MARK ST LEON is one of the foremost authorities on the history of circus in Australia. He is a descendent of the St Leon circus family, and the author of numerous books and articles on the subject. In the first of a two-part article looking at the life of his ancestor Ida St Leon (1894–1961), he begins his story in 18th century London with Astley’s Amphitheatre.

Several actors of the modern era graduated from circus ring to theatre stage and even on to cinema screen. Actors such as W.C. Fields, Archibald Leach (‘Cary Grant’), Burt Lancaster and Bonar Colleano began their professional lives performing in circus or its closely allied genre, vaudeville. In this article, I tell the story of another to make this unusual transition, Ida Jennie St Leon.1 Born into a circus family that travelled outback Australia for generations, Ida Jennie was, in 1917, voted one of America’s popular stage actresses.

But before I get to Ida Jennie, I shall roll back the passage of time to late 18th-century London when a new genre of entertainment, now known as “circus”, was taking shape. At that time, Captain James Cook was about to embark on his first voyage of “discovery and exploration” and the American colonies still provided a convenient receptacle for the detritus of Britain’s over-crowded prisons.

st leon image 1aAstley’s Riding School, London, in 1770. Author’s Collection.

Origins of the modern circus

In 1768, within a roped-off ring on a field called Ha’penny Hatch on the southside of the Thames, a former cavalryman, Sergeant-Major Philip Astley (1742–1814) began giving open-air displays of trick horsemanship.2 By 1779, Astley had enclosed these displays within a permanent, roofed venue which he named Astley’s Amphitheatre. The venue became known throughout London as “the circus”, not for the gladiatorial and bloodthirsty circus of ancient Rome but after the large, open-air, circular riding tracks dotted around London used by recreational riders, each of which was called a “circus”, traces of which remain visible today in thoroughfares such as Piccadilly Circus.3 By combining comedy with feats of trick horsemanship, introducing acrobats, ropewalkers and jugglers from the fairgrounds, and developing sequential programs of entertainment, Astley intuitively arrived at a novel form of entertainment that would soon be called a “circus”.

The relationship of circus and the stage has been an uneasy one for, although both are rightly regarded today as worthy branches of the performing arts, “circus” was long regarded as theatre’s “poor cousin”. The Vagrancy Act of 1572 had long confined peripatetic entertainers—such as “ladder dancers, rope dancers, jugglers and mountebanks”—to the bottom of the English social hierarchy, to rank alongside “ruffians, blasphemers, thieves and vagabonds” and “heretics, Jews, pagans and sorcerers”.4

Because Astley’s innocuous equestrian-based programs appealed to all classes and was devoid of dialogue, it did not constitute “theatre” within the meaning of the Theatrical Licensing Act. However, by embellishing his programs with the entertainers long confined to the fairgrounds by the Vagrancy Act—tumblers, rope dancers, jugglers and so on—“circus” was tainted with their opprobrium.5 Circus people were typically drawn from underprivileged backgrounds who fell outside “all categories” of class, intellect, background or profession.6

Astley’s entrepreneurial flare mirrored the age. In 1782, he and his company crossed the Channel. In Paris, he built another amphitheatre—his Amphitheatre Anglais—and travelled the Continent as far east as Belgrade, building more amphitheatres as he went.7 One of Astley’s equestrians, John Bill Ricketts, brought his equestrian troupe to the United States in 1793 and delivered the young nation its first complete circus performance. Its new president, George Washington, was one of Ricketts’ most ardent patrons.8

From 1808, Astley’s and other amphitheatres actively sought to improve their social standing by mounting “hippodramas”, elaborate equestrian-based melodramatic spectacles based on grand historical, military or religious themes.9 Astley’s Amphitheatre reached the peak of its fame in the years 1825–41 under the management of the superlative horseman, Andrew Ducrow (1798–1842) who raised the spectacle of circus riding to an art form. His exquisite equestrian-based pantomimes and spectacles were imitated in circuses throughout the British Isles, on the Continent, in the new United States and in the colonies of Australia. Despite changes in ownership and management and a devastating fire in 1842, Astley’s Amphitheatre remained the international fountainhead of circus until its final closure in 1893.10

