The circus comes to Brisbane, May 1903

Costumed performer posing with a trained lion at Wirth's Circus in Brisbane, 1903. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 150867

On May 9, 1903, Wirth's Circus gave the opening performance of its Brisbane season at a site near Central Railway Station. Tickets sold quickly; Wirth's later boasted that hundreds had to be turned away. Inside the main tent, audiences saw a show The Brisbane Courier described as "a wide diversity of performance, in which sensationalism, gracefulness, clownish farcicalities, humorous as well as grimly earnest aerobatics, are intermixed with the other".

Advertisement for Wirth's Circus, published in the Brisbane Courier newspaper on 8 May 1903

This included a menagerie of performing animals (lions, tigers, horses, bears and more), thought-reading duo the Howard Brothers, aerial performers the Flying Eugenes, and clowns and acrobats.

Herr Pagel ready to tackle the lion at Wirth's Circus, Brisbane, 1903. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 422

A later addition to the Brisbane season was Herr Pagel, the German Hercules (pictured above), whose feats included carrying a horse up a ladder and "lifting" a full-grown elephant. Less successful were his attempts to subdue and lift a lion above his head. On one occasion the lion escaped from Pagel, scratching him in the process. Although audiences thrilled at the spectacle, the Queensland Figaro was less impressed, proclaiming Pagel's behaviour with animals as showing "as much respect as children usually bestow on a toy Noah's Ark and its contents. Someday, his audience may 'snatch a fearful joy' by seeing Herr Pagel crunched up by one of his pets".

Circus strongman lifting a horse, Brisbane, 1903. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 69044

On another evening, waiting crowds got more thrills than usual when a boy noticed one of the tigers had escaped its cage. Terrified the boy ran to the front entrance and shouted to the waiting crowd at there was a tiger on the loose. This news caused considerable panic as people fled. The tiger was quickly subdued by the head trainer. The tiger’s cage had not been properly secure and the big cat had merely stepped out of its cage to play with the ball it performed on during its act.

Herr Pagel supporting Mrs Pagel and nine men on a plank. Wirth's Circus, Brisbane, 1903. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 421


State Library of Queensland holds a number of materials documenting circuses in Queensland, including photographs, posters, programs and books.

Further reading: On the road, the wandering Wirth family

Myles Sinnamon - Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland


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But I am doing research into Wirth’s Circus that came through Port Darwin in 1935 with his circus on a ship, sorry don’t know the name of the ship. Can you help please.

Hi LesleyThank you for your question. Could you please fill in our online enquiry form and our reference librarians will look into this for you. Here is the link – Sinnamon - blog editor

Hi Myles, I have a very old violin, purchased at auction , with a card in the case sayiing R.C. Mannington. Advance manager Wirth s circus. I wondered if they had a violin in the performance.Eddie.

Hello Eddie. Wirth's Circus had a brass band up until the 1930s when the live band was replaced with recorded music for economic reasons. R. Mannington was an agent for Wirth's Circus from 1936 to 1941 so the violin is not likely to have been used in circus performances. Also the advance manager traveled ahead of the circus making arrangements, not with the circus itself. On the other hand most circus people were versatile performers and many played musical instruments. The Wirth brothers are said to have played many instruments, being particularly skilled on the cornet. Philip Wirth took up playing the tin whistle and would play along with the recordings during the 1930s.