Roll up, roll up! As anyone from Manchester knows, if you want to see freaks, clowns and death-defying stunts, a Friday night at Piccadilly Gardens is probably your best bet. However, in the 1850s the real entertainment could be found just around the corner on Portland Street.
“The circus in Portland-street has within the last few days been re-opened, with a “monster” company and stud. Messrs. Howes and Cushing, of the United States Circus and Mr. William Cooke of Astley’s Ampitheatre, London, seem to have arranged to visit this city at the same time; and, judging from the advertisements … they resolved to perform together in the large wooden tent in Portland-street, trusting to the pecuniary results which such a combination was likely to afford, by drawing crowded houses.
“[T]he performers are so numerous that they could not all appear during one performance, unless it were to occupy something like an entire day. Each of the establishments seems to be so rich in clowns that a fresh one can be found for each act.”
Like most circuses of the time, the Portland Street carnival involved numerous equestrian stunts and events. Moreover, in scenes not entirely dissimilar to a Wetherspoons’ smoking area, the Guardian tells us that there was also “tightrope dancing”, a “scarf act” and a gentleman “of the stilts.”
“The alliance entered into by England and America at the monster circus … has received unmistakable marks of public approbation, and crowded houses assemble morning and evening to witness the laudable emulation between the representatives of the union jack and of the stars and stripes. The royal nuptials on Monday appeared to incline most of Her Majesty’s “lieges” to festivity, and a large number of visitors resorted to the united circus to enjoy the clever performances there provided for public gratification.”
On the same day that the above article appeared, however, the circus closed “somewhat unexpectedly” 3, before moving across the Pennines to Leeds.
Of course, you’re more likely to see a high-rise than a big top in Manchester city centre these days. But if you ever should roll up to Piccadilly, be sure to call for a pint at a tiny little Portland Street pub – The Circus Tavern.
This article originally appeared on Neil Harrison’s blog LooseRiver. Neil is Editor-in-Chief of the MMU Student Press Office. He is studying History and is an expert juggler. Follow him on Twitter @LooseRiver