In our latest Eye on Milig column, Leslie Maxwell and Alistair McIntyre conclude their two-part look back at the circuses which visited the Helensburgh and Lomond area during the 20th century.

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ANOTHER example of a famous circus which beat a path to Helensburgh was Sir Robert Fossett’s circus.

The title ‘Sir’ was self-awarded, legend having it that this was done to counterbalance the elevated status enjoyed by ‘Lord’ George Sanger.

Although ‘Sir’ Robert died in 1922, that designation was retained as the name of the circus.

The Fossett circus boasts a long pedigree. Although smaller than the likes of Bertram Mills and Billy’s Smart’s, it outlived them, surviving two World Wars and the reign of five monarchs.

Some accounts trace their origins to the Highlands. However Robert Fossett and his bride Emma Yelding set up their circus in London in 1852, and it was their son, also Robert, who distinguished himself with the title ‘Sir’.

The Fossetts were related to another well-known circus family, the Pinders.

The Fossetts were famous for their unusual combination of red hair and blue eyes — in the 1930s, a noted equestrian act featured eight red-headed riders astride a single horse.

A family member, Jacko Fossett, became one of the most celebrated clowns of the last hundred years, appearing with just about every major circus in Britain and Europe.

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Fossett’s circus visited Helensburgh on a number of occasions, but the first reported local performance took place in 1970 in East King Street Park, by then the usual location for circuses.

Many circuses only came for a single day, but in this case, the application was for three days.

One audience member wrote: “Tigers, spinning trapeze artistes, majestic horses, whip-cracking cowboys, exploding clown cars, plate spinning, knife-throwing, and even a human cannonball, all passed in an amazing kaleidoscopic succession.

“But it was the sight of five massive elephants thundering into the ring and being put through their paces by Robert Fossett and Goldie, that I will never forget.

"Still, to this day, it was one of the best circus acts I have ever seen.”

Audiences also found a particular appeal in what they perceived as exotic acts and performers. Buffalo Bill’s American Indians were a source of great fascination.

Another circusgoer recalled an act from Fossett’s circus: “The great attraction was a troupe of Arab acrobats: how we gasped at the speed and the furious antics of these strange men!”

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The high regard in which Fossett’s circus was held is exemplified by their association with big names like John Lennon and the Rolling Stones, while one of their elephants, ‘Aga’, starred in the film 'Elephant Boy'.

Although Fossett’s circus no longer exists in Britain, it continues to thrive in Ireland. In 1918, a family member, Edward, made up his mind to join a circus in the Emerald Isle.

Four years later, he married Mona Powell, who came from a leading circus family, and it is their descendants who have kept the Fossett flag flying to the present time. In 2007, Fossett’s circus won the accolade of National Circus of Ireland.

In the early 1960s, there were visits to Helensburgh by Major Russell’s circus and Broncho Bill’s circus, but very little is known about either.

The last of the well-known travelling circuses to perform in Helensburgh were that of the Roberts Brothers, and its successor, Bobby Roberts' Super Circus. In 1977, this was the last circus to perform in Helensburgh.

The Roberts story can be traced back to Mary Fossett, a daughter of Sir Robert Fossett, who married Paul Otto, a Belgium acrobat and clown.

Their sons, Robert (Bobby) and Tommy, married in their turn, and the two young couples came together as a riding troupe.

By this time, however, the Second World War was raging, and it was decided that their surname “Otto” sounded too Germanic. In consequence, they adopted the surname Roberts, and it became the Roberts Brothers Circus.

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The Roberts circus applied to Helensburgh Town Council in 1964 for a staging of their show.

By that time, the council was becoming increasingly particular about such shows, but when it was revealed that the applicants were members of the Circus Proprietors’ Association, a body that helped ensure high standards, this went in their favour.

A parade of elephants was staged, starting from Helensburgh Central Station and ending at East King Street Park. This was the beginning of a relationship with Helensburgh and district that was to last for some years.

The last elephant parade to take place in the town was that of the Roberts Brothers in 1977.

However, they did continue to visit the area long after that occasion, when the venue was switched to Westerhill Farm, between Cardross and Dumbarton.

Many will recall their massive big top, easily seen from the main road and from the railway, until the final appearance in 2011.

Bobby and Tommy Roberts ended their partnership in 1982, and from then the circus went under the name of Bobby Roberts circus. Eventually, when Bobby Roberts retired, it was his son, also Bobby, and his wife, Moira Rettie, who took over the reins.

At some stage, perhaps even before the young couple took over, the show became known as Bobby Roberts Super Circus.

