Why ‘Lord’ George Sanger was Britain’s Barnum
Roll up! Roll up! A republished book introduces Dan Carrier to our own ‘greatest showman’
10 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
HE was Britain’s very own purveyor of the “Greatest Show on Earth” – a household name in 19th-century England, and a man whose talents wooed everyone from labourers to Queen Victoria.
“Lord” George Sanger traipsed the highways and byways with a caravan filled with curiosities, oddities, thrills, spills and more.
Part of a long tradition of entertainers who would traverse the country, following the seasons, heading from one fair and festival to the next, Sanger retired from life on the road in 1910 – and settled down in East Finchley to write an autobiography.
After his death, he gradually slipped from the public consciousness – but now his incredible tale, and the wonderful world he lived in, can be rediscovered.
Author Matthew Crampton, who lives in South End Green, is also a performer and teller of tales: and he came across Sanger’s book while working with musician Paul Sartin on their touring show, The Transports.
“Paul had come across an old edition,” recalls Matthew. “It was out of print and Paul read it, loved it, and gave it to me.”
Enraptured by Sanger’s life and the way he recounted his adventures, he thought the marvellous world depicted in the autobiography deserved a fresh audience, so he decided to reprint it. “He was a great storyteller, and had had amazing things happen to him.”
As Matthew says, many know of the American circus proprietor PT Barnum – made even more famous by the Hugh Jackman film, The Greatest Showman – but Sanger was as famous in Europe, and of a similar ilk.
“He was also the American’s equal in skill, pluck and cheek,” adds Matthew, vital qualities for a someone trying to put bums on seats for a living. And he adds that while Barnum’s story has been sanitised Sanger’s – as the film shows – is not: between the pages of this book, the trials and tribulations of being a 19th-century travelling showman are writ large.
George Sanger was born in Wiltshire and in the opening passages describes how his father had grown up on a farm and been an apprentice toolmaker – until he was 18. He would travel to London to visit friends – and on one such occasion he disappeared for 10 years.
‘Lord’ George Sanger
As George explains, his father was walking across London Bridge when a press gang jumped him and shoved into the service of Her Majesty’s navy. After numerous adventures, he ended up on HMS Victory. He fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, witnessed Nelson’s death and was severely injured. On his return to port, he was given a princely sum of £10 a year in return for his service and returned to find his Wiltshire family.
George says it was by chance his father went to Bristol Fair and it was here he was inspired to become a showman, using his navy pension to set himself set up.
“My father was an excellent talker,” George writes. “He could patter in the most approved style, especially about the Battle of Trafalgar, scenes of which formed one of the staple features of his little show.”
A maid named Elliot watched him and was impressed. They married – and later produced George.
Both George and his father lived at a time when literacy was on the rise – but the oral tradition of storytelling, and news spreading, had not died out. His father would always be looking for contemporaneous events to draw on to use in his shows, a habit George continued. From gruesome murders to Queen Victoria’s coronation, the funeral of the Duke of Wellington to tales of global exploration, the Sangers had an eye for what others wanted to hear. Using an Irish scenery painter based in Leather Lane, they would commission backdrops and pictures they could light with candles to create peep shops, which they would then provide the narration.
By 1871 he was running 12 circuses across Britain, with one show alone employing 700 actors, 13 elephants, nine camels and 52 horses – as well as a smattering of ostriches, emus, pelicans, deers, kangaroos buffaloes and two large lions.
As well as telling of his life performing – and the tricks of his trade, including the oyster that smokes a pipe, the pig-faced woman, how to train a donkey to read and much, much more – we get an inside look at life during Victoria’s reign from the seat of a caravan.
George recalls a smallpox epidemic sweeping across the country, and how his father saved them. “There was no vaccination then, but he had heard and seen something of the benefits of inoculation as a check to the disease, and was bold enough to carry out the process,” he writes.
“When the pustules on my sister were fully developed, he got us other children together and operated on us. His instrument was a long darning needle. This he passed right through the upper part of the muscle on each one’s right arm. Then into the tiny wound on each side he rubbed a little of the serum taken from the pustules of the sufferer.”
This home-based medicine saved their lives – as did his father when George had his calf muscles ripped from his leg when he got caught up in a merry-go-round: doctors said they had to amputate but instead his dad, drawing on his experiences on ships, sewed his son up and saved his life.
We hear of the bigotry and superstition they faced, violent pitched battles as they tried to go about their business: travelling folk were often earmarked by town dwellers for a rough time, while in some parts of the country their simple conjuring tricks were looked upon as witchcraft, so much so that some towns barred them from performing.
He includes tips on how to train animals. He considers them as much part of the travelling family as any human, and therefore treats them at all times with kindness and respect, a fact that becomes clear when a troupe of lions escape while he is on tour in Paris, and manages to get them all safely back in their cages just with the strength of his voice.
Sadly, after such a joyful life, his final breaths were tragic – I don’t spoil the plot, so you will have to buy this brilliant book and find out how the Sanger saga ended.
• Seventy Years a Showman. By Lord George Sanger, Muddler Books, £11.99.