Book Review Vol. IV, No. 2


Beneath the Big Top, A Social History of the Circus in Britain

by Steve Ward, Pen and Sword History,Ltd., UK and Casemate, Havertown, PA.   ISBN 978 1 78303 049 1,  224 pages, 60 images, index and selected bibliography.

This is a rather breezy history of the circus in Britain from its beginnings, which Ward traces back to 1900 BC in Egypt,  the Palace of Knossos in Crete c. 1500 B.C. , ancient Greece, China and Rome’s Circus Maximus.  The first chapter follows the circus’ evolution through the Restoration and thereafter  each subsequent chapter documents  its survival and various manifestations through to the modern  period, most of which is well traveled territory.  To American readers the most fascinating part of the book would be the war years  from the late Nineteenth Century through the 1970s, because the British  circus’ struggles during these years are the largely unexplored in America.  During this latter period we look at the circus in Music Halls, during the first and Second World Wars and the Depression.

These struggles are enriched by numerous anecdotes, most of which come from personal stories often gleaned from the newspapers of the period and supplies the “social history” alluded to in the subtitle.    I also enjoyed delving into the Bertram Mills Circus, Britain’s most prestigious producer of top flight spectacles.

Finally Ward takes the reader into the present, and  here he deals with the shows that are presently dealing with the animal rights activists and often highly biased laws that work against them.

The book offers many illustrations from each of the ages it travels through, a selected bibliography, a list of sources for further research and an index.