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Our ‘greatest show on Earth’ was big on the exotic

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Our ‘greatest show on Earth’ was big on the exotic

It was always fun and games when the circus came to town, but the animals certainly stole the show, as LYNDA SCOTT reports

They called it the greatest show on Earth … and the elephants were the stars.

When Wirths’ Circus came to Brisbane, the elephants were the centre of attention, even before the big top went up.

In the 1950s, the circus travelled with its own train, and “half the children of Brisbane” reportedly turned out when it arrived at Roma Street.

This 1953 photo (right) from the Royal Historical Society of Queensland archives shows much-loved Dolly unloading and skilfully manoeuvring wagons at the railway goods yard.

Then came the spectacle of Dolly and her mates towing everything across the Victoria Bridge to Lang Park, where Suncorp Stadium now stands.

Wirths’ Circus was Australia’s largest and most prestigious, touring from 1880. It was billed as our own ‘greatest show on Earth’ with exotic performing animals such as elephants, lions and monkeys.

The arrival of the circus in town was often heralded by news of an ‘escaped’ animal, which caused much excitement.

Cynical journalists believed it was an attempt by the operators to drum up free publicity, but it always made a good story.

That was the case two years earlier in Brisbane. Jessie the elephant went on ‘walkabout’ after her evening bath at Lang Park. Newspapers reported that she trundled along the Milton tramline, headed for town, before being apprehended near the police barracks in Petrie Terrace.

Two months earlier at Coffs Harbour, five lions and an elephant escaped in what appeared to be a genuine accident. The elephant was drawing a cage containing the lions over a crossing to the railway station. A shunting goods train crashed into the cage, smashing it and freeing the lions. The elephant took off, adding to the chaos.

Residents were warned to stay indoors, while armed guards patrolled the streets.

In the 1920s, during a Brisbane performance, an elephant reportedly became ‘bad tempered’ and savaged its trainer.

It was condemned to death and a ‘local big game hunter and policeman’ was called on to put the animal down.

What followed was a shocking public spectacle.

Hundreds of Brisbane residents followed the procession as its keeper rode the elephant across Victoria Bridge to an Enoggera paddock for the execution.

The elephant’s bones were sent to the Queensland Museum.

In another incident, a member of the Wirth family recalled an engineer on a steamer from Sydney to Brisbane filling an orange with cayenne pepper and throwing it towards Toby, the biggest of the herd.

The keepers were mystified as the startled elephant’s cry set off the other elephants, and the lions, tigers and dogs let out terrible shrieks.

All became clear two weeks later when the circus was returning to Sydney on the same boat. Toby picked up the engineer in its trunk and tried to hurl him overboard. He was saved, just in time, and confessed.

Of course, in recent times, concern about the welfare of the creatures has made animal performances a thing of the past.

In 2007, the last performing circus elephant retired, following an incident resulting in the death of her handler, and there are no more circuses in Australia with exotic animals.

As for Wirths, the circus went into decline with the introduction of television and rising transport costs.

The circus finally closed in 1963 when its headquarters were destroyed by fire.

 Lynda Scott is a volunteer at the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. Visit queenslandhistory.org

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