From the 1840s onwards a number of American circuses toured Britain one of the most popular being Howes and Cushing’s Great United States Circus. On Friday 8 January 1858 an advertisement appeared in the Birmingham Daily Post announcing two performances daily, for a short time only, in the new circular and commodious Brick building in Moor Street. On 11 January 1858 four members of the circus took the opportunity to pay a visit to the Birthplace.
Seth Benedict Howes (1815-1901) a native of
Brewster, Putnam, N.Y. came from a family of showmen and
started life as a circus rider-acrobat, initially working for his brother
Nathan but becoming a partner in 1831. When the company disbanded in 1840 he
went into partnership with the Mabie brothers for eight years then had a short
spell with P.T. Barnum during which period he imported the first herd of
elephants and the first drove of camels. He left Barnum in 1855 having already
purchased the Franconies Hippodrome in New York in 1853 to set up on his own. He
took on his partner Joseph ‘Col’ Cushing (1818-1884) in 1856 and together they
set sail from New York to Liverpool, England on the 25 March 1857 bringing with
them 72 horses, plus 50 performers and assistants.
Joseph ‘Col’ Cushing 1818-1884 was born in Dover, Strafford, New Hampshire, and started life working on the family farm but was lured by life in a circus. He joined a small circus, purchased a sideshow and by the end of the season owned the entire show. He teamed up with Seth Howes until 1860 then branched out into other spheres of entertainment.
The circus had a huge success in England travelling nationwide for a year prior to opening at the Alahambra Palace, London where Queen Victoria and the royal family paid them a visit. Having made their base at the Alahambra for twelve months they then tented through England and Ireland for a few years before returning to New York in 1864. They proved so popular that at one time there were three of their companies on tour in Great Britain. This is confirmed by the Census of 1861 which shows Seth B. Howes and his wife resident in Hamlet Road, Manchester giving his occupation as proprietor of an equestrian exhibition. Also resident in Manchester at George the 4th public house were: James Crookett -- lion tamer; Davis Richards – equestrian and George Knight – circus manager and clown.
Meanwhile in Birmingham at The Blue Pig in Moor Street, close to their performance venue eight equestrians were in residence: J W Myers, Mical Myers & Rose Muen all born in New York, USA, Ed Carroll & Richard Rochrie both born in Ireland and Charlton born in Edinburgh, Scotland with Polly Charlton aged nine years born in Sunderland.
The first signatory in the Birthplace Visitor book was John H. Murray who appears in the US 1880 census, aged 45, occupation circus manager, Newark, NY.
Davis Richards 1832-1866 a hurdle and bareback rider travelled with the circus to England in 1857. Unfortunately he sustained a fatal injury during a performance in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1866.
George Holland an acrobat and rider came from a respected circus family. His wife Ada claimed to be the original ‘Madame Sanyeah’ who performed flights through mid-air from a lofty trapeze. However this claim was refuted by her rival Phoebe Frost of Ginnett’s Circus. Michael Myers appears in the census of 1861 along with John (Jim) Washington Myers whom circus history books state travelled with Howes and Cushing to England. He was the first acrobat to turn a double somersault from a ‘batoude’ over a group of horses. He quit Howes in 1864 when the circus returned to America forming his own Great American Circus which he was forced to sell in 1882. He could not afford to retire so worked for Hengler’s Circus until his death in 1892 in Bristol, Gloucestershire.
Seth Benedict Howes returned to America a very wealthy man acquiring prime real estate in Chicago and accumulating railroad stock which enabled him to retire with an immense fortune to a mansion on Turk’s Hill, Brewster, NY where he died at the age of 86.
You can find out about another Circus company who visited the Birthplace in Norma's blog post on Finding Shakespeare.
Taylor, Donna: Notes from 19th Century Birmingham, Birmingham Daily Post
Circus Historical Society
Morton Smith. A. American Circuses Abroad,’Hobbies’ August 1984 pp.25-9
Snout, William L. Olympians of the Sawdust Circle’ Circus Historical Society
Circopedia: the free encyclopedia of the International Circus
University of Sheffield : National Fairground and Circus Archive
Ancestry.co.uk: US Census 1880, England & Wales Census 1861
Howes Family Genealogy Pages: Transcript of a self-published article ‘The Life of Dan Rice’ by Maria Brown, his niece. In 1901 (Rice was an employee and associate of Howes).
*Dover, New Hampshire, USA Library and Archive Circus Collection.