FROM the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, travelling circuses were a major form of spectator entertainment across the UK and attracted huge attention whenever they arrived in a city or town.

After World War Two, the popularity of the circus declined as new forms of entertainment (such as television) arrived and the public’s tastes became more sophisticated. From the 1960s onward, circuses attracted growing criticism from animal rights activists. Many circuses went out of business or were forced to merge with other circus companies. Nonetheless, a good number of travelling circuses are still active in various parts of the world, ranging from small family enterprises to three-ring extravaganzas. Other companies found new ways to draw in the public with innovative new approaches to the circus form itself.

Today, the idea of wild animals being used in circuses remains a controversial subject with MP Sir David Crausby recently declining an invitation to visit a circus in Bolton featuring ‘wild’ animal acts months after he called on the government to ban the practice.

Sir David supported a parliamentary motion to ban the use of wild animals in circuses last year and recently backed a campaign to change the current laws due to expire in January 2020.

He said that he is not against people going to circuses and believes that circus owners take care of their animals, but is against transporting them and making them perform.

Recent years have also seen the popularity of the circus clown take a bit of a bashing with the rise of the ‘evil clown’. The modern archetype of the evil clown was popularized by DC Comics character the Joker starting in 1940 and again by Pennywise in Stephen King’s 1986 novel It. The character can be seen as playing off the sense of unease felt by sufferers of coulrophobia, the fear of clowns which judging by these photographs from the Bolton News archive was not a problem for these children.

Our earliest image comes from May 1949 and accompanied a profile of Bolton-born trapeze artist Anita, who was appearing with Bertram Mills Circus at Platt Fields, Manchester. Before her marriage Anita was Miss Doreen Brown, and her parents lived at 19, Seaton Road, Smithills. She was now Mrs Frank Foster, wife of the ringmaster of Bertram Mills’s show. Her husband, who was born in a caravan on tour, went to school in Bolton and was the son of Boltonian Frank Foster, another famous circus personality who lived in Darcy Liver.

Showing how times have changed, our next picture is from 1967 and shows Jacko, the principle clown in the Hip Hip Zoo Ray Christmas circus at the Grand Theatre in Bolton, with his pal, Nugget, a pony-riding monkey.

From December 1977 we have a detail of the crowd at Gandeys Circus at Silverwell Street Sports Centre - a popular venue for dog shows, flea markets, car shows and even the circus before its closure in October 1985.

At the top of the page is a photo of the crowd at Robert Brothers Circus at Queens Park from June 1975. Over 100 young people from local children’s homes were invited free to the circus and during the interval some of the clowns joined the children - to the obvious delight of the kids!

Also in December 1977, we were profiling Philip Gadney who at just 21-years-old was running his own circus. “He has 1,001 jobs, wearing more hats than a milliner’s block,” we wrote. “From a clown with a baggy suit and a big red nose, he changes into a dress suit to present a llamas and camel act, and is then transformed into a knife-throwing Red Indian.”

A photograph taken in June 1973 shows Carl Jones, aged 16 months, of Cannon Street, Bolton, making friends with Jimmy the Clown before a performance at Robert Brothers Circus on Spa Road.

Probably the strangest image here comes from June 1976 and shows Tonto the circus elephant taking on the strongmen of Radcliffe at tug-o-war. The three ton elephant began the pull, forcing the eight man Pegasus team to dig in their heels for the challenge match at Red Bank field. As soon as Tonto relaxed the Pegasus team went tumbling and Tonto could go back to work in the nearby circus big top where she was appearing all week.

Our final picture is from January 1970 and shows Noe-Noe, a Belle Vue circus clown pictured arriving at Bolton District General Hospital, where he entertained children during the presentation of a toy elephant to the hospital by the Hayward Parent Teachers’ Association. It had been used as a publicity stunt for the parent teachers’ Christmas fair.