Like many children in the 1950s, a visit to the Bertram Mills circus at Olympia was one of the treats of my childhood.
The first circus, Astley’s, started about 1777 on the site of St Thomas’ Hospital. It was an open circular field with wooden stands and the entertainment was a single horseman doing tricks. It was so popular that it soon justified building a covered amphitheatre and a greater variety of performers.
Bertram Mills opened his circus in December 1920. Born in August 1873, he left school aged fifteen and started washing down the coaches for the family business (an undertaker and a coach building works). Here he developed his passion for horseback riding. Within a year he was driving a four-in-hand from London to Oxford wearing a cornflower in his morning coat, for which he later became recognised.
The Bertram Mills circus came to Olympia every Christmas and then travelled round the country during the summer.
Mills brought the circus industry out of a low period and by the quality of the circuses he staged at Olympia and in the provinces, he raised its status. He booked the cream of talent available from Europe and America, and cut acts ruthlessly to show just their best routines and soon earned a reputation equal to none in Europe. Bertram Mills died in 1938 but his two sons took over the circus and continued his traditions.
He attracted the great and the good and famous to his shows. He introduced grand opening day luncheons attended by hundreds of leading figures of the country—people who, up to that time, had maybe thought the circus beneath their dignity.
I was surprised that I could not find any original photographs of the circus acts in the Archives but I did find newspaper cuttings discussing them:
Although Olympia was profitable, the tenting circus as the years went by was less so and the brothers sold the circus in 1966. There was one more season under the new management and then that was it.
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