When the circus came to town

These photographs from the 1950s show Bertram Mills Circus elephants parading through Leamington after arriving by train.

Elephants in Leamington

Marianne Pitts Pitts of the Friends of Leamington Station has submitted them.

She said: “According to my informant, the elephants arrived by train and this happened some time in the 1950s. Does anyone remember it?”

Some readers will remember touring circuses, with magnificent parades to announce their arrival in town. Bertram Mills’ Circus was one of these, along with Chipperfields’, Billy Smart’s, the Robert Brothers’ and Gerry Cottle’s.

Elephants in Leamington

Elephants were a popular attraction. One act which was popular around 1950 was called the ‘Elephant Ballet’. Each elephant at Bertram Mills’ Circus had its own groom who slept on a camp bed in the tent with the animal.

The popularity of traditional circus in the UK has declined in the last 40 years. No longer do great trains carry circuses across the country by night. The wild animal acts, sideshows and menageries disappeared as people began to question the use of animals in the circus.

Leamington has had a long association with elephants. Hegler’s Equestrian Circus, a permanent circus building, opened in the town in 1849.

Samuel Lockhart, the famous elephant trainer, was born in Leamington to a circus family. He travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to work on a tea plantation, and while there learned how to train elephants, decided to form an elephant act and so brought back to Leamington three elephants named Haddie, Trilby and Wilhelmina - also known as the “Three Graces”.

These elephants appeared in Lockhart’s Circus in the town. The elephants had their own elephant house. The building which houses Elephant House Auctions in Morton Street, Leamington, used to be the home for performing elephants.

Lockhart would bring the elephants to bathe in the river, which helped promote the circus. On the bank of the River Leam, on Priory Terrace, there is “Elephant Walk”, a 19th-century slipway down to the river near the suspension bridge in Jephson Gardens. It was constructed so that elephants in winter quarters in Leamington could be watered.

In Jephson Gardens there is now a bench sculpture with three elephants and a little girl, called Elephant Circle by sculptor Nicholas Dimbleby.

Samuel Lockhart (1851–1933) has appeared in several books on the circus, including one children’s book completely dedicated to him (Elephants at Royal Leamington Spa by Janet Storrie, 1990).

If you remember the Bertam Mills Circus arriving by train call Peter Gawthorpe at the Courier on 457732 or email [email protected]