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Matlock Bath: Sanger's Circus, 1900
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North Parade, 1908

There was great excitement in the village when the spectacular Sanger's Circus passed through Matlock Bath. Parades through the streets were part of the showman's exhibition and such "gorgeous" processions generally finished at the show ground where they were to perform. This parade is travelling southwards through Matlock Bath and the most likely explanation is that the circus company had left Matlock and were passing through the village en route to another venue[1].

Some years earlier, in 1886, "Messrs. Sangers' gigantic establishment [had] entered Matlock Bridge, and 7 large banners and Union Jacks make their appearance upon some of the eminences at the Bath and elsewhere"[2] and they undoubtedly passed through Matlock Bath on that occasion, too.

Sanger's was one of the biggest English circuses during the 19th century and Lord George Sanger certainly knew how to hype things up. When he visited Derby in 1897, for example, the advertisement he placed in the local paper read:

"Nine-tenths of the population of the United Kingdom have heard their Mothers, Fathers and Grandfathers speak of, and Millions that now wear their honoured grey hairs, in the sear of life, will say Sanger's Circus was the first circus I ever saw! Sanger's has been the best circus I have ever seen!! Sanger's always have something new!!!"[3]

Sanger added that the Derby show marked his Diamond Jubilee as a performer, dating his professional life from 1837. He also congratulated Queen Victoria on her Jubilee.

Sanger's Circus had developed as a family business with the brothers "Lord" George and "Lord" John Sanger working together for some years but they eventually went their separate ways. Lord John died in 1889 and Lord George retired in 1905. Sadly, at the age of 84, he was attacked and murdered by an employee at his home in East Finchley in 1911[4].

Whilst it is difficult to know which of the two competing circuses was sometimes visiting, as in 1886, we know that Lord John Sanger's circus was performing in the Matlocks in 1899. The Good Friday Bank Holiday that year proved to be a really wet day.

"From the time they arrived until going away there was no pleasure to be found such as that for which the excursionist came. Lord John Sanger's circus occupied a site in one of Mr Ward's fields. People went there to obtain shelter from the wet and cold. The day passed, over with lamentation from the tripper because the uncomfortable condition he was in, and from the caterer through the store of food remaining on his hands"[5].

On another occasion Sanger's Circus was performing at Bateman's Park, opposite the Railway Hotel in Matlock[6]. The elephants were always popular and some of them, according to Mr. Arkle, were seen to drink water from the Derwent. Unfortunately, one of the animals became problematic, refused to leave the river, and attempts to scare it - with gunfire - were unsuccessful. A second elephant was taken back into the water to encourage the stubborn one to come out. Although no date was provided for this particular episode, it must have taken place in 1905 as Arkle also recounted what happened to the animal when the circus moved on to Bakewell; the story is the same[7].

Performances did not always go to plan and it was widely reported that a rather unpleasant incident occurred during a subsequent show at Bakewell in May of that year, after Sanger's had left the Matlocks, when an elephant crushed its trainer and reportedly put a tusk into the poor man's thigh. It also seems to have tried to tear down the canvas of the circus tent whilst keepers with pronged forks were trying to control the clearly panicking animal. It left the tent in the ensuing pandemonium and subsequently had to be put down and was later buried[8]. It was said to be the same elephant that had caused problems in Matlock[7]. There is photographic evidence of the circus's presence in Matlock as there is a image, taken by Mr. Kirk of Cromford, of an elephant clearly enjoying the attention of the crowd whilst lying in relatively shallow water in the River Derwent at Matlock[9]. One consequence of the "vile display by one of the elephant's at Bakewell" meant that the three remaining animals were given a wide berth when the circus went on to Buxton[10].

Lord John Sanger's circus visited Matlock again on 19 April 1912; it arrived from Belper in the morning before presenting an afternoon and evening performance and was to travel on to Bakewell the following day. It was planned that, should the weather be fine, the first performance "would be preceded by a gorgeous procession of what is best described as a circus, hippodrome and menagerie"[11]. From what we can see in the two rare images here, it seems an apt description.

Below is another picture of the circus, this time parading through Alfreton's Cattle Market. We can get more of a sense of just how long the parades were from this image. In this picture you can see a group of four horses, three of which are riderless and on the fourth is a man wearing armour. There are four large elephants and three or four camels in the foreground, with a line stretching back along the road behind them that includes more horses and people wearing a variety of costumes. The circus seems to have visited Alfreton almost every year between 1890 and 1900, and presumably they also visited the Matlocks with similar frequency. They were back in Alfreton again in 1903[12].

Parade through Alfreton's Cattle Market.
There is a similar photograph, undoubtedly taken just a few minutes beforehand
as it shows the same onlookers, in a book about Alfreton.

1. Original photograph of Sanger's Circus in Matlock Bath in the collection of and provided by and © Ken Smith.
2. "Sanger's Procession, Alfreton" in the collection of and provided by and © Susan Tomlinson.
Top image scanned for this website and information researched, written by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.

References (coloured links are to transcripts or more information elsewhere on this web site):

[1] It is just possible that the horse drawn wagons and the performers were wending their way towards Cromford Meadows. However, no evidence has been found of them performing in Cromford so it is just could be that the parade did a U-turn at Cromford, possibly passing through Matlock Bath for a second time, and ending up at the Bateman's Park show ground in Matlock. It does not really seem likely. Only two newspaper reports have been found to date about the circus visiting Matlock & District (see below), but the search is still on-going.

[2] "Derbyshire Times", Saturday 1 May 1886. Good Friday at Matlock, by a Tripper.

[3] "The Derby Mercury", Wednesday, 2 June, 1897.

[4] Reading material has included the Oxford DNB | The Times Digital Archive (The Times, Wednesday, 29 Nov, 1911) | Encyclopedia Britannica. Neither brother had been knighted; the Lord was just part of the showmanship..

[5] "Derbyshire Times", 8 April 1899. Easter at Matlock. Good Friday Sorrows.

[6] This land was to become the site of the bus station and open air market, and a supermarket was eventually built on the land.

[7] Arkle, M. J. (1983) "Tuppence Up, Penny Down", printed by Geo. Hodgkinson (Printers) Ltd. Arkle does not provide a date, but implies the Circus was in Matlock around the time that Matlock Bridge was widened in 1903/4 or shortly afterwards. After the Circus moved on to Bakewell, the elephant's behaviour worsened, Arkle said it pulled down a tent pole during the performance and the unfortunate animal then had to be destroyed. This can only have been in 1905.

[8] { "Derby Daily Telegraph", 26 May 1905.
   { "Derbyshire Times", 27 May 1905. Mad elephant at Bakewell. Men Attacked. Panic at a Circus. Serious Injuries. Marvellous Escapes.

[9] The image, taken in 1905, had been published by the "Daily Mirror" without permission, but the paper eventually had to recompense the photographer. This information provided by another Mr. Kirk.

[10] "Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal", 2 June 1905. The elephant, reported to weigh over three tons, was said to be 66 years old so it would have been reaching the end of its life. It was also said to be the finest and largest of the elephants travelling with Lord John Sanger's Circus ("Lakes Herald", 2 June 1905).

[11] "Derbyshire Courier", 6 April 1912.

[12] "Derbyshire Times", 24 October 1903.