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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Hippodrome Circus, Yarmouth: Historic, Cultural, Showbiz Palace

Hippodrome Circus, Yarmouth: Historic, Cultural, Showbiz Palace

Yarmouth Hippodrome's Stunning Facia - Nick Marshall, Gt Yarmouth Tourism
A unique, custom-built circus at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, UK appeals equally to nostalgists, historians, and lovers of all-round family entertainment.

‘Hippodrome’ is from the Greek, meaning a stadium for horse/chariot racing, equivalent to the Roman circus. It was neither amphitheatre (sports, games), nor theatre as such. Over the years many British theatres and places of general entertainment were named Hippodrome.

The one at Great Yarmouth is a circus. Standing just off the seafront, surrounded by the somewhat run-down faded glory of seaside entertainments and catering, the magnificent edifice of the Hippodrome rises up, proud and welcoming.

The Theatres Trust calls it a “building of outstanding importance”, pointing out there are only two purpose-built permanent circuses in Britain (the other is Blackpool Tower Circus) still in full working order, and probably only four or five operational pre-1950 circuses left in the world.

The Uniqueness of Yarmouth’s Hippodrome Circus

The “true Hippodrome”, according to The Theatres Trust, is one whose “traditional sawdust ring can be flooded for water spectacles”. The floor sinks into rising water from below, fed by sprinklers at the edges. The transformation as ground becomes water is dramatically incorporated into the show.

Don Stacey explained in his book, The Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth, how below the sinking ring, an eight feet deep asphalted well connects to a cast iron tank with a capacity of 12,000 gallons. He quoted the Eastern Daily Press on the opening in July 1903: “The water in this tank will be heated just up to boiling point and run into the ring at the same time with the cold, so the entire 60,000 gallons may be of comfortable temperature for artistes and animals”.

Synchronized swimmers, comedy routines and light shows lend themselves to spectacle under “traditional, unadorned arena seating for 3000 covered by a shallow arched roof”. The terracotta exterior is more imposing: “three bays, defined by two short outer towers and two taller, domed inner towers with Art Nouveau ornament. It has a big lunette window to each bay”.

The acoustics are praised, and other uses besides circus include orchestral concerts and dramas. Prime Minster Stanley Baldwin addressed a mass meeting in 1928. The stables used when animal circuses were commonplace and acceptable are still intact.

Hippodrome History, from Yarmouth to Lowestoft

The building was designed by Ralph Scott Cockrill, from a local family of builders and architects, for the circus proprietor George Gilbert. His Hippodrome roof was zinc to render it virtually fireproof. His interpretation of the Art Nouveau style was regarded as inventive.

He also designed Lowestoft’s Hippodrome, 10 miles south, which opened in 1904, and in the words of Peter Clements in his book Lowestoft: 200 Years a Seaside Resort, “having been constructed in little over a fortnight!” It is thought 400,000 bricks were used in what must have been a bricklaying marathon.

It offered circus entertainment with a sliding roof for fresh air, had animal displays and the sunken floor for flooding. It operated only two years as a circus before becoming a variety and later film venue. In World War 2 it was a marshalling house for children being evacuated to the countryside, and then became a bingo hall. It burned down in 1999, and was rebuilt for bingo, leaving Yarmouth Hippodrome as the lone circus in eastern England.

Circus Ups and Downs

Amidst all the breathtaking high-wire acts, wheels of death, daredevil riders, acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, animals, swimmers, dancers, and clowns who have performed in or above the ring, there have been tragedies too. In August 1987, nationally renowned wrestler ‘Big Daddy’ had a bout with Mal ‘King Kong’ Kirk, and used his ‘splash routine’, after which Kirk groaned, turned purple and died later in Yarmouth hospital.

In August 2003 experienced trapeze artist Eva Garcia (38) from Birmingham plunged 30 feet onto her head when she lost her grip on a jammed wire in full view of the capacity crowd. She died two hours later, to the shock of the entire Hippodrome and circus community.

Katherine Hamilton maintains a Hippodrome fanzine, and when asked, confirms the rumour that “the spirit of George Gilbert resides within the walls of the Hippodrome and is not afraid to let himself be known”. Several witnesses have agreed there are supernatural goings-on.

As a boy in 1948, local historian Clive Manson saw “Mr O’Brien talking to ‘nobody’ in the ring”. He believed it was O’Brien’s uncle, George Gilbert. 1980s and ’90s ringmaster David Hibling saw a chimp scream at “nothing” one night, and on another he “heard and felt ‘someone’ walk across the ring while it was being dried and painted about 2am”.

A ring boy from the 1970s, Martin Swann, reported a young worker who had seen the ghost of Swinging Billy, a former worker who hanged himself from the trapdoor in the ceiling opposite the main doors.

The Personalities

Of all the characters, performers, managers, and owners over the years, it is the Jay family that have kept the building alive. Ben Jay bought Lowestoft’s Hippodrome in 1938, his son Jack changed it to variety and ran entertainment outlets in Yarmouth. When Yarmouth Hippodrome came on the market in 1978, he and his son Peter bought it to prevent it being turned into a rival bingo club.

Peter had a successful career leading Peter Jay and The Jaywalkers, with a Top 20 hit and touring with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Tina Turner and the Beach Boys. In the early 21st century, Peter saw his own son, Jack, grow into ringmaster/compere and straight man for a clown.

So, the dynasty continues; the building thrives; circus lives. This is circus traceable straight back to the Italian commedia dell’Arte and into the classless family entertainment it is to this day.

Read On

Photo: Yarmouth Hippodrome’s Stunning Facia – Nick Marshall, Gt Yarmouth Tourism

First published on Suite 101, 5 January 2011

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