st leon image 2aThe Tyrolean Shepherd & The Swiss Milkmaid, by Andrew Ducrow & Louisa Woolford, London, 1829. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Although never entirely liberated from its marginalised social status, circus emerged into a major form of mass entertainment and lent inspiration to the development of other forms of popular entertainment such as melodrama, pantomime, variety and vaudeville. By the close of the 19th century, circus rivalled sport, music hall and racing for patronage and economic significance.11 By then, the term “circus” had entered the popular vocabulary, not only in English but in French (“cirque”), German (“cirk”), Italian (“circo”), Russian (“tsirk”) and many other languages.

Circus in Australia

The circus was still a new genre of entertainment when the First Fleet sailed for New South Wales in 1788, although many of the fleet’s human cargo had probably witnessed, or were at least aware of, the delights of Astley’s Amphitheatre. Some of England’s circus performers, falling foul of law, found themselves transported to Australia. Their enforced relocation would eventually contribute to the foundation of an Australian circus industry. However, organised popular entertainments, leisure and recreation were not among the initial priorities of penal settlements. Neither Sydney nor Hobart Town were served with regular theatre performances until the 1830s.

With the growth of a free population, enlightened colonial administrators understood the need for “rational amusements” to content the people “in this new land”.12 On Boxing Day 1847, nearly 80 years after Astley gave his first displays on Ha’penny Hatch, Robert Avis Radford, a professional jockey and training groom, opened “a sort of Astley’s Amphitheatre on a limited scale” adjacent to his inn, the Horse & Jockey, in York Street, Launceston.13 There was nothing particularly “royal” about Radford’s Royal Circus apart from the fact it was licensed.14 Circus exhibitions were soon given in amphitheatres of modest descriptions in Melbourne (1849) and Sydney (1850).15 The marginalised social standing of circus and circus people “at home” meant little to emigres drawn largely from Britain’s lower orders and even less to their colonial-born offspring, the “currency” lads and lasses for whom these entertainments were an outright novelty.

John Jones, colonial circus man

A stalwart of Radford’s little company was an acrobat and dancer, the prosaically named John Jones. Born “John Connelly” 24 years earlier, possibly at Bath, Somerset, he was the illegitimate son of a young Irish jockey, Patrick Connelly, and Ellen Catherine Ricketts, whose father was a first cousin of Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, Prime Minister of England. Fostered to a Newmarket trainer, he served as a stable boy in the royal stables and learned the rudiments of fine horsemanship until, aged 12, he was banished to London, in advance of the impending marriage of his natural father—by then one of England’s leading jockeys—to the daughter of a Newmarket trainer, to serve a spurious seven-year apprenticeship to a Westminster chimney sweep. Despite unsociable working hours, a sweep at least had the freedom to practice tumbling skills in London’s parks in the afternoon and perform in London’s streets after dark.16 Across the Thames, Astley’s Amphitheatre admitted the lowly sweeps to see the exquisite equestrian pantomimes and spectacles of Andrew Ducrow even if dressed in sweep’s attire.17 When implicated in a theft, the 19-year-old John Connelly was tried at the Old Bailey on 24 October 1842, under the name “John Jones” which he contrived to distance himself from a previous offence on his record. The ruse failed but the name of “John Jones” stuck and, under that name, he was transported to Van Diemen's Land. He received a ticket-of-leave in July 1847.18

In Radford’s Royal Circus, John Jones refined his skills as an acrobat and dancer, revised his equestrian skills and learned to walk the tightrope. On 21 December 1848, at St George's Church of England, Battery Point, Hobart Town, he married a young Irish woman, Margaret Monaghan (c.1833–1897).19 Over the following 12 months, Jones organised a circus troupe of his own which he brought to Sydney to perform in the City Theatre in Market Street. The troupe visited the Macquarie towns, before travelling through the Wollombi Valley to Maitland. Returning to Sydney, Jones and his partner Edward “La Rosiere” Hughes erected their Royal Australian Equestrian Circus in the yard of John Malcom’s Adelphi Hotel in York Street which they opened to the public in October 1850. It was Sydney’s first circus establishment of any consequence.20 In May 1851, Jones joined Henry Burton’s Royal Circus just as the first discoveries of gold were made along the Turon River. As people rushed to the diggings, Burton and his troupe followed them.21

