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September 2000

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Oh! What a Circus: 'Lord' George Sanger - Son of Newbury

Julie Goddard

In the latter end of the nineteenth century, so it is said, a short, dark man, clad in riding breeches, a black frock coat and top hat, could be found at least once a year, on a spot near where the Newbury police station is now, gazing at a row of tumbledown cottages and giving a large theatrical sigh. Locals then knew, if they did not know already, that Sanger's Circus had come to town and that George had come to look at the house where he was born.

Lord George Sanger 'Lord' George Sanger - taken a few years before his death.

According to his own account, George Sanger was born on 23rd December 1827, in Newbury because it was the circus rest season and his parents had returned to the town where they had relatives in the fruit and vegetable trade market. His father, James, was from a Wiltshire farming family (although family legend claims that they were descended from a jester at the court of King John), but had tired of the drudgery of agricultural work and set out for London. On the way there he was captured by the press gang and served for ten years in the Royal Navy, where he was wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar. He subsequently received a pension of l0 a year and a letter from a grateful government saying that he was entitled to pursue any lawful trade he wished, without restraint, in any part of the kingdom.

On returning home he found that the reception from his family was not particularly welcome, so he made himself a small, primitive peepshow and attached himself to a travelling fair. His favourite display was The Battle of Trafalgar', which of course he could, he said, describe in vivid detail from personal experience. At Bristol he attracted the attention of a young lady's maid, a 'Miss Elliott'; the interest was mutual and they married soon after. During the summer they travelled from fair to fair in a homemade caravan, but in the winter they stayed with relatives at Newbury. As their family grew they rented a house in Kings Road, opposite the Gas Works, which was demolished when the first bypass went through the town.

This was the story as it was told by George in his old age in his (probably 'ghost written') autobiography. Certainly there were Sangers living in the west of Wiltshire at the relevant time, but I have not been able to trace a James Sanger who fits the description George gives, nor a marriage around Bristol of a James Sanger to a 'Miss Elliott'. As far as his naval service is concerned, while he may have been press-ganged on his way to London, press-gangs did not operate at random. They tended to select experienced seamen who had been to sea before. It is just as likely that he volunteered as many did, not so much for the glory, but for the incentive of prize money. This appealed not just to officers but equally to able seamen. There is some evidence for the Trafalgar story. In 1847 a Naval General Service Medal was granted to survivors who had participated in the Trafalgar action. Some 1613 clasps were awarded to the veterans. In the medal roll there were at least two seamen called James Sanger: one was a Royal Marine on board HMS Defence and another an able seaman on board the Victory. Surprisingly the Victory muster roll does not show any Sanger on board at the time of the battle. The letter could have been a discharge certificate and it is possible that the l0 per year was a pension, roughly equivalent to an able seaman's pay, for some kind of wound.

As to the story of relatives at Newbury; these are said to be the Brindley family and several Newburians claim to be related to the Sangers and Brindleys. However, George died in 1911 and no one alive can claim to have known him intimately.

Dressing for the Circus 'Dressing up for the Circus performance'

George was the sixth of ten children, his brothers being John (1815-1889) and William (1826-l901) and one of his sisters was Sarah (1830-1901) who became Mrs. Crockett. All the children received an education of sorts in the winter months. Opinions differ as to how well George could read and write. He could certainly write his signature, and (it is said) quote long passages from Shakespeare and other writers from memory, but after his wife's death he was thrown into confusion because she did all the accounts and letters. What George could do was talk. At an early age he was employed upon his father's stall, encouraging customers to spend their money. By 1833 the family was travelling around the country going from fair to fair. In his autobiography he tells of those rough old days; of fights, murders, rough justice and trickery. The family left Newbury after a dispute between the corporation and James Sanger over taxes he was said to have owed. In a rage James packed up his family and left for London, never to return.

George always said, and repeated it to Queen Victoria no less, that he had his first professional engagement on the day of her coronation, 24th June 1838, when he acted as 'patterer' for Malabar the juggler. Malabar having left without paying him, George decided to set up on his own. He began by selling confectionery, but then began to train animals captured in the countryside around Newbury to perform tricks. He was said to have a knack for training animals, but his methods would certainly not pass the scrutiny of the RSPCA and the more tender consciences we have today.

