The Flea Circus

by Tim Cockerill and Jon Marshall

 

 Fairground Flea Circus - external signs and slogans.

 

Step Right Up! See tiny real Fleas performing! There are many who doubt that these performances existed but in fact even in fairly recent times audiences would pay their sixpence to be amazed by real live fleas pulling chariots, riding tricycles and even fighting duels with perfectly crafted miniature swords. From humble beginnings, the flea circus developed over its history to be among the most popular and enduring of travelling shows.

As early as the sixteenth century, the naturalist Thomas Muffet wrote of a craftsman who fashioned a chain as long as a man's finger, complete with lock and key, that were so small as to be pulled along by a single flea. As well as this, the flea drew a tiny coach made of gold, perfect in every way. Patrons could marvel at the expert craftsmanship on display, highlighted by the tiny flea, a familiar resident in households of the time. Such displays of miniature manufacture continued into the nineteenth century, but accounts of the time suggest that their popularity was by then waning. By the 1830s, street entertainers had made a small but ingenious change to the exhibition that would secure its ongoing popularity. They changed the focus from the tiny artefacts to the fleas themselves, and the displays were now sold as exhibitions of performing or educated fleas.

 

      Note the obligatory royal patronage as seen with many fairground shows.

 

The man really responsible for the fame of the performing flea is the peerless Louis Bertolotto. By 1832, the Italian-born impresario had transformed the backstreet-curiosity of the performing flea into an exhibition worthy of royalty. The Extraordinary Exhibition of the Industrious Fleas debuted in London and consisted of a whole programme of engaging feats performed solely by trained fleas. Spectators (including, we are assured by Bertolotto, her Royal Highness Princess Augusta) could witness 'A first rate Man of War, of 120 guns...drawn by a single flea; two fleas, deciding an affair of honour, sword in hand; and a gig drawn by a flea, containing a lady and gentleman', among many others. Bertolotto was still performing in the 1870s, now in the USA, and over his history spawned many imitators. His showmanship and ingenuity secured the legacy of the exhibition of the performing flea which lasted another 100 years.

 

The late nineteenth century saw the great age of the travelling circus; 'The Largest Show on Earth' was rivalled by the flea exhibitors with 'The Smallest Show on Earth', and the exhibition of performing fleas became known as the Flea Circus.

 

Flea shows could also be seen at exhibitions and seaside resorts throughout the Victorian era. In Blackpool Professor Vidoco's Circus was advertised at 42 Church Street as far back as 1887 and later Blackpool hosted many such shows including those of Professors Axel, Brown and Wood.

 

      Rare detail of internal workings.

 

By the twentieth century, the flea circus had grown to be a stalwart of the fairground sideshows. The Testo family with Alf Testo and Vic Jefferies were pre-eminent as Flea Circus proprietors on the fairground. Len Tomlin had a well known Flea show at Manchester's Belle Vue Amusement Park for some years.

 

An ideal exhibition suitable for the whole family, flea circuses could keep audiences returning year after year and continued in their popularity up until the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the reason for the decline in the flea circus was not lack of public interest, rather a lack of performers. As levels of household cleanliness increased, and with the advent of modern insecticides and the vacuum cleaner, human fleas, the only suitable subjects for the flea circus, declined. According to most accounts, dog and cat fleas simply lack the strength and stamina necessary to perform the feats of the flea circus, so exhibitions around the country were gradually forced to retire.

 

Although there are a few performers still presenting shows with real animal fleas, when available, modern audiences can still enjoy the fun of the flea circus with Flea Circus Professors who use showmanship and humbug to re-create all the fun of an Edwardian Flea Circus with a touch of Barnum's bunkum.

 

About the authors:

Tim Cockerill - real Flea Circus presenter and Zoologist is researching the history of the Flea Circus and experimenting with performing fleas.

Jon Marshall is part of Sideshow Illusions and is working to re-create and preserve the extraordinary world of the sideshow.

 

19th Century handbill detailing the full activities of flea performance.

National Fairground Archive presents The Sheffield Jungle


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