Philip Wirth 1864-1937
Philip Peter Jacob Wirth was born in Beechworth, Victoria, on 29 June 1864.
He was son of a Bavarian musician, Johannes (John) Wirth, who arrived in gold rush Victoria in 1855.
Philip played trombone and George the tenor horn. After touring for a while with Ashton’s Circus, they set up their own troupe.
Until Circus Oz came along in the 1970s, Wirths’ was the only Australian circus to undertake a world tour.
Coming by Special Trains
‘Wirths’ was the Rolls-Royce of circus, and everyone was proud to work for them,’ said circus matriarch Dollie Lennon. ‘Each two years they engaged no fewer than a dozen top overseas acts, all new to this country, on two-year contracts. Their three-hour (no interval) program ran like clockwork. And every two years, people in local towns around Australia would ride horses for 50 miles – more in Western Queensland and Western Australia – to see Wirths’. They were feted by the mighty, and loved by the masses.’
For eight decades Wirths’ was Australia’s own ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, a huge travelling circus of international standard and reputation.
Traditional circus has always been a family business. Names like Ashton, Bullen, Sole, Perry, St Leon and Wirth are synonymous with Australian circus and its rich, rough-and-tumble history, but it was Wirths’ that reached the greatest heights – and had the saddest, most public, fall.
The most visible of the populous Wirth clan was Philip, Australia’s greatest circus showman. He was son of a Bavarian musician, Johannes (John) Wirth, who arrived in gold rush Victoria in 1855 with his four brothers, Philip, Peter, Jacob and Caspar. Johannes married English-born Sarah Phillips in 1856. They had four sons – John, Henry (Harry), Philip (born Philip Peter Jacob Wirth in Beechworth, Victoria, on 29 June 1864) and George – and three daughters, Madeline, Mina and Marizles. All the boys were musical and all joined their father’s travelling band, the Star Group of Musicians. Philip played trombone and George the tenor horn. After touring for a while with Ashton’s Circus, they set up their own troupe. Johannes died in 1880, but his sons carried on, adding to and improving the show until, in 1887, they could claim that Wirths’ was the largest circus in the country.
They visited New Caledonia in 1888 and New Zealand in 1890 – where Philip married Sara Jane Hodgson. In 1893, to escape the Depression in Australia, Wirths’ embarked on a seven-year world tour: South Africa, South America, the United Kingdom, South Africa (again), India and Java. During their extended stay at Southport in England, they were visited by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, who was particularly impressed by Philip Wirth’s six trained Australian brumbies. On 22 June 1897, Wirths’ led the town’s street parade celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Until Circus Oz came along in the 1970s, Wirths’ was the only Australian circus to undertake a world tour. They returned to Australia in 1900, picking up the first of their famous elephant herd along the way.
The deaths of John Jnr in 1894 and Harry in 1896 had left control of the circus in the hands of Philip, assisted by George and Marizles. Philip proved himself an astute businessman and an even better showman. When their main competition, the big FitzGerald Brothers’ show, disappeared with the deaths of the two FitzGerald brothers in 1906, Philip picked up what remained of the enterprise, including their Melbourne home which was on a superb site in St Kilda Road, just across Princes Bridge. Wirths’ demolished FitzGeralds’ ramshackle octagonal covered arena and replaced it with a huge wooden Olympia. It opened on 12 October 1907. Wirths’ also took over Princes’ Park, the adjacent pleasure grounds. Wirth Brothers Circus Ltd was incorporated in 1913.
Jim Fogarty: The Wonder of Wirths’, JB Books, 2000
Geoff Greaves: The Circus Comes to Town, Reed, 1980
Dollie Lennon: Sawdust in My Shoes, privately published, 2004
Philip Wirth: The Life of Philip Wirth, Troedel & Cooper, 1933
Mark St Leon: ‘Philip Wirth and George Wirth’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 12, Melbourne University Press
Mark St Leon: Circus in Australia, Greenhouse, 1983