Running away to the Circus

I’ve been reading Jess White’s essay on disability in KSP’s Haxby’s Circus, in the ALS journal. It’s years since I read Haxby’s Circus. I didn’t like it much and of course now I can’t say why. KSP’s initial inspiration for the novel was when she was helping her doctor brother out in northern Victoria and an injured circus performer was brought into the surgery. But it didn’t really take shape until she was married, living outside Perth and she was able to spend some weeks with Wirth’s Circus, travelling with them on their special train through the wheatbelt – up the Midland line to Geraldton, across to Mullewa and back down to the main east-west line at Northam, 100 km east of Perth.

I’ve never been on a circus train, or seen one that I could remember, but I have been in a circus convoy.

I already told you that at the beginning of 1972 the Young Bride and I drove up the east coast from Melbourne to Brisbane with Peter and Ruth and took a couple of rooms in a divided up old Queenslander in New Farm, a few km downriver from Brisbane CBD. YB and I were broke. I got a few days work laying turf along the new freeway and then followed up an ad in the paper to line up for a job with Ashton’s Circus.

Doug Ashton, then fiftyish, came along the line and picked out all the likely young men, including me. We were to work some days in Brisbane, I forget now where they were set up, and then set off on two or three weeks of one-nighters around south-west Queensland. For $25/week and keep. Keep being a bunk bed in a caravan and endless helpings of stew.

My first piece of luck was that I told Mr Ashton that I had my own van and that I was married. He said he would find something for YB to do AND we would get $37/week – between us. Once we got moving YB was made ‘governess’ and would go over to Doug’s daughter’s (Jan, I think) van and supervise the kids.

My second piece of luck was to be made electrician’s mate so that when the other labourers were flat out in the heat lugging the seating and scaffolding, my job would be to lay out the extension leads from the generator truck. Each night of course was the reverse, and I’d coil up all the leads and then wait till the others had finished and power down the generator. Usually we’d sleep where we were then take off in the morning for the next town.

The caravans didn’t usually run off the generator. At every new town a search party would go out, an unsecured power point would be found and that would run the whole encampment. Walking round the vans in the early morning in bare feet you’d feel the electricity crackling through the frost on the grass from every loose or damaged extension cord..

On the way into a new town we’d dress up in clown suits and walk in and around the trucks as they paraded down the main street with the animals in their cages and the three elephants standing free on their low-loader trailer. I’d grab some white gloves and a papier mache policeman’s helmet and direct the traffic.

At night the other guys would have sets to move and so on, but I would sit in a little booth watching the show and changing the music cassettes. The (real) clowns would come in to Elvis Presley’s It’s Now or Never and if you think I never want to hear that again you’re right.

YB had to wear a tutu and some feathers and as each new act entered she’d strike a pose – you know, one foot forward, arm raised. She was still bleeding a lot, so was constantly terrified, and in the end that was why we gave up and went back to Brisbane. Though the old van was making some pretty odd noises too.

I don’t remember most of the acts now, the elephants must have done something, and we had tigers for a while, and trapeze. The youngest of Doug Ashton’s daughters was a hefty girl and she’d galumph around the ring standing on a cart horse. We had an old strong man, who pulled his caravan with a hearse. He’d once had an act with the daughter where he hung upside down and the daughter would do tricks sitting on a swing he held in his teeth. But they had to give up when she made his nose bleed.

The tiger tamer, Jan’s husband I think, was a European and he was training pigs which were pretty clever, though I don’t think they impressed our farmer audiences. The only other performer I remember now was the oldest of YB’s pupils, 10 or 11, who was so flexible she could turn herself inside out so that her torso was between her legs and her head was way up her back.

After a week or so we went down the coast to Surfer’s Paradise. We had a big sandy block not far from the beach. One of the trucks got bogged and Abu, the oldest elephant, was hitched up to it to pull it out. Years later there was a court case in all the papers because one of the labourers had been annoying Abu and she stomped on him and killed him.

After we got the tent up we got a cyclone warning so we had to double up all our guys. Then we went down the beach and watched the palms bend flat in the wind and the surf eat away all the sand. The tent survived ok.

After a week or two doing towns in the hinterland and out past Warwick, we doubled back to Ipswich. And I’m pretty sure it was from there YB and I tossed it in and went back to New Farm, which we ended up taking over from Peter and Ruth. To raise the big top, you’d lay the two centre poles on the ground, spread the tent out over them, with the two steel-ringed openings lined up with the top of the poles; then I would lay out all the fairy lights, so that as we hauled the poles upright the lights would be hung, above the tent, between them.

