When the circus came to Southbank

Robin Grow

It sits on the wall outside Hamer Hall – a mural dedicated to Wirth’s Circus, which occupied part of the St Kilda Rd site from 1907. The circus was touted as the “Greatest Show on Earth” and caused great excitement when it came to Melbourne.

The Wirths first arrived in Melbourne in 1883 to perform at the Flemington races. By 1887 Wirth Bros Circus was the largest in Australia, under the management of Phillip Wirth (1864-1937) and his brother George (1867-1941).

In 1889 they began transporting the circus by train, a practice that continued for the rest of Wirth’s existence. Unloading the special trains was a massive exercise – there were eight passenger coaches for artists and other workers (all up a total of 150 people), 10 trucks for the elephants, 14 cages for the wild animals, and enough vans for 40 horses horses and ponies.

The elephants were used to load and unload 500 tons of equipment and then proceed to pull the wagons to the circus site. The whole process of unloading was accomplished in three hours – a remarkable feat – and attracted thousands of people to the railway yards to see the train being unloaded.

In 1906 the family took over the lease on the St Kilda Rd site and in 1907 combined other properties to establish a 4.5-acre permanent home called Wirth Park.  The circus in Melbourne ran for seasons of up to three months (before touring to another location) and was constantly being replenished with new acts.

What could the public see for their entrance fee? Comedians, acrobats, horizontal bar athletes, trapeze acts, jugglers, clowns, boxing – and, of course, the animals!

The performers kept the crowd entertained for three hours per night. Madame Prince had 15 marvellous performing monkeys, and then there were the “Flying Nelsons” – a team of unique aerial acrobats. There was a spectacular troupe of six women acrobats whose tumbling and somersaulting gradually increased in pace till it reached a riotous crescendo of frightening-like movement.

The circus animals, the “menagerie”, was always of great popular appeal. These included performing lions, wheeling and dancing elephants and horses, and tiny Shetland ponies with monkey jockeys. The excitement kept building and, by the finale, the audience was laughing, clapping and cheering inside the giant canvas tent.

There was little regard for the rights of animals in those days – both in circuses and in zoos. But Wirths always maintained that their circus animals were treated with extreme kindness.

A fire destroyed their facilities in 1953. Wirths continued in business until 1963 but faced rising costs for transport and could not compete with new forms of entertainment. But how exciting a night at the circus must have been! •

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