The Flea Circus
Cockerill and Jon Marshall
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
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.
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
and is working to re-create and preserve the extraordinary world
of the sideshow.
handbill detailing the full activities of flea performance.
If you have a question you would like
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