History of the Circus in Ashburton

The people of Ashburton District have been keen circusgoers for over a hundred years. Despite all the tweaks and changes that have shaped the art of the circus, there is still nothing quite like the Greatest Show on Earth.

Some readers may remember going to the circus to see dressed-up bears, parading elephants, and big cats doing tricks. Before zoos evolved and expanded, travelling circus shows were the only way many children and adults in provincial parts of New Zealand could see these interesting animals.

Concerns over animal rights have meant that displays of exotic animals are no longer an acceptable practice, and the focus has since shifted to death-defying stunts and amazing feats of human ability. It could therefore be said that the longevity of circus shows has less to do with the acts themselves, and more about the spirit behind them.

That being said, when exactly did that adventurous circus spirit first come to Ashburton, and how did we come to love the circus so much?

The circus comes to town

According to the Lyttelton Times, our town almost had a big top tour in April 1872 but unfortunately this was not the case.

For some reason, the proprietor of a travelling circus in Lyttelton “relinquished the idea of proceeding to the Ashburton.” Perhaps this was a good thing, since it appears some of the acts in this circus had a tendency to fall flat. An excerpt from just a few days later read: “Mr S. Wolfe, of the Theatre Royal, appeared as clown, but his efforts in that capacity were the reverse of successful.”

In 1876, Ashburtonians could take a special train up to Christchurch to see Wilson’s Circus, with a return trip at midnight.

Ashburton had to wait yet another two years for its first proper circus visit, but was it worth the wait? On Friday the 29th of March 1878, Cooper and Bailey’s Grand Consolidated Menagerie, Museum, Aquarium, and Circus came to town. An extravagantly illustrated full-page advertisement in the Evening Echo gives us the details:

“MR. J. A. BAILEY has returned from America with a cargo of NEW and RARE LIVING WILD ANIMALS, which, when added to the LARGE MANGERIE that was exhibited last season, form the GRANDEST WILD BEAST COLLECTION on the face of the Globe.”

Part of the advertisement for Cooper and Bailey’s circus visit to Ashburton. (Evening Echo, 1878)

Cooper and Bailey’s circus was transported by “three special trains of sixty trucks, vans and carriages,” and the shows were held in brand new tents which were manufactured at a cost of £3000. The circus boasted many exotic animals, including a “huge black hairy rhinoceros (the only one ever captured alive),” a claim which is dubious at best! There were human performers too of course, including gymnasts and “other scenic celebrities,” but clearly the emphasis was on the animals.

View of a ferris wheel and tents in the Triangle, sometime after 1929. (Archive reference 04.2005.0115b)

Evolution of the circus

Circus popularity in New Zealand peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.

Elephant from Wirth’s Circus in Ashburton, photographed by Gordon Binsted on the 8th of November, 1969. (Archive reference 05.2013.0085)

Big names such as Solway’s, Wirth’s and Bullen’s dominated the scene, and plenty of small acts entertained modest crowds around the country. The big players leaned heavily on their exotic animal acts, but there was generally more of a human-animal balance compared to Cooper and Bailey’s circus. When the Animal Welfare Act 1999 came into effect, the last circuses in New Zealand that contained exotic species were Whirling Bros, Ridgways and Circus Magic.

All three promptly relinquished or repatriated their exotic animals, signalling the necessary end of an era for the circus, and the beginning of a new one. Gymnastics, acrobatics, and courageous feats are now the focus, which still manage to draw crowds to the big top whenever the circus is in town!

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 11 December 2021.


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