At Sofala in September 1851, Jones formed a circus troupe of his own.22 When the first discoveries of gold were made in Victoria, Jones and his troupe joined an American circus man, John Sullivan Noble, to open the Olympic Circus at the top of Bourke Street, Melbourne’s first circus of any consequence.23 Later in 1852, they opened an amphitheatre in Ryrie Street, Geelong.24 From this base, Jones and Noble, sometimes individually, sometimes in partnership, made forays onto the diggings of Victoria. In November 1854, Jones and Noble were at Ballarat when their large circus tent was commandeered one afternoon by rebellious diggers for a protest meeting over the mining license issue. As the diggers began constructing a crude fortress—the Eureka Stockade—on nearby Bakery Hill, they commandeered the circus tent again, this time to conceal arms and ammunition.25 A few days later, the diggers returned to the circus and, at the point of a gun, marched its German bandsmen to Bakery Hill to serenade their comrades as they built their stockade.26 Early on the morning of Monday, 3 December, police and soldiers sent from Melbourne overran the Eureka Stockade and the affair passed into Australia’s history.

st leon image 6aJones’ Circus at Ballarat, 1853, by Eugene von Guerard. Ballarat Art Gallery, Ballarat.

As the frantic gold rush fever calmed in the aftermath of the Eureka incident, Jones began touring his small circus troupe through the small townships emerging throughout south-eastern Australia. Colonial showmen found, as had the wandering minstrels of mediaeval Europe and the circus men of the American frontier, that it was more economic to tour a fixed program rather than remain in one location and regularly change program.27 Co-incidentally, the travelling show also solved a fundamental economic problem facing Australia in the pre-electronic age: how to deliver professional entertainment to a small, widely-distributed population. As well as circus men, showmen of widely varying reputations and capabilities, began touring an extraordinary diversity of cultural offerings through the bush—opera, minstrelsy, panoramic exhibitions, magicians, bellringers, pseudo-scientists, magic lanterns, wild animals and so on.28

Circus companies rose and fell with the economic tide but, overall, constituted a key element in the mosaic of live entertainments that kept Australians amused in the latter half of the 19th century, especially in regional areas. Despite the paucity of infrastructure, it was regarded as the world’s best circus country. In North America and Europe, a circus had to close for the winter but, in Australia, by judiciously exploiting regional variations in climate, a circus could tour all year. Circus proprietors could roam an enormous land mass, largely unfettered by regulation. Nevertheless, there were obstacles and constraints to be overcome: distances were formidable, formed roads and bridges were lacking, lawlessness was rife and economic conditions volatile.

Since protective child welfare legislation was seriously lacking, circus performers were trained from infancy as the circus travelled. In Jones’ Circus in 1856:

… Mr Jones and his three sons in their grand classical entertainment … must be seen to be believed, the ages of the children being eight years, five years and three years; it is really wonderful to see their father throwing them about in the air; the like has never been witnessed in the colonies …29

Jones’ National Circus was well-received in and around the town of Beechworth and its surrounding goldfields during March-April 1859.30 During the visit to Beechworth, Jones’ wife gave birth to another son who would be named Alfred.31

As cities and towns emerged, skilled journalists, newly arrived from England, introduced prevailing notions of class and respectability into their new colonial setting, including those long enshrined in the Vagrancy Act. Travelling showmen increasingly attracted the condemnation of a soi-disant colonial gentry:

… travelling Jews with trinkets, organ-grinders, German bands, Ethiopian serenaders, circuses, electro-biologists, and people of that class … were now felt to be great nuisances ... Social leadership had been taken over by full-time bankers, ministers and the like.32

Visiting Wagga Wagga in January 1861, Jones’ circus was patronised so poorly that Jones was obliged to depart early one morning without settling his accounts for printing, feed, board and lodging.

