys…the little dogs elegantly dressed in the fashions of the day, crinolines, while the monkeys resembled midget footmen complete with ruffles and velvet suits. Their antics encouraging the onlookers to cheer for more as they performed their tricks. Monkeys balancing on their heads on top of poles, dogs on two feet pushing prams….was there no end to their skills?

Then came the grand highlight of the show….with a roll of drums, and the lights dimmed, in through the entrance strode the ultimate star, Salamader, the powerful and much celebrated war-horse. Majestic in his performance, his long silken mane and tail flowed like water as he galloped around and around.

At the end of his performance he moved gracefully to the centre of the ring where he stood stock still, head raised in defiance as fireworks exploded all around him…he had been in battle, knew no fear.

What a star.

By the end of the week, all that was left to remind people of the amazing sights they had witnessed were faint wheel ruts in the ground and pieces of straw blowing away in the breeze, as transient as the circus.



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