The Circus in Newcastle

In his 1833 Register of Remarkable Events John Sykes has a short entry for the opening of a circus in Newcastle on October 29th 1789.

The Circus or Amphitheater, at the Forth, Newcastle, was first opening under the direction of Messers. Jones and Parker, equestrians from London, to a brilliant audience. It was built under the direction of Mr. David Stephenson. The very curious roof was constructed by the late Mr. Bulmer, builder.[1]

According to Thomas Oliver—the architect of Leazes Terrace—the amphitheater was short lived and shortly after opening ‘was abandoned by them’. By the time he was writing in 1831 it was being used as a riding school.[2]

It is not unusual that the Forth area would find itself the home of a permanent circus. In a previous post I outlined the history of the area as a venue for the annual Easter Hopping fair in Newcastle and pointed out that it was home to other permanent attractions like landscaped walking grounds, a wrestling arena and even a bowling green.

bewick circus 1

Wood engraved circus post bill advertisement by Thomas Bewick for Jones and Parker from the British Museum’s collection.

In the late 18th century circus acts consisted of equestrian performances, daring rope tricks and musical fanfare. Jones and Parker, who owned and operated the Newcastle circus, were some of the early pioneers of this nascent art of entertainment. James or George Jones—possibly both—and William Parker had been collectively involved with the Royal Circus in London and later the Edinburgh Equestrian before opening up a slew of venues in the North and eventually in Newcastle.[3] It was in their Edinburgh that John Bill Ricketts—who would later go on to found the first American circus—learned the trade.[4] We know that Ricketts was, in fact, a headline performer at the Newcastle Circus in 1789 thanks to one of the most unlikely sources.

Thomas Bewick is remembered as a pioneering engraver and authority on natural history and indeed his magnum opus—a History of British Birds—is without question one of the most important works in that field. But, according to his biographer, ‘his favourite subject was undoubtedly the circus’.[5] Bewick actually lived in The Forth when Jones and Parker built their circus, an in fact lived so close to it that the street he lived on was renamed ‘Circus Lane’ when it opened in 1789. Bewick began to illustrate advertisements for the Newcastle Circus which appeared in newspapers and on posters around the city. One such advertisement was a pen and wash design for ‘Mr. Rickett’s Night’ depicting a man jumping from a barrel suspended in the air onto a galloping horse. Another such show bill promised ‘a grand display of Trampoline tricks over men, horses, etc., by Mr. Parker’.

bewick circus

Circus riders; acrobats standing on two horses from the British Museum’s Thomas Bewick collection.

bewick circus 2

Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from the British Museum’s collection.

bewick circus 3

Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from the British Museum’s collection.

bewick circus 4

Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from the British Museum’s collection.

bewick circus 5

Wood engraving by Thomas Bewick from the British Museum’s collection.

Very few secondary sources—in fact none written after the Industrial Revolution—pinpoint the precise location of the circus. None of the early 1840s Ordnance Survey maps of the area show a circus in evidence so it is likely to have been demolished by this time. Thomas Oliver’s 1830 plan of Newcastle is far more helpful. It shows both the circus at the top of Forth Banks, up past the Royal Infirmary (now the site of The Centre for Life) and loosely enclosed by Forth Pl. and Thornton Street.

The exact location is likely to be where St. Mary’s Cathedral now sits, opposite the Central Station. It’s no surprise, then, that the street running up the East side of the Cathedral is called Bewick Street! St. Mary’s was built between 1842 and 1844, so we can say with certainty that the circus building was lost between 1831 and 1842, meaning it would have been less than 50 years old. There appears to have been a schoolroom on Bewick Street in the late 19th century, which is sweetly ironic given its previous iteration.

[1] John Sykes, Local Records: Or, Historical Register of Remarkable Events (1833): 353.

[2] Thomas Oliver, A New Picture of Newcastle upon Tyne (1831, reprinted 1970): 59.

[3] Kim Baston, ‘Transatlantic Journeys: John Bill Ricketts and the Edinburgh Equestrian Circus’, Popular Entertainment Studies Vol. Vol. 4, Issue 2 (2013): 6.

[4] Ibid.: 5.

[5] Jenny Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (2007): 234.

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