Building Circus History: Steve Ward's Next Book Explores Sights and Sites of 19th Century Circus 

Circus News

Building Circus History: Steve Ward’s Next Book Explores Sights and Sites of 19th Century Circus 

The ‘Big Top’ is an iconic image of the circus. But the Big Top was a relatively recent invention. In the newest book from Modern Vaudeville Press, circus historian Steve Ward takes his readers on a tour of 19th-century circus buildings that tackles their architecture from the ground up.


Since the foundation of the ‘modern’ circus in the eighteenth century, the circus has been presented in defined spaces. Initially, performances were given in the open air, and over a period of time, these spaces first became enclosed and then later roofed. Temporary wooden structures often became semi-permanent until, in the nineteenth century, many permanent stone-made buildings were erected solely for the purpose of presenting circus. This phenomenon spread from the UK across Europe and beyond, creating a style of circus architecture that has never been repeated.

2023 marks the anniversaries of several significant circus buildings from across the world, such as:

• In 1848, the Radford Amphiteatre opened in Launceston, Tasmania. In the same year in Leeds, the circus of Pablo Fanque collapsed, killing his wife.

• In 1873, Antonio Franconi changed the name of the Cirque Napoleon in Paris to the Cirque d’Hiver. It is still being used today. The same year, Dr. Cocker’s Aquarium, Aviary, and Museum was erected on the site of the later Blackpool Tower Circus.

• In 1898, the circus building on Anlaby Road, Kingston upon Hull, finally closed. In the same year, the first ‘water pantomime’ was presented at the Salamonsky Circus in Riga, Latvia.

Using contemporary records and images, Leeds-based writer Dr. Steve Ward’s new book Opulence and Ostentation: Building the Circus explores the architectural wealth of the nineteenth-century circus building. It examines what caused these buildings to be constructed, as well as their design and architecture. Examples of key structures are explored in detail, some of which survive today and are still being used for circus performances. The book also looks at the developments of contemporary circus architecture and raises questions as to the future of the circus building.

Opulence and Ostentation: Building the Circus is published by Modern Vaudeville Press and is scheduled for release in May 2023. It will be available directly from the publisher, from online book retailers, and from any good bookshop.

Steve Ward can be contacted by telephone at 0113 2864598,  by mobile phone at 07805899132,  or by email at [email protected].

Photographs of Steve and of some of the buildings mentioned are available on request.

Author information

Steve Ward has been involved with the circus for over 40 years. From his projects linking the professional circus with schools and youth groups, he went on to run his own award-winning youth circus in Leeds. Steve has created and directed many youth circus festivals in the UK and abroad. With a deep-rooted interest in the circus, he now writes about its fascinating cultural history. He has a Ph.D. in Published Works in Social History from the University of Hull and is a member of the Circus Research Network and the Circus Arts Research Platform. To date, he has written seven books and many articles on the subject. He also lectures on aspects of circus history, notably at the first International Academic Conference on Circus Buildings in Budapest in 2022, and has appeared on television and in many radio interviews.

His previous books about Circus are:

Beneath the Big Top: A Social History of the Circus in Britain

Sawdust Sisterhood: How Circus Empowered Women 

Circus Notes & Jottings

Father of the Modern Circus “Billy Buttons”: The Life & Times of Philip Astley

Nineteenth Century Circus Poster Art

The Victorian Circuses of Leeds: A Guided Walk

Artistes of Colour: Ethnic Diversity and Representation in the Victorian Circus (long-listed for the Society of Theatre Research book award 2022)

Other books by Steve Ward:

Robin’s Wood

The Indentured Man

Tales From the Big House: Temple Newsam 

The Boy With the Flame Coloured Hair

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