How John Lennon’s circus poster inspired our show ‘Mr Kite’
Presenting Mr Kite, a phantasmagorical circus extravaganza!
Ever wondered who the Beatles are singing about in the song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite? Earlier this year, Skylight Circus Arts was awarded funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to research the history of circus in Rochdale, and as part of this research discovered that Mr Kite was a tightwire walker and head balancing act of exceptional quality. John Lennon found the poster from 1843 advertising Mr Kite’s performance in the show of the great Pablo Fanque at Rochdale’s Town Meadows and was inspired to write the song.
Supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
With Special thanks to The Heritage Lottery Fund, we were able to arrange research trips for our volunteers from Skylight Youth Circus and Silver Circus, they visited Rochdale’s Local Studies and Sheffield’s National Fairground and Circus Archives, both fantastic facilities sharing so many magical pieces of work, showing the ages of circus. Some of the youth circus traveled around Rochdale to see old sites where Circus buildings such as the Hippodrome once stood. We also spoke to parents, grandparents, and also reached out social media to hear peoples memories of seeing the Circus in Rochdale over the years. Many people could remember seeing the animals arrive on the train, one person quoted “I remember sitting on a wall at the railway station watching the elephants unloading the heavy stuff. Then watching them set off down Maclure Road. Late 1940s and early 50s, cant quite remember if they went to Cronkeyshaw or the Cattle Market.”
All of this research was used as inspiration for our Performance of Mr Kite, a celebration of 250 years of Circus, we performed 3 times in December to a public audience. We also worked with some of the youth volunteers to put together a display of research, timeline, and produced a small programme.
2018 sees a celebration recognising 250 years of circus. Fired up by Circus250, further research and collecting stories memories and images, Skylight’s Youth Circus, Silver Circus and Adult Aerial groups have joined together to create a show.
Featured in Mr Kite The Famous Elephant Parade, The mesmerising Juggling Mime Twins, Strong Woman ‘Yugoslavavic’, Astounding Acrobatic Performers, Misses Lay Lay, Lulu and Linda – the Trapeze Family and the legend himself Jimmy the Clown!
Directed by Grania Pickard
Poster Designed by Charma Force
Artist Contribution ‘Aerial Girls’ In center Saffron Reichen Backer
Mr Kite Research
John Lennon’s poster made us wonder what other nuggets of gold we could find and we started our exciting journey of magical circus tales, from Miss Lulu the trapeze artist, to Billy Smarts famous elephant parade strolling through the streets of Rochdale. All the circus acts and stories were used as inspiration for our performance of Mr Kite. Get comfy Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, we would like to give you a snippet of all this extraordinary research. We hope you enjoy!
Words from the Director – Grania Pickard
“A few months ago I met up with Martine for a coffee. She had already told me about the ideas for Skylight’s new show about the history of circus in Rochdale and we had been very excited about humans with giant ruffs pretending to be dogs jumping through hoops of fire! Cut to a short while later and I receive a phone call asking if I would like to direct this show. This is essentially a once in a lifetime opportunity , a chance as a circus director to create a show about circus using circus set in a circus celebrating 250 years of circus. How could I ever say no?”
Each and every one of these acts is inspired by the research here. There have been field trips to circus archives, research days where we created characters/scenes based on the people we read about and everything you will see from the elephant parade to the charivari (the finale scene where everyone is on stage) is steeped in Rochdale’s circus history. Also where would any of us be without Skylight and its own rich history? The joy, exuberance, integrity and skill in this show are a testament to how much Skylight Circus Arts has shared its love of circus and opened its door to all. It has been a pure pleasure to be part of this process!
In 1841, Pablo Fanque became the first black circus owner in Britain. Before he was named Pablo Fanque, he was William Darby, born in 1796 and raised in Norwich. At the age of 11, Pablo was apprenticed to circus proprietor William Batty. He made his first known appearance in Norwich in 1821, as ‘Young Darby.‘ Through time, he dabbled in circus like tightrope walking and horse riding. After a name change to Pablo Fanque he became widely regarded as the finest horse performer in Britain. For the next 30 years, he toured his circus throughout Britain, especially Greater Manchester. In that period of time, Pablo Faque’s Circus had a remarkable hold over the people in Rochdale, performing his shows in Rochdale Town Meadows.
