‘Beneath The Big Top: A social history of the circus in Britain’, by Steve Ward

Beneath The Big Top is a book you can judge by its cover.  It’s a smart, up-to-date chronicle of UK circus with a solid historical grounding, just as the stylish design and handy paperback format suggest.

As Ward focuses specifically on the UK industry, he is able to go into a depth that is often glossed over in other histories.  He’s also been able to share the benefits of modern research facility that have aided his extensive exploration, providing great detail and a wide variety of source material.  The appendices not only offer a solid index and bibliography, but also include addresses of archival sources and list relevant historical websites.

Chapters each cover a circus ‘era’, with considerable attention given to the 19th and 20th Centuries, which are each divided into four separate chapter headings.   Perhaps to retain the overview feel of earlier chapters, the final section encompasses the period from the 1970’s to today with no attention given to specific performing companies who have developed within the last few decades.  It feels like a significant omission that the Welsh NoFit State Circus, who have toured internationally as far as Australia in the last 10 years, do not get a mention.  Likewise, the developments of aerial dance, circus theatre and recreational training are not included.

Nevertheless, Beneath The Big Top is a valuable and illuminating read, shedding a lot of light on the political, economic and technological factors that have driven circus evolution in Britain through the years.  Early chapters are brought to life by evocative fictions of the circus experience from times gone by and, as we move into the 20th Century, these give way to further examples of the more readily available anecdotal evidence that flesh out the factual recounting.

The volume is illustrated throughout with black and white etchings, photographs and artifacts from ancient to current times, while the text that propels us through history is full of newspaper reports and first hand recollections from all over the country.



Ward, Steve Beneath The Big Top: A Social History Of The Circus In Britain (Barnsley: Pen & Sword History, 2014) ISBN: 9781783030491


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