Billy Smart's Circus on The Level

Billy Smart's circus poster
From the private collection of Jennifer Drury

Fascination of the Big Top

In the mid to late 1950s, there was a regular visit from Billy Smart’s Circus. Its Big Top was sited on the grassy part of The Level and it was surrounded by the circus’ trailers. An immediate thrill was watching the Big Top going up; a huge tent that was pegged out just as a camp tent would be. For some reason, the electric generators used for lighting the tent, also fascinated me. I wondered what it would be like to live in a trailer and to have no permanent home. 

Fear of falling

My favourite acts were the high wire walkers and the trapeze artists. Both worked high above the centre of the tent and thrilled everyone. I wasn’t too impressed by the Circus Master, who seemed a bit too bossy – my being blind to that being the point of him. We sat in tiered rows of wooden benches and you could see the grass underneath. Along with the common fear of falling through the wooden slats on the Palace Pier, we had a fear of falling underneath the wooden benches. The inside of the tent had a very distinctive smell – perhaps of straw and horses. 

Did you see Billy Smart’s Circus? Please share your memories by posting below

The scary clowns

I really didn’t like clowns and wondered if anyone ever did. I thought them silly and slightly scary and hoped they wouldn’t come too close to me. Unfortunately, there were still some performing animals being used. Times have changed and I am not sure how I felt about the acts that took place, at the time. I hope I did not like them but I probably did. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it is a relief that animals are no longer used, in this way, in this country.

The question remains with me…did anyone like clowns?

Comments about this page

  • My aunt used to take me to Bertram Mills every year as a small boy. I found the elephant and animal acts sad affairs even at that age, and since then, cruelty has emerged as part of the training process. Bertram Mills was mainly animals, but they had a few ‘stars’ who did trapeze, and other types of gymnastics. The clowns were usually small people, or very fancily dressed types who lorded it over the others, and the ringmaster wandered around cracking a whip pointlessly. I’m glad circuses have died out except for some specialist ones that still tour. They were out of time years ago!

    By Stefan Bremner-Morris (20/03/2016)
  • Funny how different kids react to the same thing. For me, I wasn’t too keen on high wire, trapeze etc, I worried about the performers making a mistake. With the animal acts, similar. It was obvious the animals were not happy with what they had to do, I empathised with them. Clowns, now they were fun, the only bit I really enjoyed. 

    By Michael Player (21/03/2016)
  • I agree with everything Stefan has written above.  I have a great feeling and fondness for animals of all kinds. Not many days go by when you do not read at the breakfast table about some act of cruelty that has gone on to some poor animal or other. Despicable.

    By Mick Peirson (21/03/2016)
  • Yes, and the latest manifestation of this attitude to captive animals appears to be ‘mobile zoos’, which do not appear to be regulated, except by the usual welfare organisations, which are inevitably stretched in terms of manpower. I do not see a good ending to all this!

    By Stefan Bremner-Morris (27/03/2016)
  • I agree with all of the above. I was just writing about the circus in the 1950s. Of course the mistreatment of animals was truly awful. But it was a feature of the time. Just as we no longer go to public hangings, we no longer go to see animals humiliated and hurt. It can’t be condoned in any way at all, but it was part of history. 

    By Philip Burnard (28/03/2016)
  • I remember one day in London Road, with my mother and aunt in the late 50s, when suddenly all these cowboys and Indians on horse back along the road shooting guns! Of course, so real to me and magical. Yes, it was the arrival of Billy Smarts at the Level.  In those days wild animals were used but we were none the wiser of captive animals. My mother could not afford to take me to the circus but we were taken around the animal trailers. 

    By Ken McNeill (28/03/2016)
  • I have seen Billy Smart’s circus quite a few times, but it wasn’t a patch on Bertram Mills which used to be broadcast from Olympia every Christmas.
    One incident I will never forget was the metal globe up in the roof of the arena above the ring where a motorcyclist was riding around inside. All of a sudden there was silence, then a loud gasp from the audience and the BBC commentator. The trap door of the cage dropped open while the rider was riding above. Suddenly, his engine cut out and he dropped several feet down into the ring and was carried off. Sadly he died of his injuries. The cause was said to be that his hat had come off and blocked the air nozzle of the carburetor, causing the engine to cut. The last circus I saw was last year on the recreation ground here in Dereham, Norfolk where I now live. The animal act consisted of a fleet of ducks waddling round the ring to canned music and a troupe of 3 Alpacas! A great improvement?

    By John Snelling (25/10/2019)
  • Roy – I have removed your comment as I think that this website is the
    wrong place to air your views. I understand your passion regarding
    animals, and you are entitled to comment on cruelty to them, but just
    not on this website.
    Thank you
    Jennifer Drury: Website Editor

    By Mr ROY Rushton (20/04/2020)

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