John Lennon and The Beatles
On 31 January 1967, John Lennon walked into a Sevenoaks antique shop where a poster was advertising a benefit for Mr Kite from Pablo Fanque’s circus show in Rochdale. Johan Lennon bought the poster, took it home and put it above his piano and in two weeks had written a song he insisted was correctly called ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’. Pablo Fanque’s memory is embedded within the song.
Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite
For the benefit of Mr Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Henderson’s will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanques Fair – what a scene
Over men and horses hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr K will challenge the world!
The celebrated Mr K
Performs his feat on Saturday at Bishops Gate
The Henderson’s will dance and sing
As Mr Kite fly’s through the ring don’t be late
Messrs. K and H assure the public
Their production will be second to none
And of course Henry The Horse dance the waltz!
The band begins at ten to six
When Mr K performs his tricks without a sound
And Mr H will demonstrate
Ten summer sets he’ll undertake on solid ground
Having been some days in preparation
A splendid time is guaranteed for all
And tonight Mr Kite is topping the bill
Rochdale Cattle Market – Host to Rochdale Fun Fair and Circus
Come, Betty, lass, it’s Rachda’ Wakes; let’s ramble into th’teawn
An’ feed o’brandy snaps an’ cakes wi’ pop t’wesh ‘em deawn.
There’s bobby ‘orses, dry-land sails, pickin ‘fowk up i’crops,
Quack docthers wi’ aw mak’s o’tales an’ likeness-takkin’ shops.
There’s shootin’ galleries so long as nob’ry th’end con see,
Blowin’ machines fer th’ windpipes strong an’ swing-boats flyin’ free.
There’s crowd ice-crem, thin lemonade, black puddin’s boilt an’ fried,
Black peas, ‘am samwiches, cake brade an’ lots o’ things beside.
Bu’ that’s aw nowt t’ th’ penny shows; we’ll go t’them aw reawnd;
A’ there’s a circus, too tha knows, on th’Cattle Market greawnd.
Gat woman’s come agen, an th’pig an’ th’ wild animal show wi’ th’owd smell
An’ Buckskin Billy playin’ tig wi’ th’Injins o’er on th’yell.
Aw’ll buy thee sich a fairin’, lass, as th’s ne’er ad afore
An’ tha’ll be th’prattiest theer, bi’ th’ mass, though there may be mony a score.
An’ when it’s o’er, Aw’ll link thee whom through quiet fielt an ‘loan,
An’ afore another Wakes comes reawnd, wi’cwoartin we’ll ha‘ done.
John Trafford Clegg
“For a modest outlay of 1/-(5p), punters could visit the burlesque tent and see Suzzarde Mistress of Allure, in Stace of the Artistic, plus the Dance of the Seven Veils and a Sword Swallower! Quite exotic fare for Rochdale in 1956 and certainly value for money” Article
“I remember a circus coming to Newhey where Ogden Baptist Chapel is now. I would have been about 8 or 9, I also remember going and the trapeze artist fell and an ambulance came and that was that show over”
“It was the highlight of the year for me when the circus came to town. They would disembark at the station and march up Whitworth Road. Acrobats, dancing bears, big cats in cages and clowns throwing sweets to the kids but always a massive crowd. I was very young and my dad used to put me on his shoulders to watch the parade”
Rochdale’s original Theatre Royal stood on Toad Lane, housed in a building which had formerly been a Wesleyan chapel. It was knocked down in 1865 to make way for the Pioneers’ Central Store and in 1867 an new theatre, initially called the Prince of Wales, was built on Manchester Road. Later to be renamed the Theatre Royal, this variety theatre burned down on 24 November 1954. Sharing the bill on that fateful night were Tessie O’Shea and Semprini, who’s piano was salvaged by the fire brigade.
Billy Smart and his famous elephant parade
“Do you remember they used to open the travelling crates of lions and tigers, so they were visible in their cages as they made the journey to Cronkeyshaw? One of the shows featured polar bears, does anyone else remember seeing that?”
“I can remember, in the early 60’s, the Circus coming to Cronkeyshaw Common. They paid anyone interested two quid to help erect the big top. Me and my pal jumped at the opportunity to earn a few bob and volunteered. It was the hardest days’ work I ever did!”
“I live on Mizzy Road and the circus’s used to come on the common in front of my house. My mum still has Billy Smarts autograph!”
