|Drawing of Ashton's Circus in Clermont, 1873. Courtesy of the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.|
The origins of the circus are a little cloudy, but in 1849 in Hobart a man named Thomas Mollor, the licensee of the Bath Hotel in Murray Street, advertised some circus acts associated with the Hotel. Ashton was performing feats of daredevil riding in that entertainment. Whether Mollor had a long background in circuses is not certain. It seems possible that he was the convict of that name who arrived by the Mangles.
In early 1850 Mollor announced that he was leaving the country. A new company was formed to take over the equestrian horses and circus equipment. Interestingly this included not only James Ashton, but Mrs Ashton, who also performed with the circus. In the early 1850s the circus was touring in Queensland and New South Wales, and by 1855 had arrived in Bendigo. They had probably found the goldfields to be a lucrative source of customers, and in 1858 they had arrived at Beechworth.
|LATEST EUROPEAN INTELLIGENCE. (1854, May 6). Illustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1853 - 1872), p. 5. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63614282|
Evidently there was a core group of circus performers, and local musicians were employed to fill in for the musical entertainment. In the large advertisement taken out in the Advertiser on 6 April 1858, many familiar names were mentioned - Mr Zeplin on the harp; Billy Barlow was to give his 'opinions'; Mr Griffiths (sic) on the violin. In addition to the locals were: Mr Faulkner on the banjo; Mr Ashton on the flautina; Mr Sams on the tamborine; Troy Knight on the bones; and Fritz Bimes as Leader of the Military Band;
And Mr Griffiths as the "Leader of the Nigger Band".
Oh dear. One can only hope he wasn't wearing blackface to really disgrace the family.
|Advertising. (1858, April 6). Ovens and Murray Advertiser (Beechworth, Vic. : 1857 - 1918), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article113237500|
"Minstrel" entertainment was extraordinarily popular at this time, and continued to be so for many decades.
The "Boston Serenaders" who appeared on the bill, may have been Minstrels, and constituted the main claim to being an American Circus.
The Robert O'Hara Burke Memorial Museum has in its collection a glass slide of Ashton's Circus entering Beechworth via Camp Street. The street is strangely empty apart from a horse and cart keeping to the opposite side of the road. The horse looks rather alarmed, and has a rider on its back case it took it into its head to bolt. This photo is included in a book by Peter M Shea, called Champagne from Six to Six: a short social history of entertainments and recreations at the Beechworth and Ovens' goldfields Victoria 1852-1877. (Durham, CT: Eloquent Books, 2010.)