This article was written by Robert Brown and originally published on March 19, 2004

LAST week, Zippos Circus entertained crowds of people in Basingstoke with an assortment of acts which typified the way of this ancient art of amusement.

But, originally, the word circus described an oval building built by the Ancient Romans for chariot and horse races, games and, later, athletics.

The largest one, called the Circus Maximus, was about 1,800 feet long and 620 feet wide and could seat more than 380,000 spectators.

It was long after the Roman Empire had declined and the Dark Ages emerged that “circus” became the word for the type of acts that we see today.

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Basingstoke Gazette: Tigers performing on the Winchester Road site in the late 1950s

The Middle Ages brought about two ingredients that we still enjoy – clowns and jugglers. The first proper circus of the modern type was established by an ex-Cavalry Sergeant Major, Philip Astley.

While crossing Westminster Bridge in London in 1768 he found a diamond ring, and, after trying to find the owner, without success, he sold it for £60 – a considerable sum in those days.

With the money he opened an equestrian ring in London, and spectators were invited to see various shows of horses carrying out skilled movements.

When he acquired clowns, acrobats, and an assortment of animals, he began to charge entrance fees, by which he became quite rich.

Astley died in 1814, but his circus was continued by his family until “Lord” George Sanger bought it. With his brother John, George took the circus all over the country with his various acts, and even after his sudden death in 1911, when one of his employees shot him, the circus did not close down until 1941.

Meanwhile, other businessmen were realising the potential future in this field and Victorian circuses were expanding and appearing all over Great Britain. Even in France, Jules Leotard was to introduce the first flying trapeze acts in Paris in 1859.

In America, Phineas Barnum launched his “Greatest Show on Earth” in 1871, which later became known as the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Basingstoke Gazette: The elephants leave the railway station in 1962

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Another circus in America, under the Ringling Brothers, prospered into the 20th century, but a terrible accident in July 1944, at Hartford, Connecticut, resulted in the destruction of the Big Top by fire and the deaths of 168 people.

Meanwhile, in England, Bertram Mills opened his famous Christmas Circus at Earls Court in London.

“Billy” Smart was another character who established entertaining acts in this country, as were James Chipperfield and Gerry Cottle with their circuses.

Of a more local nature, some of the circuses that came to Hampshire in later years were “Billy” Smart’s, Robert Brothers, and Chipperfield’s.

The arrival of the circus animals and entertainers at Basingstoke Railway Station would see a large crowd of people gather with their children to watch the procession wind its way to its destination, this sometimes being the War Memorial Park, land at Kingsclere Road, on the Basingstoke Common, or at West Ham – whichever was available at the time.

Other times the circus would arrive in a line of trucks along the road.

In 1947, there was even a stage version of a circus, under the business eyes of the Raymer Brothers, which included animals as well at the old Grand Theatre.

Over the past decade, Zippos Circus has made its annual visit to the town, and in that time it has seen various Government rules about restricting the use of live animals and, in more recent months, the need to licence their visits to various towns with a special certificate, which involves payment every time.

Circuses have their comical moments, but the arrival of one in 1962 caused a local man to make an amusing statement.

Leonard Tomlin, a retired estate agent of lower Wote Street, had just returned from a journey round Africa and, as he walked out of the Basingstoke Railway Station, he was confronted by two elephants that belonged to the circus.

He went over to a local photographer and commented: “I’ve just travelled round Africa and I didn’t see one elephant, until now!”