“When I was a little girl in the 1950’s, I was taken to the circus as a big treat. I didn’t like the clowns who I thought were cruel to each other and very stupid. I was scared of the animals and didn’t enjoy the danger of the high wire act either. I would not go again! In the 1970’s all my children watched the circus on telly every Christmas, whilst I grumbled. Who would have thought I’d marry Jimmy the Clown and set up Skylight Circus with him!”
The Old Circus and Rochdale Hippodrome
The building was know as The Circus and The Hippodrome. Hippodrome was the word for circus buildings once Astley had established size of the circus ring at 42ft diameter, based on the optimum size for horses to gallop (around 1750). Located in the centre of Rochdale, Lancashire, The Old Circus (also known as Ohmy’s Circus named after the famous acrobat) was built and opened in October 1882. It was a wooden building, with seating all on a single floor. It was closed and re-opened on 23 October 1883 as a circus and variety theatre, known as The Circus and Hippodrome.
In January 1903, it began screening films. It was owned by Messrs Smith, Lee and Hargreaves, and film exhibitor James Pringle showed his North American Animated Pictures here. In 1905, Grace Stansfield won 10 shillings and six pence in a singing competition (she later found fame as actress/singer Gracie Fields). The Circus and Hippodrome was closed in 1908 due to roadworks on Newgate, when a new road was cut through the street. An New Hippodrome Theatre was built on an almost adjacent site, which opened on 16 November 1908.
Barnum and Bailey visit to Rochdale 1898
“A great stir was caused in the town on Monday and yesterday by the visit of “Barnum and Bailey’s greatest show on earth.” It was ‘located’ (to use an appropriate Americanism) on land off Milnrow Road, adjoining the Athlectio Ground, and there its manifold marvels were witnessed by vast crowds. Special trains and heavily laden tramcars brought thousands of people into the town, and for and hour or two before each of the four performances the streets leading to show ground were thronged”
The street procession
“The procession left the ground at nine o’clock and took a fairly long route. At the head of the procession came a brass band in a huge triumphant car, drawn by forty horses, four abreast and all driven by one man without any assistance from outside or foot attendant. Following this remarkable exhibition of equine docility came a series of gaily-coloured open dens of tigers, lions, pumas, hyenas, bears and wolves with their trainers in nearly every case seated with them, looking calm and stolid, but with eye always fixed on the restless beasts”
Rochdale Observer Newspaper article
26 September 1898
As a boy P/T Barnum worked as a museum ticket seller. He then moved into running the Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. Besides building up the existing exhibits, Barnum brought animals to add zoo-like elements, and a freak show, taking the Museum on road tours, name “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Travelling American Museum” The Museum burned down in July 1865. Though Barnum attempted to re-establish the Museum at another location in the city, it too burned down in 1868, and Barnum opted to retire from the museum business. Later in life, Barnum found himself back in that line of work, competing against ‘The Cooper and Baileys Circus’. As Baileys circus was doing so well, Barnum decided to merge, and created ‘Barnum and Bailey – The greatest show on Earth’ on March 28 1881. Barnum died in 1891 and Bailey then purchased the circus from his widow, later merging with the Ringling Bros.
An inspirational circus performer, Miss Lala was born in 1858. Miss Lala was of mixed race and although she was small of stature, Lala, possessed incredible strength. She was an all-round circus artist and she worked at various times as a trapeze artist, a hand balancer, a wire walker, a strength artist and an iron jaw performer (a popular acrobatic strength act of the time) which saw her suspended high up in the air whilst holding a great weight using only her teeth.
Her first appearance in the circus was at the age of nine but it was at 21, in France where she found fame. She toured around numerous circuses and music halls throughout Europe including the UK where she performed at London’s Royal Aquarium’s central hall and at Manchester’s Gaiety Theatre.
Our research took us on a special trip to Sheffield’s Western Park Museum, where we saw a painting of Miss Lala! The painting was by Edgar Degas from the collection at the National Gallery in London.
Buffalo Bills Wild West
Next to P.T.Barnum, William F.Cody was considered by some to be the greatest showman of the nineteenth century. He pioneered the Wild West Show as a form of popular entrainment on an international scale, laid the foundations for the birth of rodeo and successfully marketed the myth of the American frontier. Buffalo Bill came to Rochdale in 1904.
Rochdale Circus Through The Years
Jugglers, acrobats, stilt-walkers and clowns existed for centuries. They performed at fairs near the River Roch in medieval Rochdale.
