In the very early hours of Monday morning 7th November 1898 four long trains made their way slowly through Wolverhampton's Low Level Station and headed for the sidings at Dunstall. Each train consisted of up to fifteen coaches or wagons and was hauled by three locomotives. The journey was a short one - they had only set out from Dudley - but nevertheless the passage of these three trains was part of an epic event: Barnum & Bailey's huge American Circus was coming to Wolverhampton.
Superintendent Murphy of the Great Western Railway, and his assistants, awaited the arrival of the trains, knowing that at 5.00 am disembarkation and unloading had to start. The trains had to arrive in the correct sequence and be placed in the appropriate sidings. Over three hundred circus artistes were asleep in the sleeping cars and they had to remain undisturbed while the wagons, containing the twelve circus tents and seating, were unloaded as soon as the carts were taken off the flat wagons. The circus travelled its own fleet of carts for transporting everything from the railway sidings to the ground on which the circus was going to be built up. The company's "teamsters" used two hundred and forty draught horses to haul the forty carts. Every part of the operation was vast and complex.
Barnum & Bailey's tour of Great Britain in 1898 was organised like a huge military operation and the circus swept through the country, staying only one or two days at each location. The shows - two per day - were no sooner over than the whole operation was mobilised again - the tents were pulled down while the artistes ate their supper. The entire show was transported by road to the nearest railway goods yard and the trains made their way to the next town. By the time the artistes were taken to the new ground the canteen tent was producing breakfasts and the grooms were at work in the stable-tents preparing the animals for the next shows. It wasn't just a matter of moving over eight hundred people and the circus equipment - the menagerie was larger than anything seen in Britain before or since.
Travelling with Barnum & Bailey's show were four hundred horses, twenty elephants, camels, zebras, lions, Johanna the Giant Gorilla and "thousands of tons of curious creatures and creations". Wolverhampton had been visited by many famous Victorian circuses and menageries but had never seen anything on this scale. They had approached Wolverhampton from Worcester, Kidderminster, two days in Dudley - one of which had been a Sunday rest day - and now had come to the Dunstall Racecourse for just two days before heading for Shrewsbury.
By 6.30. am the racecourse was a hive of activity. Tents had been erected containing kitchens and dressing rooms. The carpenters and blacksmiths had started work in their tents, and the stabling for the animals was still in the course of being built up. In Wolverhampton it was vital to have the animals quickly transferred to the Racecourse because the Circus Parade was going to take place from the showground rather than from the Railway sidings. The parade was planned to depart from Gorsebrook Road at 9.00 am and was going to take an hour and a half to make a tour of Wolverhampton's town centre after traversing Stafford Road/Stafford Street. The parade itself was nearly a mile in length and took twenty minutes to pass one spot. Once back at the racecourse the animals and staff had to be ready to open the doors to the public by 12.30.pm.
Although the first show of the day did not start until 2.00 pm there was plenty to see before the show began so visitors were advised to come early. Not only were the animals ready to be inspected but there was a huge number of human "freaks" to be seen as well - giants, midgets, bearded ladies, dog-faced boys, living skeletons etc. - armless wonders, fire and sword swallowers, jugglers, whirling Dervishes and two Sudanese ladies in exotic costume. There were no inhibitions about what was "politically correct" and the public were blatantly asked to exercise their curiosity. No complaints were made. And nobody on the circus complained of exploitation. In fact the opposite was the case as the freaks explained to the local paper that they enjoyed a eight hour day, good food and all the support services of their travelling organisation. As soon as the second show started at 8 pm their day was over and they became the advance guard making their way back to the trains.
The show itself was presented in the style adopted by American circuses - in other words the show was presented in three rings and two stages simultaneously, interspersed with equestrian acts that took over the entire performing space. One of these used seventy horses appearing at the same time and another took the form of races - including races between horses and whippets! The show lasted an hour and a half but of course visitors could spend an additional hour looking round the menagerie and freak show before the circus show and, in addition, could spend some time afterwards in the main tent where a "Grand Vaudeville Entertainment" was presented for those willing to part with another sixpence!
Wulfrunians had been notified of Barnum & Bailey's impending visit for some time and the advance billers had flooded the town with brightly coloured posters and had left small handbills in local shops. Tickets were sold in advance from Allen's Piano Shop at 63 Queen Street and cost between 4/- (20p) and 7/6d (37p). Cheaper tickets were available on the day - the cheapest seat being 1/- (5p). These prices were high compared to other admission prices at local theatres or travelling shows but the scale of the show provided had to be taken into account. Barnum & Bailey's Show claimed to be spending £1500 per day in running costs and informed patrons that the equipment used reflected an £800,000 investment.
The local press does not record how well Barnum & Bailey's Show was supported in Wolverhampton. Instead it comments on the smooth running of the vast organisation. However, the organisers obviously had high expectations regarding Wolverhampton's support as it was one of the few Midlands towns where the show bothered to stay for two days - presenting four shows with accommodation for nearly 15000 at each show. The show could therefore be seen by about 60,000 people over the two days - or two thirds of the total population of Wolverhampton at that time. If your great grandparents were living in Wolverhampton in 1898 it seems likely that they went to see "The Greatest Show on Earth". Maybe they paid two old pennies for the souvenir programme or kept their ticket as a memento. Perhaps someone in Wolverhampton has a surviving sample of a handbill or placard. If not, it seems that the show went on its way to Shrewsbury, in the early hours of 9th November, without leaving a trace of its visit to Wolverhampton.