Philip Wirth 1864-1937

Philip Wirth

Philip Wirth

Wirths’ Sydney home was in Campbell Street – they’d pitched their tents there on their first visit
to Sydney in 1882.

Unlike most Australian circuses, Wirths’ relied almost entirely on imported acts.

At its height under Philip Wirth, Wirths’ Circus toured 40 artists and another 110 support staff, 10 elephants, 40 horses, 14 cages of wild animals and eight tents, the largest seating 3000.

 

Wirths’ Sydney home was in Campbell Street – they’d pitched their tents there on their first visit
to Sydney in 1882. Sydney City Council built Belmore Markets on the site and eventually converted the building to Wirths’ requirements. It had a full stage and a 13-metre circus ring that could be lowered and flooded for aquatic spectacles. The animals were accommodated in special pits beneath the stage. Wirths’ Hippodrome opened on 3 April 1916 and remained the circus’ Sydney address until 1928, when the building was recycled as the Capitol Theatre. After that, Wirths’ entertained Sydneysiders ‘in a vast city of waterproof tents’ located on the corner of Wentworth Avenue and Goulburn Street. Sydney and Melbourne saw Wirths’ annually, but a complete circuit of the nation took two years.

Traditionally, Wirths’ were ‘at home’ for the Melbourne Cup, and presented a gold-mounted whip to the winning jockey. They performed right through the Christmas season, and then headed north. Unlike most other shows, Wirths’ travelled by rail, and the exciting phrase ‘Coming by special trains’ became familiar to several generations of Australians outside the big cities. Wirths’ played in Sydney every Easter, and always distributed ginger beer and hot cross buns to their staff on Good Friday.

Unlike most Australian circuses, Wirths’ relied almost entirely on imported acts. Among their stars were the famous Alfred Codona, still saluted as the world’s greatest flying trapeze artist, burly South African lion trainer and strongman Herr Pagel, Will Rogers (‘The Cherokee Kid’), who had a rope spinning act long before he became a beloved humorist, and Chefalo with his cycling tricks.

Ironically, the greatest performer to bear the Wirth name wasn’t really a Wirth at all. May Wirth, recognised as the world’s greatest female bareback rider, was born in Bundaberg, Queensland in 1895. When she was five she was adopted by John and Marizles Martin – John was a member of Wirths’ band and Marizles was Philip Wirth’s sister. May’s extraordinary equestrian prowess won her a contract with the giant American Barnum and Bailey Circus. She returned to Australia for Wirths’ first season at the Hippodrome, then settled in the United States, where she remained a headline attraction until her retirement in 1931. May Wirth died in Florida in 1980. She has an honoured place in the Circus Hall of Fame.

At its height under Philip Wirth, Wirths’ Circus toured 40 artists and another 110 support staff, 10 elephants, 40 horses, 14 cages of wild animals and eight tents, the largest seating 3000. The special train consisted of eight passenger cars and 20 wagons.

Philip Wirth was a master of promotion. He invited celebrities to visit the circus, often entertaining them in the lions’ cage, and he stressed the educational value of his show: ‘A circus is a natural educational entertainment where a child or, for that matter, an adult of any age, can assimilate more knowledge during a single performance than could be learned in any other way during as many years as the show takes hours.’ Colourful Wirths’ posters depicting the animals of the world found their way into schoolrooms around the country.

Biographical references

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