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Mr. Cooke walks the tightrope

Mr. Cooke walks the tightrope

Ephemera is the term used to describe a great many types of transient documents from everyday life: documents that were cheaply printed and had a short-lived purpose that they were not designed to outlast. Ephemera can bring the past vividly to life. Specifically, this is an advertisement for a circus act. Rather than an insertion in a newspaper or magazine, it was a stand-alone document that is likely to have been handed out on the street: a handbill.

Street ephemera or broadsides, whatever you call them, the cheap, single sheet documents that were distributed by hawkers and town criers or pasted onto walls were produced either to entertain or to convey public information. The subject matter is therefore very diverse: broadsides/ephemera may relate to crime and law enforcement; sport; theatre; and politics to name a few. They can take many forms, including theatre bills, ballads, advertisements, proclamations and squibs.

The wide range of subjects that they treat and the glimpses into everyday life that they afford, mean such documents offer enormous scope for research but such collections are often uncatalogued and can be more difficult to access. These documents can even be tipped or pasted into books, unrecorded, just waiting for chance discovery!

The Cooke family were one of several prominent circus proprietors in the Nineteenth Century. They are known to have brought Cooke’s Royal Circus to Newcastle in March 1833. First and foremost, they were known for their equestrian performances (trick riding was the main attraction of most circuses at that time) but they developed other acts, including tightrope walking.

Circus acts were immensely popular in the Nineteenth Century: fairground entertainers travelled to their audiences, visiting even small towns, whilst theatres and music halls also presented circus acts.

Reference: Anon, Forget it not! (18- -?), Ephemera, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

The handbill publicising Cooke’s circus could prompt research into historical aspects of circuses. For example, you might focus on the lives of the performers, or on the changing popularity of specific circus acts, or on the innovations that kept audiences enthralled. Circuses were just one form of popular entertainment in Victorian Britain: there was a diverse range of live entertainments. Can you identify other forms of entertainment and measure their popularity against each other? What do you think enabled the entertainment industry to thrive at this time? Was it simply that urban populations were getting bigger, the middle-class was expanding and railways made travel easier? Or, were other factors behind it? Did any of these entertainments, or performers, have a lasting influence? Alternatively, the handbill might just pique your curiosity about what other forms of ephemera you can find and what they might tell you. What can you learn from street literature that you cannot learn from contemporary books and pamphlets?

Selected background reading

What can I find here in Special Collections?

What can I find elsewhere?

  • Tyne and Wear Archives holds material relating to locally-held circuses. A search of its archival catalogue for ‘circus’ brings up such items as:
    • DF.AF Arthur J. Few wick of Newcastle upon Tyne, collection of circus material.
    • DF.WOD Robert Wood Collection of Music Hall, Cinema and Circus Posters (C19th-C20th).
    • L/4169 Victorian Arena – The Performers, Dictionary of British Circus Performers
    • DX1390/1/9 Batty’s Circus Royal Theatre poster (1835)
  • The British Library’s Evanion Collection comprises 5,000 items that were collected by conjuror, ventriloquist and humorist, Henry Evans. The printed ephemera relates to entertainment in Victorian England and includes posters and handbills promoting music hall, theatre, circuses and other forms of popular entertainment from around the country. Items include:
  • The University of Sheffield hosts the National Circus and Fairground Archive. It is a world-leading repository for material relating to travelling popular entertainments and includes: 150,000 photographic images; 4,000 books and journals; 20,000 items of ephemera; as well as early film and family/business records. These materials date from the Seventeenth Century onwards.
  • Adam Matthew Digital makes available an online Victorian Popular Culture archive comprising posters, photographs, ephemera, rare books, early film, children’s literature and more, dating 1779-1930. It includes a ‘module’ on circuses, sideshows and freaks.

Interested in broadsides and other ephemera?

This circus handbill forms part of an uncatalogued collection of ephemera. In addition to the uncatalogued material, there is ephemera in the following collections:

The Broadsides have been digitised and can be viewed online via CollectionsCaptured on the Special Collections web pages. Or, you can request to see the original documents. The broadsides cover a range of subjects, but are chiefly songs, albeit without musical notation.

The Burman-Alnwick Collection was brought together by Dr. C.C. Burman. It comprises books, pamphlets, broadsides and other materials that were printed in Alnwick (Northumberland). The material was printed 1700-1917 and chiefly relates to local history.

The Bell-White Collection contains both printed and manuscript material that was assembled by John Bell (1783-1864) and Thomas Bell (1785-1860) and was later purchased by another local collector, Robert White (1802-1874). Within the collection are broadsides and, particularly election ephemera.