In 1848 he met and fell in love with Ellen (Nellie) Chapman, the lady lion tamer from Wombwell's circus. They could not afford to marry immediately and George, with his brothers, John and William, toured the country to raise money. But in 1849 one of the worst cholera epidemics struck many parts of Britain. James, in London, became ill and died before his sons could reach him. Returning to London, George married Ellen and took the widowed Mrs. Sanger to live with them.

Mrs Ellen Sanger Mrs. Ellen Sanger alias Madame Pauline de Vere, the Lady of the Lions

In 1851 the Great Exhibition was held at Hyde Park. Fairmen were allowed to set up outside the exhibition hall and they hoped to make money from the thousands of expected visitors. At the beginning of May they set out their colourful stalls around the Palace - then it began to rain. It rained heavily on and off all that summer (when the sun did shine it became insufferably hot inside the giant glasshouse) and the gaudy stalls became bogged down in sticky mud, the flags and bunting became bedraggled and their colours ran. In the end the stallholders left. Penniless, George and his family went back to travelling the roads. In 1853 things were still so bad that when their baby son died, the show had to go on to pay for his funeral.

Circus arriving at Oxford Circus arriving at St. Giles Fair, Oxford

According to George's autobiography, the following year George and his brothers stayed in Norfolk during the winter months with their families. It was here that the germ of the idea of having their own circus took root. Between them they built a ring. George trained a horse and its riders, John took care of the finance and bookings and William painted the advertisements and scene . By this time John was also married and there were several small Sangers to train in horse riding tricks. The circus began from small beginnings, but as their reputation grew, more artistes, animals and people to look after them were employed. Advance parties were required to put up notices, book fields and fodder for the animals, and the wives busied themselves looking after a growing band of children, and mending the costumes.

Twenty years later the brothers, George and John (William had already left to pursue his own interests), besides running Sanger's Travelling Circus, had bought the old Astley's Amphitheatre in Westminster Bridge Road, London, and also the Agricultural Hall in Islington and were putting on spectacular daily shows to enormous crowds. But the business had grown too big for two bosses with differing opinions, and an amicable split of their assets was made, each brother bidding for a lot, turn by turn, until everything had been disposed of. George (now styling himself 'Lord' George) decided to try his luck on the continent and John travelled Britain with his own circus.

George had two daughters: Laurina (1853-1882) who married Alexander (Sandy) Coleman and Sarah Harriett who married Arthur Reeve, son of the then Mayor of Margate. This connection with Margate led George to purchase land in the town and build 'The Hall by the Sea' and open an entertainment centre and menagerie with brother William managing it. A similar venture was opened at Ramsgate.

John Sanger's circus travelled under the name "John Sanger and Sons". He married Elizabeth Atkins and they had several children: John (1853-1929) who called himself 'Lord'John Sanger, married Rebeeca Pinder; Layinia, married Peter Hoffman, a horse breaker and haute ecole exponent; George, married his cousin Georgina Coleman; James married Babs Pinder. There was also William about whom I know nothing further.

George, as well as having a circus travelling on the continent, still had one on the road in England - sometimes called'George Sanger and Daughters'. It is calculated that in a nine months season it visited over two hundred towns, giving two shows a day, every day except Sunday. Their road train between sites was said to be two miles long and had (according to another proprietor Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake) 'at least ten wagons to carry the tent and seating, a lamp wagon, eight or ten living carriages, a foal wagon, ten wild beast wagons full of lions, tigers, bears and others, a harness wagon, a portable blacksmith's forge, property wagons, wardrobe and dressing wagons, a band carriage and at least six great tableau cars for the parade'. No wonder that the arrival of the circus meant that classrooms were depleted of schoolchildren - or the school was closed for the day in acknowledgement that there would be many truants - and townsfolk lined the streets to see the free show, before rushing to buy tickets for the performances. In Newbury, George would make sure that all the inhabitants of the workhouse who wanted free tickets got them as well as gifts of tobacco and sweets from his generous pocket.

