In the late 18th century and early 19th century there were many ‘entertainers’ travelling round the country to perform in the small towns and villages.
These would be mostly individuals or family groups trying to bring a little pleasure to the hardworking people who were often labouring from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.
In the early 19th century groups of performers started to get together and the travelling circus as we know it began to evolve.
The first record of a Harmston being involved seems to be WILLIAM HARMSTON
(born 1811 in Nottingham and married to Martha Howes in 1840 at Kings Lynn).
He was described as an ‘equestrian’ on the marriage certificate.
At some time in the mid 1800’s the HARMSTONS got together with the STOODLEY family (who were also equestrians) and the Stoodley and Harmston Circus was formed, travelling around the Midlands and Eastern Counties of England.
William and Martha Harmston had seven children (six girls and one boy).
The boy was named William Batty Harmston.
There was a circus operating at the time called Tom Batty’s London Circus but we do not know if there was any link to prompt them to give him the forename of Batty.
It was not unusual to use a woman’s maiden name as a forename for their children to keep the name alive and there was considerable inter-marrying between circus families.
It was WILLIAM BATTY HARMSTON, who eventually took over from his father and, after a few successful years, decided that it was time to go it alone.
The partnership broke up in about 1880 (we do not know if they had any disagreement) and William Batty Harmston left Stoodley and set up the Harmston Circus.
We believe the Stoodleys went back to being acts in other circuses.
The Harmston Circus travelled around the Midlands and East Anglia and was fairly successful but, after one particularly bad season (mostly due to the weather), they were declared bankrupt in Ramsgate in 1886.
They were left with only four of their twenty horses and very little equipment.
We assume that all the artists and animals went to other circuses.
We do not know what happened in the next three years but by 1889 they are out in the Far East and India operating a circus which was eventually to become known as the ‘largest and best known circus in the East’.
The Far East
There are records of the circus visiting Bombay, Colombo, Calcutta, Singapore, Saigon, Hanoi, Macau, Kowloon, Manila, Penang and several places in Java.
Several posters have survived but very few seem to have a date on them so we cannot be certain when they were in some of the places.
We do know that in Hanoi and in Ipoh (Sumatra) they had 30 European Artists and 50 Performing Animals and Menagerie including 3 Lions, 4 Tigers, 4 Elephants, 2 Panthers, 3 Bears, 15 Monkeys, 10 Geese, 2 Kangaroos, 1 Llama, 35 Cockatoos, 14 Horses and 9 Ponies.
William Batty Harmston died in Singapore (aged 49) in 1893 but we do not know if it was through a circus accident.
After the death of William his wife Jane carried on running the circus until her death in 1912 in Calcutta (aged 63).
Robert Love (Jane’s second husband) and son William Harmston carried on but times and fortunes were changing.
The circus was never quite as successful and it started to go into decline until it finally closed in 1938 (perhaps they had not got the drive and will necessary to stay at the top).
The Clarke Circus
The Clarke Circus was very big in England in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s but there is evidence that some of them went out to the Far East and set up a circus there..
Some joined the Harmston Circus out there (see the list of performers at the end).
The Clarkes seem to have had a good relationship with the Harmstons and shared artists and venues at times. Some dates that we are aware of
1844 William Batty Harmston born in Nottingham.
? William married Jane Evelyn Allwood
1876 Circus at Norwich for season
1881 Circus at Norwich for season
1884 Circus at South Shields
1886 Circus at Leamington Spa
1886 Circus declared bankrupt at Ramsgate
1887 William George (son of William and Jane) born in England
1889 Nellie May (daughter of William and Jane) born in Manilla
1892 Circus in Shanghai
1893 William Batty Harmston died in Singapore aged 49
1894 Circus in Calcutta
1895 Circus in Shanghai
? Jane Harmston married Robert Love (took the name Harmston-Love)
1897 Circus in Madras and Calcutta
1899 Circus in Calcutta
1903 Circus in Bombay
1904 Circus in Bombay
1904 Circus in Hong Kong
1905 Circus in Penang and Singapore
1905 Left Singapore for tour of Java performing at Surabaya, Malang, Bilitar, Kediri, Djambong,
Modjokerto, Madioen, Solo, Samarang, Pekalogen, Tegal, Cheribon, Batavia and back to Singa-
1906 Circus in Bombay and Colombo
1907 Circus in Bombay performing for a large party from government house
1907 Toured India performing at Bankipore, Benares, Allahabad, Lucknow, Cawnpore, Agra, Delhi,
Meerut, Umballa, Lahore and Calcutta
1907 Left Calcutta for tour of Dutch East Indies, performing at Soerabaya, Pasoeroean, Pro-
bolingo, Malang, Blitar, Kediri, Modjerkarto, Solo, Djokjarkarta, Samarang, Pekalongau, Tegal,
Cheribon, Bandoeng, Soekeboemi, Buitenzorg, and Batavia
1907 Performed in Penang and then sailed for Rangoon
1907 After 18 days in Rangoon went on tour, performing at Pegu, Toungoo, Pyinmana, Yamethin,
Mandalay and then back to Calcutta
1908 Circus in Calcutta
1909 Circus in Singapore
1912 Circus in Calcutta
1912 Jane Harmston-Love died in Calcutta aged 63
1913 Circus in Penang
1915 Circus in India
1932 Circus in Sa Dec - South Vietnam
1932 Circus at Ipoh - Sumatra
1938 The end of the Harmston Circus
Listed below are the artists involved with the Harmston Circus as it toured England.
William Harmston (father of William Batty Harmston) Circus Proprietor
Martha Harmston (mother of William Batty Harmston)
William Batty Harmston Circus Proprietor and Equestrian
Jane Harmston (wife of William Batty Harmston)
John Artois Trapezist
Harry Cee Mee Gymnast
The Cee Mee Family Gymnasts
Alfred John Clarke Equestrian
Walter Clarke Equestrian
William Congo Equestrian
Jim Cook Clown
The Cottrell Family (act not known)
The Eldred Family Riders
Gill Eldred Equestrian and elephant trainer
Leopoldine Gaertner Trick horse rider
Billy Le Blond Gymnast and trapezist
The Mansuys Clowns and grotesques
The Stirling Brothers Acrobatic clowns and hat manipulators
George Stoodley Circus proprietor
The Stoodley Family Equestrians
Florrie Transfield Equestrienne
Phil Williams Joey the clown
In the Far East
Article in the Indian Daily
News Friday 29th December 1907
“If there is one show in Calcutta that caters for every caste and creed, for both young and old and for the poor as well as the rich, and is equally enjoyed and appreciated by all, that show is Harmston’s. If proof is wanting it is forthcoming in the bumper houses that they continue to draw at both performances daily, and this despite the fact that there are nearly half a dozen similar shows in Calcutta and numerous other attractions.
The large number of people forming Harmston’s troupe permits of frequent changes of programme. There has been an added attraction since last week in the shape of the famous ‘Clarkes’, an accomplished acrobatic and equestrian family the merits of whose performance must be seen to be properly appreciated. It is beyond the power of description.
They perform all the tricks they are credited with, with a consumate grace and finish which is a pleasure to behold.To be privileged to witness their turn alone is worth the money paid for admittance.”