Phillip Wirth 1864 – 1937
- Phillip Wirth 1864 – 1937
Phillip 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.
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.
Philip Wirth married twice and had seven children – Eileen, Doris, Madeline, Gladys, Philip, Georgeand Marizles – nearly all of whom worked in the circus. Philip died in Sydney on 29 August 1937 and was interred in the family grave at North Road Cemetery in Collinswood, South Australia. The standing and the standard of Australian circus owed him much.
Wirths’ carried on, initially under the stewardship of George Wirth, Philip’s brother. He died childless in 1941, so it was left to Philip’s children to keep the show going through the difficult war years. Philip’s daughter Doris took over as managing director, with her sister Eileen as Equestrian Director and her brother, Philip Jnr as Ringmaster. Another sister, Madeline, trained the elephants. Manpower was short, imported acts were hard to find and transport was a major problem. Trains were requisitioned for troop movements and fuel was hard to get. In 1940 Wirths’ seven elephants trudged the 1000 kilometres between Melbourne and Sydney, travelling mainly at night to avoid the traffic.
After the war Wirths’ regrouped, refurbished and returned to the road in all its finery – but it was not to last. The old wooden Olympia in Melbourne went up in flames in 1953, then rising transportation costs, television, and competition from other, leaner, more adaptable travelling shows finally brought Wirths’ long journey to an end. It ground to an inglorious, impecunious halt in Kingaroy, Queensland, in May 1963, amid a flurry of summonses for unpaid tax. In the Sydney Sun Vince Kelly lamented: ‘The changing times have clearly been hard times for the circus, which, it seems, is guilty of owing money to the nation. Young Australia and the young at heart are remembering today that the nation owed something to Wirths’. Doris Wirth added, ‘People just while away their lives in front of the silver screen. They’re living on coffee and biscuits; they buy nothing; they go nowhere. We just didn’t get the crowds we used to.’
Attempts to combine the remnants of Wirths’ with, first, Ashton’s, and then Sole’s, proved unsuccessful. Doris, Eileen and Madeline Wirth died in 1968. Three years before, Eric Edgley had presented the first Australian tour of the Great Moscow Circus.
In 1998 Alice Grant, who had performed with Wirths’ from 1940 to 1954, unveiled a colourful commemorative mosaic on the wall of the Victorian Arts Centre in St Kilda Road, a fitting reminder of a great Australian institution on the site of its long time Melbourne home.
Frank Van Straten, 2007