At the time of Queen Victoria's death in l901 he had decided to present a statue of his revered monarch to the town. It would have needed a braver town council than was in power at the time to have refused the gift, even if it was to George's taste and not theirs. The figure of Queen Victoria in her state robes, on top of a stepped plinth with four arms, a lion crouching on each arm of the plinth. A statue of Fame, holding a laurel wreath, was added at the last moment. This was placed at George's direction in the Market Place on the spot where his father's market stall once stood.

Sanger Grave The Sanger grave at Margate Cemetery, Kent

George's brother John died at Ipswich in 1889 and was buried in Margate Cemetery under a magnificent statue of a horse in mourning and this became the Sanger family graveyard. George's wife who died in 1899 was buried there, as were their children and grandchildren. George continued until 1905 but competition from other popular entertainments forced the sale of the major part of his show and he retired to the circus winter quarters at Finchley. He began to feel his years and was said to have become uncertain in temper. According to reports in The Times' he dismissed one of his servants, Herbert Cooper, for allegedly stealing 50. One evening in November 1911 while George and his menfolk were at home, Cooper returned to the house, it is said to retrieve some of his property. After an exchange of words, he picked up a razor which had been left handy for veterinary work on the animals, and attacked Arthur Jackson, making cuts on his throat. One of the Sanger grandsons-in-law, Harry Austin, hearing a commotion, rushed in and Cooper attacked him with the house wood-axe which was nearby. Being an agile former circus performer, Austin was able to dodge most of the blows, but caught some on his arm. 'Lord' George heard the altercations and is said to have risen from his chair. The next thing that everyone agrees upon is that 'Lord' George was found on the floor with one or more wounds to the head and a large broken ornament on the floor near him. All were aghast, including Cooper, who fled into the night. Austin climbed through a window to go after him, while others attended to 'Lord' George, who roused sufficiently to be fussed over, given medical attention, and put to bed. However, he became worse and died in the night. Herbert Cooper appears to have returned to the shelter where he had been living since dismissed, written two notes of remorse and lain down on the railway until killed by a passing train.

There are other versions and accounts of 'Lord' George's death. The Dictionary of National Biography says that he was shot; newspaper articles at the time blamed Cooper and the inquest verdict on 'Lord' George was that he had been "murdered by Herbert Cooper" who then committed suicide "while being of unsound mind". 'Lord' George's grandson, George Sanger Coleman, writing in his account of the family, had some sympathy for Cooper, and thought that 'Lord' George probably hit himself over the head when springing up, grabbing the large ornament as a weapon, and then overbalancing.

The funeral was a magnificent affair, with the roads from Finchley to Holborn Viaduct Station lined with people sheltering from the heavy rain under black umbrellas. The coffin was transferred to a special train for the journey to Margate cemetery, where he was buried with Ellen and John, while in Newbury the flag on the municipal building was flown at half mast and a wreath placed on the steps of his grand statue in the Market Place in memory of one of the town's most successful and spectacular sons.

As the author of several articles about the life of 'Lord' George Sanger I often receive letters asking how to trace 'their red-haired greatgrand-mother who is said to have been a bareback rider with the circus', or 'my grandfather who looked after the horses in Sanger's Circus and was killed in a fight'. Unfortunately I have to say that I cannot help and that they may have a long search ahead of them. Researchers can join the Circus Friends Association (see note 2) or consult its founder, Dr. John Turner's growing number of books on circus families. Having tried to dampen any hopes of ever finding your circus ancestors, I must confess I was once successful in uniting two of the many Sanger descendants with their cousins.


'Lord' George Sanger, Seventy years a showman

John Lukens and George Sanger Coleman, The Sanger Story

Julie Goddard, 'Lord' George Sanger; showman extraordinary (available from West Berkshire Heritage service, The Museum, the Wharf, Newbury, 2.00)

Julie Goddard, 'Lord' George Sanger & other circus families, Family Tree Magazine, May 1989

Dr. John Turner, Circus roots, Family Tree Magazine, October 1990

Note 1 The Times, Nov.29, 30, Dec. 4, 1911

Note 2 Circus Friends Association, 20 Foot Wood Crescent, Shawelough, Rochdale, OL12 6PB

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updated 20th March 2001