This company has been performing here some weeks and we imagine their sojourn was more prolonged than profitable, as they were patronised very meagrely, owing to the inferiority of the performers and the whole paraphernalia ... On one occasion, [Jones] set down for representation a farce called An Old Way of Paying New Debts and acted accordingly, absconding one fine morning leaving his disconsolate creditors the victims of misplaced confidence ... 33

Jones’ fortunes had recovered by the time he took his circus—now promoted as Jones’ British-American Circus—across the Bass Strait to Tasmania in March 1863. By this time, his youngest son, Alfred, born in Beechworth four years earlier, was performing in the ring with his father and older brothers.34 The gymnastic performances of little Alfred and his older brothers were hailed “with expressions of wonder and bursts of applause”.35

The Wonderful St Leon Family

Over the following 12 months, Jones and his sons re-organised themselves into a family-based variety troupe, a more economic and manageable proposition than a travelling circus. As well as their familiar acrobatic, gymnastic, ropewalking and trapeze skills, the troupe embraced singing, dancing and pantomime.36 By early 1865, they were sufficiently rehearsed to return to Melbourne and commence an engagement at the Theatre Royal, leased and managed by the famous Shakespearean actor, Barry Sullivan. By this time, many colonial entertainers were adopting attractive pseudonyms by which to protect and project their professional identities—and distance themselves from their legally-allotted status as “rogues” and “vagabonds”. Sullivan realised that the prospects of Jones and his sons could be improved by replacing their prosaic family name with another more catching. Opening on the evening of 27 January 1865, Sullivan announced:

... The Wonderful St Leon Family … From the Gymnase Imperial, Paris are engaged for a limited number of nights, and will appear in their celebrated Drawing-Room Entertainment …37

Unfortunately, the little troupe failed to impress Melbourne’s prudish critics:

… some of the members are much too youthful to have acquired that grace and skill which alone can render a performance of the class they give befitting a high-class theatre.38

Nevertheless, the professional pseudonym of “St Leon” stuck. John Jones now called himself “Matthew St Leon”. He, his three sons, Gus, Walter and Alfred, and a few engaged artists—began travelling south-eastern Australia as The St Leon Troupe, accumulating experience and polish as they moved from town to town. Master Alfred, the youngest of the troupe, was clearly the peoples’ favourite. He was nine years of age when the Troupe returned to Beechworth in June 1868:

Master Alfred St Leon is one of the most wonderful children we have ever seen on the stage. The child can scarcely be more than seven or eight years of age [sic] … and yet he shows such a knowledge of stage business, and has such funny, dry little ways about him, that it is impossible to look at the boy without laughing. Any child can be taught to repeat a lot of “gags” but there are very few who can deliver them in the smart, “cheeky” … little way that Master Alfred does.39

When the Troupe visited Wagga Wagga in October 1869, Master Alfred had passed his tenth birthday:

… Crowded houses have testified every night to the merits, vocal, acrobatic, and otherwise of the Troupe. Master Alfred St Leon is perhaps the “gem of the evening”. His make-up and manner are both admirable, and his song, “Some lady’s lost her chignon”, irresistible ...40

By July 1874, the family was travelling South Australia with its own small circus, the foundation of St Leon’s Circus.41

Alfred St Leon

In St Leon’s Circus by 1878, the horsemanship of the 19-year-old Alfred was described as:

excellent—the master manner in which he revolves a somersault through two balloons, while his horse is at full speed, puts him forward as one of the first performers on horseback of the day ...42

In March 1881, St Leon’s Mammoth Circus, by then the largest circus in the colonies, played opposition to Woodyear’s Circus at Hay, New South Wales. The encounter gave the dashing young Alfred St Leon sight of his opposite number, Vernon Ida Cousins. Before the year was out, 23-year-old Alfred and 19-year-old Vernon Ida had married.43

Vernon Ida was the daughter of Reuben and Jennie Cousins and was so named for the ss Vernon, the 891-ton ship on which she was born at sea on 29 December 1862, as her parents were returning to Australia after touring India. Reuben—his correct name was John Plevy Bumpuss—was “a very good clown of the heavy class but … exceedingly nimble for his weight … while almost all his jests have the charm of being new.”44 Jennie was better known as the famed equestrienne, Mdlle La Rosiere, “one of the few lady riders who could execute the difficult and strenuous bounding jockey act to perfection”.45 Jennie imparted her equestrian savoir-faire to her daughter Vernon Ida.46