1750 Circus begins when Philip Astley creates the circus ring for horse displays and acts
1828 Tremendous explosion – Olympic Circus Rochdale
1834 J.Cooke performed an act know as “The Nine Horse” Royal Circus
1848 Walett The Clown – Madame Isabelle’s Circus Rochdale
1843 Pablo Fanque – For the Benefit of Mr Kite – Rochdale Town Meadows
1855 The Chinese Jugglers – Theatre Royal
1855 Sangsters Circus – Cattle Market
1882 The Old Circus (Ohmy’s Circus) Opened in Rochdale Town Centre
1896 ‘Cats’ – Circus of Varieties Rochdale
1897 Go Won Go Mahawk – Theatre Royal, Rochdale
1898 Barnum and Bailey – Rochdale
1904 Buffalo Bill – Rochdale
1907 Casey Army – Circus and Hippodrome, Newgate Rochdale
1908 The Hippodrome closed to make way for the New Hippodrome
1908 The New Hippodrome opened
1908 Creo Bros ‘The Gypsies’ – Rochdale Hippodrome
1913 King George V and Queen Mary visited Rochdale Hippodrome
1913 Pansy Chinnery – Palace Theatre Rochdale
1961 Billy Smart – Cronkeyshaw Common
1970’s Animal rights organisations begin protests against animals in circus
1983 New circus movement begins in Uk – artform without animals
1984 Guru of new circus, Australian Reg Bolton runs an influential circus course in Manchester attended by Jim Riley and most of the founders of circus groups in the North
1986 Jim Riley & John Whitehead started Snapdragon circus in Rochdale/Hebden Bridge
1987 Snapdragon Circus perform in their big top in Sunken Gardens, Rochdale
1989 Skylight Circus Arts founded by Jim Riley and Noreen White
1990 Skylight Circus Arts Registered as a charity
1992 Skylight Circus Arts moved into the Broadwater Centre one of only three circus schools in the UK at that time
2004 Uncle Sam’s American Circus – Cronkeyshaw Common
2010 Chinese State Circus – Cronkeyshaw Common
2010 Rochdale Council stopped circus and fairgrounds at Cronkeyshaw Common
2013 Skylight circus Arts moved to their new home – St Chads
Cronkeyshaw Common has been a lively home to many touring circus troops since before the 1900’s, such as Billy Smart’s Circus, Gerry Cottle’s Circus and the famous Chinese State Circus.
Chinese State Circus’ last recorded visit to Rochdale Cronkeyshaw Common was in in 2010. Shortly after and article was published stating the council no longer support circus and fairs at the Common due to ‘damage to the land, traffic and other associated problems’
“I saw the Chinese circus there. It was brilliant and such an amazing, professional show, I’d have gone back again”
Clair Louise Langley
“It was wonderful for us kids but being as it happens every year then I guess we just expected it as norm. Great being a kid before health and safety”
“I remember sitting on a wall at the railway station watching the elephants unloading the heavy stuff. Then watching them set off down Maclure Road. Late 1940’s and or early 50’s, can’t quite remember if they went to Cronkeyshaw or the cattle market. But, yes they walked. Don’t suppose “health and safety” would allow us to get so close as to sit on the wall”
“I remember seeing Gerry Cattles Circus in the late 1970’s at Cronkeyshaw Common, his elephant Rhanee and his camels were tied up outside the big top!”
“I lived on Maclure Road, born 1961 and remember watching elephants and the rest of the animals and acts including clowns walking down the road heading off to Cronkeyshaw”
Fairground and Circus
Several people remembered going to a fairground in Rochdale that had a circus within. The fairground was originally at rochdale Cattle Market, but has moved to many places throughout the years such as ‘The Butts’ and Cronkeyshaw Common.
“I remember going to the circus as a little girl, on what was the cattle market at the time. The fairground used to come there also. It was quite close to the beautiful town hall. Used to go to the theatre to see pantomimes, lovely memories, acts like clowns, trapeze artists, juggling acts and elephants. I would have only been between five and seven years old, shame it burnt down”
“Wow that rattles the mind. I can almost remember the circus. Certainly, the fair and a high wire motorbike act. All on the cattle market. but tell me who remembers vicars’ field?”
“When the fairground came to The Home there was a circus tent. I remember white horses and bareback riders. Also, they sold black peas from an outside stall. My mum insisted I had to take my own spoon so I wouldn’t contact germs!”
