Oh My! What a Circus

Trapeze Artist, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund 1959, Creative Commons CC0 0.1

The circus first came to town, not in 1894 at Blackpool Tower, but in 1868 when early records mention the Pinders Touring Show. This was followed in the 1870s with tented circuses appearing at Raikes Hall Gardens. The first building to house its own circus was situated at Hounds Hill in 1882. The featured family-run circus was ‘Ohmy’s’ which went on to have a long association with Blackpool.

The proprietor of the circus was Joseph ‘Ohmy’ Smith who was born into a circus family in 1854 in the London suburb of Islington. He initially trained as an acrobat, rider and trapeze artist and later became famous for his slack rope act (a dangerous and spectacular forerunner of bunjee jumping). When asked about his unusual stage name, he explained that one of his special tricks was to drop from the roof of the circus without a safety net and he always made that it appear that he had slipped. Every time he did this, audience stood and shouted ‘Oh My!’

But he hadn’t always been known as ‘Ohmy’. In 1874/5 he was billed as either ‘The invisible Winged Ariel’ or ‘The Champion Slack Rope Performer in the World’. ‘Ohmy’ also appeared in variety and music halls around the UK and performed with every circus of note, meeting such circus legends as P T Barnum and Buffalo Bill.

In 1875 he married the famous saddle-back rider, Diana Morris, and they went on to have five children all of whom trained as circus performers. ‘Ohmy’s’ act was so popular that in 1877 he appeared by royal command at Balmoral Castle for Queen Victoria. Between the years of 1883 and 1907 the family toured and operated around fifty wood and corrugated iron circus buildings.

‘Ohmy’ operated three circuses in Blackpool, his first being for the 1875 summer season at Raikes Hall Gardens, the second at Hounds Hill in 1882 and a third on the site of Tom Sergenson’s planned Grand Theatre in 1889/90. He also performed in the circus at The Alhambra (built on the site of the former Prince of Wales Theatre and which was later rebuilt as The Palace Complex) and at the Winter Gardens Pavilion. In fact, it was at the Winter Gardens where ‘Ohmy’ made, perhaps, the most memorable appearance of his life.

William Morgan, who was the Winter Gardens Manager in the 1880s, regularly booked ‘Ohmy’.

It was at one of Morgan’s end of summer season benefits, on 2nd September 1884, that ‘Ohmy’ had an accident which almost cost him his life. Whilst performing his slack rope act from the ceiling of the Pavilion, part of the equipment gave way and he plummeted, head first, fifty feet into the middle of the audience. He narrowly escaped death but suffered some injuries including crushed ribs, severe bruising and a dislocated shoulder. Oh my, ‘Ohmy’!

The Winter Gardens Pavilion was converted for use as a theatre in 1889 and this was the year that ‘Ohmy’ was engaged for the summer season to operate a circus for Tom Sergenson. Sergenson had bought the site on the corner of Church Street and Corporation Street for the purpose of building a theatre. He commissioned the prolific theatre architect, Frank Matcham, to design him ‘the prettiest theatre in the land’.

However, at that time, Matcham was working on a new theatre, the Opera House at the Winter Gardens. Sergenson decided to put his plans on hold as he wanted to see if this new theatre was successful before starting to build his own. In the meantime, he had a plot of land that was not being used. So he put up a wooden building with a corrugated iron roof to be used as a circus and generate some income. A circus was operated on the site for five years and during time attracted up to 87,000 people every year. The circus came to an end in 1893 when Sergenson decided that he would not be able to complete with the planned purpose-built circus at Blackpool Tower and so he went ahead with building his Grand Theatre which finally opened in 1894.

‘Ohmy’s’ circus continued touring (from 1907 mainly in Europe) until August 1914. At this time, ‘Ohmy’ and his family were appearing with Albert Carre’s circus in Weimar Germany. When war broke out, the family were interned in Ruhlebon prison camp for four months. All of ‘Ohmy’s’ property was confiscated and this marked the end of an illustrious and eventful circus career.

The family returned to England in 1915 and settled in Blackpool. ‘Ohmy’ died on 3rd August 1931 and is buried in Layton Cemetery in the ‘Ohmy’-Smith family grave.

Oh my – what a great performer; what an incredible life.

Patricia Hayes

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