Vernon Ida joined her husband in the St Leon circus and appeared in the circus ring under her professional name of “Ida Vernon”.47 However, mention of Vernon Ida on the circus program was not continuous, no doubt due to her regular bouts of pregnancy. Vernon Ida and Alfred had seven children, six of whom survived infancy, their varied birthplaces revealing the family’s peripatetic existence:


Name at birth Date of birth Place of birth Death
Golda 2 October 1882 Ipswich, QLD Detroit, MI, 1939
Elsie May 14 October 1887 Sydney, NSW Los Angeles, CA, 1976
Myrtle August 1887 Grafton, NSW Melbourne, VIC, 1890
Alfred George 16 June 1890 Sydney, NSW Los Angeles, CA, 1955
Ida Jennie 16 January 1894 Sydney, NSW Los Angeles, CA, 1961
Gail Vera January 1897 China New York, NY, 1947
Roy Eugene February 1899 Spokane, WA Riverside, CA, 1971



st leon image 15aAdvertisement for St Leon’s Grand Palace Circus & Menagerie, Wollongong. From Illawarra Mercury, November 1883. By 1883, the cavalcade of St Leon’s “150 men and horses”, brightly painted wagons, menagerie of wild animals and glittering band carriage extended over half a mile in length.48 During its summer Sydney season of 1883–84, over £5000 was taken and Matthew St Leon acclaimed “one of the cleverest equestrians” to have visited the city.49 In 1885, the St Leon circus was divided into two companies, one of which, St Leon’s Royal Palace Circus, was taken on a year-long tour of New Zealand by the brothers, Gus and Alfred St Leon.50 Although the two companies were re-united in 1887, the St Leon circus had passed its zenith and by July 1889, “bad business principally caused by floods whilst travelling” had forced Matthew St Leon into insolvency.51 Although the family circus was soon re-organised, the end of an exuberant colonial land boom soon triggered the failure of the banks and a decade-long economic recession. At Stoney Creek, outside Mudgee, in March 1891,

“St Leon’s Circus … pitched their tent near the new bridge and duly notified the farmers all round. On the evening of the opening a large crowd assembled near the tent, and on reading the programme retired to hold a meeting. A deputation was appointed to interview the proprietor and inform him that his charge of 2s. was excessive, that one and all were willing to pay the level shilling, but that if he were resolved to adhere to the two, they meant to ‘strike’ for home again. Wisdom prevailed, and he took the shilling. His seats were full, and the audience enjoyed themselves. Who will say after this that there is no good in unionism?”52

With their growing families to support, each of the three St Leon brothers sought other opportunities.

After periods spent with Perry’s Circus (1893) and Abell & Klaer’s Circus (1894), Alf St Leon and his young family toured Tasmania early in 1895 with a circus organised by the entrepreneur Frank M. Clark, under the name of “Burton’s Circus”. Upon its return to the mainland, the Burton company became the nucleus of Wirth’s Pacific Circus organised by Harry Wirth to tour the Pacific Islands. Wirth chartered the steamer Katoomba for the voyage to New Caledonia from where the company shipped for the Fiji Islands and Hawaii. The money made in Honolulu was lost on the subsequent visit to Japan. Wirth was heavily in debt by the time his Pacific Circus began visiting the seaports of China. On the last day of the company’s visit to Shanghai, a horrible, hot day, Wirth became delirious with sunstroke and died. The company broke up. Some of its artists returned to Australia but Alf St Leon and his family continued their wanderings throughout the Far East. Joining Willison’s Great World Circus, the family again toured China and Japan. The final performance of Willison’s Great World Circus in Japan was purportedly given in the Imperial Gardens at Kyoto.53 Willison then shipped his company to Honolulu.54 In May 1898, from Honolulu, Willison wrote to the New York Clipper:

... We have just finished a highly successful tour of the Hawaiian Islands, visiting towns where the name ‘circus’ had never been heard of. Transportation has been the great difficulty experienced, but the plantation managers have assisted where transport companies failed to connect … We have just returned to Honolulu in time to get the [Spanish-American] war news ... So, it has been decided to switch off and go back to Australia, the country where this show first saw the light. Nearly all the performers are Australians and have been away from their native land quite a few years, and are looking forward to their return with glad hearts ...55

But there was a last-minute change of plans for Willison’s did not return to Australia. Its next port-of-call was Vancouver where, soon, the circus was dissolved and, once again, Alf St Leon and his family were left on their own resources.

st leon image 16aThe St Leon Family, Boonton, New Jersey c.1900 [Alfred, Vernon Ida, Elsie May, George and Ida Jennie]. Mark St Leon Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.


Organising a circus of its own—St Leon’s Australian Circus—the family crossed the border into Washington state to enter the United States and from there took their acrobatic act onto the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.56 By this time Alf St Leon, his wife Vernon Ida, and three of their children, Elsie May (14), George (8) and Ida Jennie (4) were performing together as an acrobatic troupe.57

Ida Jennie began her circus training as a contortionist. As she grew, she added tumbling, wire walking and trapeze to her accomplishments. At 10, she began training as a bareback rider.58

The first decades of the 20th century saw the circus reach its zenith as America’s most popular form of entertainment.59 By 1900, America had more railroad track than all of Europe, including Russia, and bigger shows with greater wonders could visit every corner of the nation. While railroads could profitably bring the circus train to town, streetcars could bring the town to the circus. A circus just had to let the people know it was coming and bring the latest acts, music, songs, jokes and sideshow exhibits with it.60

It was against this backdrop that Alfred St Leon and his family landed their first circus engagement and began their rise in American show business. Billed as “The Australian Wonders”, the family of “acrobatic artists and riders” and its trained monkey “Jocko”, opened with W.H. Harris’s World Famous Nickel Plate Shows in Chicago in April 1900. 61

From Chicago, the Nickel Plate Shows, a railroad circus carried on 10 cars, started on its tour of the United States. In advance of each town visited, the advertising men placed elaborate lithographs, emblazoned with circus scenes, in store windows and on billboards. On “circus day”, the circus band headed a colourful parade, seated atop its elegant bandwagon decorated with carvings, gold leaf and mirrors and drawn by a team of camels. Tickets to the circus cost 10 or 20 cents and another 10 cents to see the sideshow and menagerie. Under a four-pole “big top”, the performance was given under gasoline lights in a ring of sawdust enclosed by an “old-time” ring bank of dirt.62

st leon image 19bCourier for the William P. Hall Shows, 1905. Mark St Leon collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.After two seasons with the Nickel Plate Shows, 1900 and 1901, the family spent the next two circus seasons, 1902 and 1903, with Forepaugh & Sells Bros, America’s third largest circus. This three-ring circus opened its 1902 season in Madison Square Garden.63 Among the 183 performers were The Five St Leons—Alf, his wife Ida, and their children, Elsie, George and Ida Jennie. Previously promoted as “Australian wonders”, the family was now promoted to an unsuspecting American public as “one of the greatest creations in Arenic Art by La Belle France” and comprised:

unquestionably the handsomest acrobats in the world. They augment their perfection of face and form with the most elaborate costumings ever seen in the arena. Their feats of strength, agility and general proficiency in athletic and acrobatic work places them easily at the head of the most pleasing performers of their class that Europe has sent to this country. They are the beau ideals of polite performers.64

Following Forepaugh-Sells, Alfred St Leon and his family were engaged for the season 1904 by another large circus, The Great Floto Shows.65 For the season of 1905, they were on the payroll of the Great William P. Hall Shows. A horse dealer of Lancaster, Missouri, Hall had made a fortune supplying the British army with horses and mules during the Boer War and then supplying the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair with several hundred horses for a popular Boer War re-enactment.66 Over the winter of 1904–05, Hall organised The Great William P. Hall Shows, and opened in Lancaster on the evening of Monday, 6 May 1905.67 A few weeks later, the New York Clipper reported:

... The acts put on by the St Leon family of acrobats, and which is the feature of the Hall programme, is a great drawing card, and brings forth great applause from the audience. It certainly deserves great credit for wonderful achievement in this line of work ...68

Although the Hall show reported good business early in the season, receipts tapered off. The year 1905 was a poor one for circuses and travelling shows generally, especially in the central states due to crop failures. The show train was involved in an accident and the tent was twice blown down. From Iowa, the Hall show returned to Missouri to close where it began, in Lancaster, on 30 August 1905 and did not tour again.69

The St Leons returned to New York and the approaching winter to await the spring and the start of another annual touring season. Fortunately, an offer came to tour a warmer Cuba over the winter with the “Barnum of Cuba”, Antonio Pubillones. The family sailed for Havana to open at the National Theatre on Friday, 9 November 1905.70 The reputation of the “San Leons” (as the Cubans called the family), equestrians and acrobats, preceded them.

Returning to the United States, the family travelled to Peru, Indiana, to join The Great Wallace Show for its annual touring season, inaugurated at the Wallace winter quarters, on 21 April 1906.71 Owned by Ben E. Wallace, The Great Wallace Show was a notorious “grift” show which hired professional pickpockets to work the crowds and employed ticket sellers who sold tickets from a ticket wagon window above eye level so that patrons would not see their change being miscounted. The more moral, family-oriented circuses forbade gambling, swearing, drinking, sloppy dress and fraternisation with “towners” and were often a more wholesome place in which to raise children than many of America’s cities and towns. However, probably unwittingly, Alf St Leon and his family found themselves employed in this “grift” show for the American circus season of 1906.72

st leon image 20bCourier for the Great Wallace Shows, 1906 (left) and Ida Jennie and George St Leon performing cakewalk dance on the tightwire, Luna Park, Coney Island, New York, c.1908. Both Author’s collection.

After the Wallace engagement, Alf St Leon and his family made another visit to Cuba for Pubillones over the winter of 1906–07. The family acts included an acrobatic act, double trapeze, and an act of two horses guided by “two beautiful young ladies”, the sisters Elsie and Ida Jennie, dressed in costumes decorated with electric lights.73

For the season of 1907, Alfred St Leon once again joined Forepaugh-Sells. Elsie did some “pretty work” on horseback. George and Ida Jennie performed a clever wirewalking act with a cakewalk dance at the finish.74


To be continued



1. Ida was baptised Ida Jennie St Leon Jones. In some records. “Jennie” was spelt as “Jeannie”. She was also known as “Ida Jane St Leon”. [Sydney, Anglican Parish Registers, 1814–2011].

2. Kwint, Marius, 2002, ‘The Legitimisation of the Circus in Late Georgian England’, Past & Present, No. 174, February-March, p.78.

3. Speaight, George, 1980, A History of Circus, London: The Tantivy Press, p.34.

4. An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds and the Relief of the Poor and Impotent, 14, Eliz. 1, c. 5, 1572.

5. Hartnoll, Phyllis and Found, Peter [eds.], (1992), The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

6. Stoddart, Helen 2000, Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp.49, 50.

7. Bemrose, Paul, 1992, Circus Genius: A Tribute to Philip Astley, 17421814, Newcastle-Under-Lyme: Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council, p.46.

8. Hoh, La Vahn G., and Rough, William H., 1990, Step Right Up! The Adventure of Circus in America, White Hall, Virginia: Betterway Publications Inc., p.70; Speaight, 1980, 112–15.

9. Saxon, Arthur H., 1968, Enter Foot and Horse: A History of Hippodrama in England and France, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.1–29.

10. Speaight, 1980, p.38.

11. Kwint, 2002, p.114.

12. Cornwall Chronicle, 3 January 1846.

13. Cornwall Chronicle, 1, 29 December 1847.

14. Archives Office of Tasmania: CSO 24/4/58; Cornwall Chronicle, 11 March 1848.

15. Finn, Edmund G. ‘Garryowen’, 1888, repr. 1988, The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852: Historical, Anecdotal and Personal, Melbourne: Ferguson & Mitchell, pp.489–90.

