From timber to coal, mail to milk, New Zealand railways have carried every kind of cargo, but perhaps the best-known were those that ferried circuses from town to town. From the 1890s to the 1970s famous circuses toured New Zealand by rail, thrilling people from town to town. Australian circuses were among the first to tour, chasing the gold rush and its new-found wealth, local “diggers” handing over their gold dust for a night of entertainment.
Crowds gathered on bridges or hung from railings to catch a glimpse of the arriving cavalcade of tumblers and contortionists, midgets, trick riders and clowns. And, the beasts. The Wirth troupe, which had its own circus train, was feted for its trained menagerie, including Jack the riding bear, Kruger the amusing baboon waiter, and tigers that were harnessed to a chariot and raced around the big top, cheered on by the audience.
“In its heyday Wirth’s circus hauled eight animal trucks, 20 equipment trucks, passenger trucks, and eight tents to each new town.”
By 1925 Wirth’s Circus filled three trains and families rushed to rail crossings and platforms to watch as cattle trucks of domesticated, wild and exotic animals sped past. At the station sidings, the elephants hauled huge animal cages from the railway to the circus ground. Sometimes a dozen animals helped position cages and some helped to erect the tent tops.
In 1906 Barton’s circus was joined by the Taranaki circus of McNeill and Jones and their horse ‘Maori Jack’, an outstanding buck-jumper. Mr Barton believed his friend ‘Queensland Harry’ could ride the horse and placed a bet of £200, winner take all. McNeill and Jones accepted the challenge. When Barton took Harry to the circus ring he found ‘Maori Jack’ with an English hunting saddle and a cattle dog waiting to bite the horse’s heels to keep him bucking.
Fillis Circus had four Nubian lions that had been captured in an African forest as cubs. Their Kiwi diet - butchers’ beef with mutton or bullock’s blood thrown in as a treat. They also had a four-year-old tigress born in captivity and bought by Mr Fillis on a visit to India.
“She was easy to train and was the only tigress anywhere that appeared in the open ring.”
By 1939 most staff and performers had volunteered to contribute to the war effort and shows dwindled and closed, one of the very last the Wirth’s Circus, who continued to deliver their special brand of entertainment until 1963.