Roll up to relive era of Greatest Shows on Earth

When The Greatest Show On Earth pulled into Bradford's Great Northern Station in the early hours of an autumn morning in 1898 the trains were greeted by crowds.

Hundreds lined the streets to watch a parade from Barnum and Bailey's mesmerising spectacle and thousands were turned away on the first day of the sellout leg of the tour.

The weird and wonderful sights that fuelled their anticipation are part of a new exhibition at Bradford Industrial Museum which also throws light on the city's families who became famous throughout Europe for their extravagant shows in the late nineteenth century.

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Presenting a colourful insight into the history of travelling shows the exhibition, called Roll Up, Roll Up: Showmen in Bradford, brings together pieces from the city's own collection and the National Fairground Archive in Sheffield.

Exhibition officer Bethany Hughes said: "We wanted to show Bradford's place in fairground history, linking the history of events like the Mela today.

"We have a good working relationship with people at the Fairground Archive and it was them who suggested we should do an exhibition with their collection."

Seven generations after starting their shows in Yorkshire, descendants of the Marshall, the Waddington and the Shufflebottom families still entertain people today.

The name Marshall is synonymous with fairs across the North and some of the family's largest fairs can still be found in Bradford at the annual Mela and the Lord Mayor's Parade.

Originating from Sheffield, W H Marshall, founder of Marshall's Amusements, became a successful showman owning major rides and cinematograph shows and eventually moved to Bradford.

His great grandson, Walter Marshall, who hailed from Doncaster, was a prominent member of the Showmen's Guild and one of the founding members of the Amusement Rides Association.

After marrying Renee Scott from the famous Scott family of circus performers – he met her at Bolton New Year Fair in 1934 – he and his wife entertained crowds at fairs throughout Yorkshire.

Photographs from the family album feature alongside those from the Waddingtons and the Shufflebottoms including one of a performer who was pregnant with twins when she posed wrapped in a snake.

"The three Bradford families were really significant," said Ms Hughes. "The Shufflebottom family saw Buffalo Bill's show and the head of the family at the time, called William, decided to do a take on his act.

"He took his show all the way around the country and to parts of mainland Europe. For the time they made a lot of money."

The legendary Buffalo Bill himself, who next to PT Barnum became the greatest showman of the nineteenth century, caused a sensation when he rolled into Bradford in 1903 with his touring show, Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.

Billed as "making its Absolutely Final tour of Great Britain" the Wild West Show's trains steamed into Midland Station, Bradford, carrying 800 men, 500 horses and 18 buffalo.

The opening night dazzled the audience who watched authentic horsemen tame wild horses and a medley of circus performers and so-called "freaks" – including a bearded woman – take centre stage.

But punters were left deflated when the second night of the two-day stop in Bradford was cancelled because of torrential rain.

William Shufflebottom was not the only one to be inspired by the iconic buffalo hunter. Leeds- born Ralf Norman, who appeared in films and rodeos as "Hal Denver" earned up to $1,000 a week performing as a genuine cowboy from Denver in 1950s America.

He later appeared in soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale.

The performer's costume and throwing knives are on show in the exhibition.


A SCULPTURE of the legendary showman Phineas T Barnum poised to entertain is one of the exhibition's centrepieces.

The half man, half beast was created by Sheffield artist Anthony Bennett to celebrate Barnum's 200th birthday.

Commissioned by the National Fairground Archive based at the University of Sheffield, the piece was shown in various spots in the South Yorkshire city before moving to Bradford.

Inspired by the entertainer's mantra, "Humbug", the sculpture depicts the master of the freakshow and co-founder of Barnum and Bailey's Circus, as a weird hybrid of human and insect.

Visitors to the exhibition can also marvel at Bennett's waxwork of The Great Omi, a heavily tattooed sideshow performer, who was one of Barnum's 'freaks'.

Bradford Museums and Galleries commissioned the sculpture two years ago at the city's Cartwright Hall.