16. Clamp, P. G., 1984, ‘Climbing boys, childhood, and society in nineteenth century England’, Journal of Psychohistory, Vol. 12, No. 2, Fall, pp.199–200.

17. Morning Post, 15 May 1818.

18. Tasmania Archives: CON33/1/44; National Archives: HO9/14.

19. Van Diemen’s Land, Marriages, 1848, #1789.

20. Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 1850.

21. Australian Town & Country Journal, 3 August 1904.

22. Bathurst Free Press, 27 September 1851.

23. Finn, 1888 repr. 1988, p.489.

24. Geelong Advertiser, 1 December 1852.

25. Serle, Geoffrey, 1977, The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria 1851-1861, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, p.167.

26. Anon., ‘One who was there’, The Australasian Bandsman, 26 October 1923.

27. Burke, Peter, 1994, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, Aldershot, Ashgate

28. Gregory, Helen, 1985, Goanna: The Genuine Bush Remedy, Brisbane: J.C. Marconi Company, p.1.

29. Mudgee Liberal, 6 July 1858.

30. Ovens & Murray Advertiser, 22 March 1859.

31. Ovens & Murray Advertiser, 29 March 1859.

32. Morrison, 1867, cited by Cannon, Michael, 1973, Life in the Country. Australia in the Victorian Age: Volume 2, South Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia Ltd, p.247.

33. Wagga Wagga Express, 12 January 1861.

34. Mercury, 2 April 1863; Cornwall Chronicle, 29 April 1863.

35. Cornwall Chronicle, 21 March 1863.

36. Gippsland Guardian, 2 September 1864.

37. Argus, 27 January 1865.

38. Argus, 30 January 1865.

39. Ovens & Murray Advertiser, 11 June 1868.

40. Wagga Wagga Advertiser, 6 October 1869.

41. Northern Argus, 19 June 1874.

42. Richmond River Express, 11 May 1878.

43. Registrar-General, Victoria, Marriages, 1881, #4565.

44. Bendigo Advertiser, 18 March 1865.

45. Pattison, J. Grant, 1939, Battler’s Tales of Early Rockhampton, Melbourne: Fraser and Jenkenson Pty Limited, p. 89.

46. Hobart Mercury, 4 March 1873.

47. Launceston Examiner, 2 February 1884.

48. Colac Herald, 19 January 1883.

49. Sydney Morning Herald, 5, 10 January 1884.

50. New Zealand Herald, 9 October 1885.

51. Argus, 20 August 1889.

52. Sydney Mail, 4 April 1891.

53. Unsourced clipping, Locke collection, New York Public Library.

54. Hippisley Coxe, Anthony, 1980, A Seat at the Circus, 1980, London: Macmillan, p.39.

55. New York Clipper, 21 May 1898.

56. Unsourced clipping, Harvard Theatre Collection.

57. Sunday Tribune, 27 February 1910.

58. King, Floyd, ‘Ring and Stage are Close Kin’, Billboard, 19 December 1914.

59. Hamlin Garland quoted in Culhane, John, 1989, The American Circus: An Illustrated History, New York: Henry Holt & Company, p.142.

60. Culhane, 1989, p.163.

61. New York Clipper, 31 March 1900.

62. Charlie Duble, ‘The W. H. Harris World-Famous Nickel Plate Show: A Circus Day of Forty-Seven Years Ago’, Hobby Bandwagon, Vol. 3, No. 8, September 1948.

63. Billboard, 12 April 1902.

64. Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin, Courier.

65. Los Angeles Evening Express, 12 March 1904.

66. R. E. Cams, ‘An interesting account of the William P. Hall circus boneyard’, Bandwagon, Vol. 1, No. 10, October 1942.

67. Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin, Program File, P8.

68. New York Clipper, 15 July 1905.

69. Pfening III, Fred D., ‘William P. Hall’ in Missouri Historical Review, Journal of the State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri: Spring 1968.

70. Diario de la Marieo Marana, 9 November 1905.

71. Billboard, 12 May 1906.

72. Hoh, La Vahn G and Rough, William H., 1990, pp.140–41.

73. Diario de la Mari Marana, 9 November 1906.

74. Variety, 26 October 1907.