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Circus at 250: The wild history of Chipperfield’s Circus, the UK’s greatest big-top show

Detail from 1964 poster
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As a book of classic posters from the golden age of British circus nears publication, Douglas McPherson looks back at the family-run operation that thrilled audiences with its daredevil acts and spectacular menagerie

One of Tommy Chipperfield’s earliest memories is being woken up in the night by having a bear cub shoved into bed with him. Such was life growing up in Britain’s – and Europe’s – biggest circus in the middle of the last century.

“I can remember looking out of the caravan window and the ground would be overrun with the public,” Chipperfield says. “There would be thousands and thousands of people. We weren’t allowed to go out in case we got lost among all the people.”

1948 poster

Before long, he was part of the show. “We used to have big Popeye and Mickey Mouse heads you’d put on then walk around the ring waving to the audience. I would have been five or six years old.”

According to Steven B Richley, whose book The Posters of Chipperfield’s Circus will be published later this year, Britain’s three biggest circuses – Billy Smart’s, Bertram Mills and Chipperfield’s – each had a distinctive flavour, and Chipperfield’s was known as the animal show.

“It was nearly all animals,” says Chipperfield, who went on to become a tiger trainer. “Of course, there were the speciality acts: the high wire and flying trapeze. But we were known for the animals. When I was a kid, I remember three wild animal acts opened the show: the polar bears, the black bears, the tigers or leopards and the lions. Then you’d have about three horse acts, sea lions, chimps, alligators, dogs, camels and zebras – everything you can imagine.”

The name Chipperfield has been associated with animal training since James Chipperfield exhibited his menagerie, including a dancing bear, at the frost fair on the frozen Thames in 1684. Little is known about the 17th-century showman or his immediate descendants. The family behind the 20th-century Chipperfield’s Circus can, however, trace a continuous lineage to another James William Chipperfield, a bootmaker born in 1775, who made theatrical costumes in London’s Drury Lane.

During the summer, James William and his wife Mary Ann toured with travelling fairs and put on a show involving dancing bears, monkeys and trained pigs.

James William passed the show down to his son, James William Jr, grandson James William III and great-grandson James Francis – all circus families seem to share the tradition of passing the same first name down through the generations.

The Chipperfield shows in the Victorian era were more fairground sideshows than circuses, although the first reference to a Chipperfield’s Circus appeared on a poster from 1856, which boasted an appearance before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.

1955 poster

The attractions in that period included Britain’s youngest tightrope walker (James William III’s 10-year-old daughter Harriet), Zulu and Aztec performers and Robert Tipney, who was billed as the “Living Skeleton” and weighed just 49lb.

In the early 1900s, the family show passed to James Francis’ son Richard Chipperfield, who added a bioscope – a travelling cinema – to the attractions and showed six films each day.

Richard’s children presided over the rise of Chipperfield’s Circus to become Britain’s largest big-top show during the golden age of circus popularity in the middle of the 20th century.

The eldest, Dick Chipperfield, directed the show and created some of the circus’ most famous acts including Zira the Girl Who Swims With Crocodiles and Fantasy of the Bulls. Margery was in charge of costumes and Johnny managed the animals. Much of the family’s drive, however, came from Jimmy, who ran the business.

Jimmy Chipperfield began his career as a bear-wrestler before flying fighter planes in the Second World War.

In his autobiography My Wild Life, he said of returning to civvy street: “I was determined not just that we should revive the show, but that we should make it one of the biggest and best circuses in the country.”

Tommy Chipperfield, his nephew, says: “What my Uncle Jim wanted, he went for. There were no maybes. You just kept going until you got it.

“Uncle Dick was more give and take. Dick was working with the animals a lot more as well – with lions mostly. The old-fashioned way: loud, with a lot of whip-cracking, which is just noise. But you couldn’t do it like that these days, because people would get the wrong impression.”

By the mid-1950s, Chipperfield’s was the UK’s largest show, with a big-top that held an audience of 6,000.

“It was an eight-pole tent with about 17 rows of tiered seating,” recalls Tommy. “In front of that were two or three rows of boxes, then a track for the animal parades. In about 1953, they held chariot racing inside the tent.”

South African tour poster from 1964

When the rival Billy Smart’s New World Circus became a staple of Christmas and Easter television on the BBC, Chipperfield’s competed with them on ITV.

Billy Smart’s granddaughter Yasmine says: “They had their audience and we had ours. Chipperfield’s were the wild ones, a little bit.”

In 1955, Jimmy Chipperfield left the family circus and partnered with various stately home owners to pioneer the drive-through safari park at locations including Longleat, Windsor, Woburn and Knowsley. He also founded Southampton and Plymouth Zoos and provided trained animals for films.

By the 1960s, a shrinking market could no longer sustain such a big show and Chipperfield’s decamped to South Africa in 1964, where it toured for three years. The circus has also toured Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. In Britain, however, it struggled to adapt to a changed market for smaller shows.

Chipperfield’s Circus last toured the UK under the ownership of the Chipperfield family in 1981, although the name was rented during the 1990s by showman Tony Hopkins. Various family members also toured their own shows including Dick’s daughter, who formed Sally Chipperfield’s Circus, Jimmy’s daughter, who launched Mary Chipperfield’s Circus, and Johnny’s sons Charles and Tommy, who toured Chipperfield Brothers’ Circus.

Since 2010, the family flag has been carried by the Charles Chipperfield Circus. In keeping with changing times, it’s an all-human show with no animal acts.

The spirit of Britain’s biggest animal circus lives on, however, in Jimmy Chipperfield’s great-nephew Thomas Chipperfield – nicknamed the ‘Last Lion Tamer’ – who plans to tour this year with his show An Evening With Lions and Tigers.

The Posters of Chipperfield’s Circus by Steven B Richley will be published by Double Crown Books

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