When the circus came to town

wirths wild westcircus wirthTHE original Wirth brothers, Philip Johannes (1834-1880) and Peter, were musicians from Bavaria, who arrived in Port Phillip, Melbourne in 1855.

For several years, the brothers and their families travelled the gold fields and backblocks as itinerant musicians, sometimes in the employment of a circus.

In the early 1880s the family of Johannes established what became Australia’s most prestigious circus company – Wirth’s Circus. The Wirths embarked upon a world tour in the 1890s, with one of their first stops being Bulli and Wollongong. The Illawarra Mercury reported on Saturday 18 April 1891:

Wirth’s wonderful Wild West Show, circus, and hippodrome is billed and advertised to appear at Bulli and in Wollongong shortly. The show may truly be described as a mammoth one, and not only has it been spoken highly of by the Sydney press, but by all the provincial papers where the Wirth Brothers have shown their gigantic combination. The show is now up the Southern line, and splendid business was done at all the towns en route. The Bathurst National Advocate says of the exhibition : — “From start to Finish there was not the slightest abatement of interest and excitement. There are three rings — two rings of the usual circus size inside and a third enclosing these. For the greater part of the evening two or three performances are going on at the same time, and the trouble with the spectators is that they get too much of the good things served up in the extensive bill of fare. The trick ponies in both rings execute some feats which are almost incredible, and the juggling of Miss Marizles while on horseback was a most interesting feature of the entertainment. Miss Edith Wirth, at the same time was doing some wonderful daring riding in the adjoining ring, and received hearty applause.

When the circus returned to Australia in 1900 they found FitzGerald Bros had become Australia’s premier circus. A bitter rivalry ensued, with the Wirths emerging triumphant after the deaths of the two FitzGerald brothers in 1906.

elephants wirth

The Wirth Brothers Circus elephants helping load a train in Australia

PHOTO: Elephants from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in the United States, being loaded into their train cars for the journey to the next town and performance stop. Source: http://www.flwbmuseum.com/exhibits_circus.htm

PHOTO: Elephants from the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in the United States, being loaded into their train cars for the journey to the next town and performance stop. Source: http://www.flwbmuseum.com/exhibits_circus.htm

A HORSE driven by Mr. Daniel Dean, of Park-road, Bulli, took fright yesterday at Wirth’s circus elephants near Bulli station, and bolted along the Main-road. Mr. Dean was thrown out, sustaining three fractured ribs and abrasions on the face and body, George Makin, who stopped the horse, was also unfortunate in being injured on the leg.
– Illawarra Mercury Friday 4 May 1923.

The Illawarra Mercury reported on Friday March 10 1939 that the Wirth Brothers had arrived back in Bulli and had set-up their huge canvas tent in a paddock near Molloy Street Bulli. This was an ideal location, as it was situated close to the goods siding near Bulli Railway Station, where the circus menagerie was unloaded.

New All-Star Circus BULLI VISIT
Advance manager, R. C. Mannington, was in town last week, making arrangements for the forthcoming visit to Bulli on Tuesday, March 14th, for one night only, and Mr. Mannington claims that it is a tremendous entertainment charged with thrills, suspense and laughter. The programme is a new bill from start to finish, including many acts imported from overseas, such as the Famous Flying Do Vards, the Great Leotards, the Briellos from Cuba, and the Oriental Mayedas, who line up the best of all earth’s circus stars. We are told that in Melbourne every act of the new bill closed with thundering circus monkeyapplause; and such extraordinary enthusiasm was shown by the Melbourne public, for Wirth’s new all-star circus, that it ran there for a record season of nine weeks. This truly amazing circus is now on a comprehensive tour of the State, and circus fans and indeed the public in general, are advised not to miss it. The Zoo, and Menagerie, always a feature of Wirth’s Circus, will be open in the afternoon between 4 and 5 p.m. The location will be near Malloy’s Mill near Bulli railway station. Reserved seats may be booked at Mr. Williams’ Newsagency, Woonona.

The Kiama Reporter and Illawarra Journal reported on Wednesday May 21 1941:

A small monkey belonging to Wirths’ Circus, escaped at Bulli on Monday night of last week and was finally recaptured when it was chased into a shed in Farrell Road on Tuesday. During the day it had eluded several attempts to capture it, and, about 4.30p.m. it strolled into the Bulli Police Station, and then changed its mind about giving itself, up, and promptly bolted over the back fence. Wherever it went during the day it had a large and interested audience of school children. It did no damage anywhere.

Wirth’s Circus ceased operations in 1963.

3 thoughts on “When the circus came to town

  1. It is always good to hear of other people that are interested in Wirths history, I am a former employee of Wirths and currently Secretary of Circus Fans Of Australasia Inc. and we are seeking as much info as we can find as we are in the process of setting up an Australian Circus History Website which will be available to everyone. We are hoping to include some info from every circus that has performed in Australia. Hopefully we can encourage many people to share copies of old stories, photos etc. we can include on the site. It is a very large project but it will be a great way to preserve the history of this wonderful family entertainment industry. Great to read your article.


    • Thanks for your comment, Tom. What an exciting project…. Thanks for sharing the news, and hopefully readers can share photos and memories of “when the circus came to town”…. Any Looking Backers able to share their memories or photos of circuses? Contact us, and we’ll pass the info on, or call Tom direct on: 02 4393 2681.


  2. Hey Tom. That sounds really interesting. My great grandfather ran away at about age 15 to join the circus in about 1905 – we are pretty sure it was Wirths. He learnt all his gymnastics there and met his wife we think. They also ran a boarding house for circus folk and other performers. II will be in touch as I would love to know more. Cheers Linda


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