“I didn’t like the wild animals at the circus when I was younger. Then in 1988 I saw Snapdragon Circus in their big top in the sunken gardens in Rochdale. It had no animals and told a story. I loved it. i came to watch all the Skylight Circus shows in theatres and outdoors. They were great too – New circus without animals. My daughter Julie joined Skylight Youth Circus and performed in shows. She was the ‘swot’ on trapeze in Dream to Dare. they performed it in theatres all over and went to London. Now I love watching professional performers and at nearly seventy, I got involved with Silver Circus and have performed myself”
Skylight Circus Arts 1989 to Present
Words from Jim Riley
“I used to be a shy little thing. I didn’t want to be like that. I started performing in 1973 with a group of friends on ‘Street Life’, a street performance company. I found circus in November of 1984 where I spent a week with Reg Bolton and his Suitcase Circus. this proved to be a revelation for me. I could combine my making and construction skills to make my own circus equipment, I could learn even more advanced skills over the years and I wanted to be able to pass this onto others”
Jim, who was already involved in circus and was part of “The New Circus’ movement, worked with his partner Noreen White on a new company idea. They wanted to able to work with people of all ages and abilities using circus. In 1989 Skylight Circus Arts was born. In 1990 Skylight registered as a charity and company which allowed them to reach wider groups of people.
Skylight’s first permanent home was in Castlemere Community Centre in Rochdale and at this point Jim and Noreen were able to expand the team and employ more staff, some who still work at Skylight today. Skylight managed to secure funding and started to run regular circus classes.
IN 1992 Skylight produced their first circus theatre production called ‘Through the Back’ working alongside Inner Sense Percussion. this was an exciting time for Skylight as they also found a new home at The Broadwater Centre in Rochdale. An amazing space with so much character, originally home to Rochdale Swimming baths from 1868 – 1937. The fantastic space gave Skylight the opportunity to create a professional aerial training space and they began working with international professional trainers such Lui Fu Sheng from China.
In 1992 Skylight ran their first European funded course, Performance For tourism along with a a year-long European funded Training Circus Trainers. At this point, Martine Bradford attended both projects and was them employed, becoming Skylights Creative Director in 2012.
Over the years, Skylight have produced many community and professional productions, here are just a few. the Big fire show that toured Greater Manchester. ‘Wall Games’ at Gracie Fields Theatre, Rochdale for the Co-op’s 150th anniversary. ‘Till the Rain Comes Again’, an environmental circus theatre production performed at The Broadwater Centre. ‘Shifting Bounds’, a circus with Indian dance performed at Gracie Fields Theatre. ‘The Bridge’, Skylights biggest ever production outdoors, with the Boggart and cast of hundreds! Skylight also took part in Nottinghill and Jubilee Festivals. Skylight has done so much over the years and travelled across the countries performing and teaching circus.
Skylight’s Youth Circus is a huge part of the company. Over the years they have toured performances around the country, taken part in exchanges with Germany performing in Cassel, travelled to festivals such as Barrow in 2009 and helped raise funds for outside aerial rigging. They have also always volunteered to work on sessions helping to share their circus skills.
In recent years Skylight Circus Arts has expanded their social circus programme. Working with a range of people, such as children and adults with disabilities, young people and their families promoting mental health and wellbeing. Skylight are super proud to have our Silver Circus group, that won the Culture and Health Award in 2016 and even performed at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in 2018.
In 2018 Silver Circus and our Youth circus worked together to create ‘Generations’, which also won best event of the year award at Rochdale Link4Life Sports and Culture Awards.
Skylight Circus Arts are now based in our wonderful home at St chads fold, moving here in 2013 due to the demolition of the Broadwater Centre. To celebrate the life of the Broadwater Centre., Skylight produced a show called ‘The Broadwater Project. They researched further into the history of the building and swimming in Rochdale and put on a grand performance sharing all that knowledge through circus and theatre.
A collection of images taken of Skylight Youth Circus, Silver Circus and Staff on trips to Sheffield, Local Studies, Skylight Archives and sites in Rochdale where Circus buildings once stood.
Mr Kite Performance
A collection of images taken during our Mr Kite performance, inspired by research found in our Mr Kite Project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund 2018, all photographs owned by Skylight Circus Arts and photographed by Giles Bennett.