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They did well to thrive, as by the later 20th century, many of the big names, like Bertram Mills and Bobby Smarts, had fallen by the wayside, with many blaming television as a factor in their demise.

The Roberts circus earned many accolades over the years. There were several performances before Her Majesty The Queen. In the early 1980s, their circus was named 'Circus World Champions' by a BBC TV programme.

For many years, it was their circus that performed at the much-loved Kelvin Hall Christmas Carnival and Circus, and later, at the SECC. Quite possibly, this will be the circus that many local people best remember.

The circus was renowned for the variety of its animal acts, which included bears, lions, tigers, leopards, chimpanzees and elephants, in addition to horses, ponies and dogs.

In 1998, Bobby Roberts Super Circus was called 'Best Circus in Britain with Animals'.

Ultimately, however, this emphasis on animal acts appears to have been a leading factor in their demise.

Animal acts were looked upon as an essential ingredient of all but the smallest circuses, right from the early days. This stems partly from the historical association between circus and menagerie.

It is difficult to be precise when concerns were first raised about the role of wild animals in the circus, but perusal of books about the circus would seem to suggest that, at least as far back as the 1920s, there was an awareness of the issue.

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As recently as the Victorian era, there was frequent staging of so-called “freak shows”, when people with unusual physical or mental traits were exhibited to the public as entertainment, but how much attitudes have changed over time.

The British public no longer finds it acceptable to have wild animals in a show whose function is primarily to provide entertainment.

Within the last decade, governments at Westminster and Holyrood have passed legislation which has ensured that the presence of wild animals in the circus is now effectively a thing of the past.

But it would be wrong to condemn the circus as it once was — what it offered was considered acceptable by the general public as it existed at the time.

Pressure groups have undoubtedly played a significant part in mobilising and changing public opinion.

There seems little doubt that living conditions, and in particular, handling and training regimes, constituted a major consideration in the whole debate.

With many animals spending much of their time in confined conditions, and constantly on the move for long periods, it was a wholly unnatural existence.

At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that many circus owners felt a deep attachment to their animals. People like Thomas Ord and Bertram Mills were attracted to circus life, first and foremost, through their great love of horses.

George Sanger Coleman, grandson of Lord George Sanger, wrote: “My grandfather was utterly fearless with all animals. He was an expert and kindly trainer, with uncanny knowledge of any animal’s reaction.”

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Writing in the early 1930s, Edward Seago stated: “Much has been written and said regarding treatment of animals in the circus. I knew personally many well-known trainers, and I can say with every confidence that wild animals are not trained by cruelty.

“We hear stories, but it astounds me that anyone believes them. Circus animals are not ill-treated, and in fact it is the reverse.”

Lady Eleanor Smith, writing in 1948, wrote: “In my experience, animals are trained by bribery: a piece of meat for lions, a carrot for a liberty horse, fish for the sea-lions. These, combined with extraordinary patience, achieve results that could never be obtained by whips and sticks.

“I myself am passionately fond of animals. Recently, the Circus Proprietors Association has refused to accept any animal act without a certificate from its own vet.”

But concerns over training and handling regimes refused to go away, and the trial of Bobby Roberts in 2012 may be revealing.

He was put on trial at Northampton Crown Court on three counts of cruelty to Anne, a 58-year-old Asian elephant, while at her winter quarters the previous year.

Secret filming by a pressure group showed a Romanian groom repeatedly kicking and beating Anne with a pitchfork. She was chained, and she was stated to be suffering from arthritis.

Roberts, 69, who was stated to have had health issues at the time of the filming, was found guilty, but the judge acknowledged that he was not directly responsible for the acts themselves, and that his own record was exemplary.

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Further, it was recognised that his circus business was effectively at an end. However, he had to take ultimate responsibility for what took place in his name.

With those considerations in mind, Roberts was given a conditional discharge, with no costs awarded against him.

Although circus owners might well be devoted to their animals, the same might not perhaps be said of some of those working under them. Bobby Roberts wife, Moira, said: “Bobby and I lived and breathed elephants.”

Many animals represented a large capital investment for the owners — as far back as the time of Lord George Sanger, a good elephant could be worth more than £1,000.

On the other hand, secret filming at one major circus showed the proprietrix ill-treating a chimpanzee, so owners were evidently not always beyond reproach.

The life of the circus goes on, albeit now in a format acceptable to the public of the 21st century. Although the circus no longer comes to Helensburgh, performances are staged from time to time at venues like Lomond Shores.

Many members of the old circus families are still in the business. In the case of the Roberts family, although the family circus has gone, one member went to Zippo’s circus, while another took up a position with Circus Sallai. The show goes on!