This last time, I did something wrong, and when the tent came up the lights were lying along the canvas. Doug Ashton just looked at me and said “up you go.” So I shimmied up 60 feet of wooden pole, out through the ring at the top, walked along the peak of the tent between the poles, hooked up the lights where they should be. I could see across Ipswich, across the suburbs, to Brisbane CBD in the distance. And then I looked down, down that 60 feet of wooden pole. It was a long way.

But there were ropes all along its length, and I’m still here, so it must have gone ok.


Jessica White, Losing Sight of Billy: Moving Beyond the Specular in Haxby’s Circus, Australian Literary Studies journal, 23 may 2022 (here). It’s a special issue on disability, with lots of interesting essays, including one on deafness (list of essays)

27 thoughts on “Running away to the Circus

  1. One of the musos in The Spouse’s jazz orchestra ran away to join the circus. I often wonder how it went…
    Mind you, I was, and still am, impressed that they had real musicians and not just an electronic sound track.


  2. The only “run away to the circus” story I know was Daughter Gums’ friend who got a job with Cirque du Soleil in Australia and did get to travel back to North America with them. Not sure why they took her back really since her work was, as I recollect, unskilled ticket officer etc. I would have thought any local could do that but I suppose you did have to be trained a bit.

    And of course no one disapproved because there were no animals in that circus. Canberra was an early jurisdiction I think to ban circuses, so do some years they’d just come to Queanbeyan. I do loved show people stories. Didn’t the father and son in Swords and crowns and rings work for a circus for a while? (Though my memory may be wrong … and I’m confusing it with something else.)

    I think I remember the Abu story.

    Anyhow, loved your post of course. The adventures you have when you don’t go school-university-work like I did, good little middle class girl that I was!


    • I’ve read Park’s Swords etc. I remember the unemployed tramping through the country, but that’s all. I think Jess mentions it in her essay in relation to short statured people, so there’s probably a circus in there somewhere.

      I guess I’m glad most people prefer to work inside, leaves more space for us ‘outsiders’.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Certainly I do — I like perfect weather for outside, like a nice calm, sunny 24° and a bit of shade! From a little girl I was always attracted by papers and writing – it sounds stupid but it looked interesting to me. Because I was a reader perhaps? But not all readers are like that obviously.

        As for Park, I recollect a lot of itinerant work during the Depression and just after but I “think” there was a circus too though really can’t be sure.


      • If I’m working in the rain, hopefully with wet weather gear on, I consciously think, “this is much better than being in an office”. I’m getting a bit old for changing tyres in 50 deg C though. I maneuver so the flat tyre’s on the shady side.


  3. I find it interesting that you would be hired for $25, but if they took your wife, too, you would get $37. The pay gap goes back to the circus even! Ha. Why was she bleeding, though? I think I missed that part somewhere.

    I’m glad you were able to get Milly. Surely, she appreciated seeing a friendly face on her return home.

    Whenever I think about people running away to the circus, I am reminded of Zora Neale Hurston, who traveled with a circus when she was hired as a personal assistant to one of the performers. At some point, she learned beautician skills, so she would also do nails on the train between cities.


    • Jeez Melanie, I’m a 71 year old truck driver! Women’s problems. And she had to go out in public every night in not much more than underwear.

      Yes, Milly was pleased I picked her up, and said so, which she doesn’t often.

      I will read more ZNH.


      • Hey man, she could have shut her foot in the cab door or been attacked by a dingo. It’s not normal to bleed all over the place, so of course I asked! Poor dear. And things were not great in that department as far as what to buy at the store does back then.


  4. Bill, I keep wishing you would write a book! Please! You’re a natural writer – and the stories you have to tell are wonderful. You will have a queue of eager buyers ready for it when it’s published! Your life story is so interesting, I genuinely think it is worth getting it in print, in a book; this is the sort of history that is worth saving. I’m practically begging! In fact I am begging!


    • Sue, I am working on it, but only in bits and pieces, which you’ll see as I post them. It’s very kind of you to beg, but I’d rather do it this way. If there’s ever enough I’ll put them together in a free ebook for you.


      • I had wondered about you putting all these pieces together Bill – I think that would be an excellent idea! I’ve often enjoyed wandering around travelling circuses but I’ve never known anyone actually involved with them. This account from you was a real delight.


      • Writing books seems such a single minded activity, and I always have too much else to do. Besides, writing here I get feedback which suits me much better than waiting anxiously for reviews – or before that, rejection letters from publishers.

        Liked by 1 person

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