The legacy of Billy Smart’s circus in Berkshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 May 2020
Credit: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo
The thrills and spills of the sawdust ring may have changed but the spirit of circus lives on throughout the world. In Britain there is one name that still stands head and shoulders above all others in the world of the Big Top – Billy Smart, whose career began in Berkshire and he left a legacy here.
Billy Smart’s Circus still takes to the roads of Britain for special occasions, a tribute to the man whose name lives on in the wonderful world of circus, more than half a century after his death. When Billy was born – one of 23 children – in 1894, Lord George Sanger was the greatest showman of the day, a man who was himself from Berkshire, having been born in Newbury.
The Smart family used to attend fairs in and around London. By the time he was 15, Billy was operating one of his father’s roundabouts, taking it over at a fair in Slough and thus, his love affair with Berkshire began. He married Nelly in 1925 and they went on to have 10 children of their own.
During those early days though, Billy found life to be a financial rollercoaster ride. He was helped out by a showman friend who was also to make an indelible mark in the world of entertainment – Billy Butlin.
He turned the corner eventually and Billy Smart became the operator of the biggest travelling fairground in Britain. In 1939 his fair was at Olympia for the Christmas season in support of Bertram Mills Circus. It was a success and a seed was planted.
When World War Two ended, sport and entertainment boomed and Billy timed his move into circus with perfection. He bought a second-hand Big Top, gathered some quality acts together and took Billy Smart’s Circus on the road.
It was not long before the circus took the place of the funfair and he invested more and more to make his circus the biggest and best in Europe. His showmanship knew no bounds and at his peak his Big Top could seat 6,000 people. His menagerie included 15 elephants, lions, tigers, polar bears, vast numbers of horses and ponies and other animals, all kept to perfection. When asked about animal cruelty he always invited people to view his animals at any time and told them that if they saw any sign of animal neglect or cruelty they should tell the police.
When Billy celebrated his 50th year as a showman, he took his mighty circus back to Slough where he had fond memories of the day he first took charge of his father’s roundabout.
“This is where it really all began,” he said at the time. “What better place to celebrate 50 years as a showman than here in Slough on the same piece of ground?”
His circus not only had Royal patronage but became an annual Christmas TV institution. He became so famous that he was the subject of a This Is Your Life programme and was asked for autographs wherever he went.
Billy often appeared in the finale of his circus performances and liked nothing better than to ask circus-goers if they had enjoyed the show and could they suggest any improvements.
Billy’s love of Berkshire encouraged him to take over an area of Winkfield Row and turn it into his circus headquarters. Billy opened his base at weekends while the circus was on tour to give people the chance to see animal training, acts in rehearsal and to experience the world of circus from a different perspective.
It might not be easy to think of Winkfield Row as once being the home of exotic animals but it was, with the best quarters for the animals and the staff. As well as spacious living quarters Winkfield also had expansive areas for animal exercise and training as well as for arena rehearsals.
It was the success of Winkfield Row and his love of animals combined with his showmanship that led to Billy opening Windsor Safari Park. Today, of course, it is Legoland, but when Billy opened it, safari parks were in their infancy and he was thrilled to provide spacious homes for wildlife from all over the world as well as providing another great visitor attraction for the county.
In Ipswich on 25 September 1966, Billy Smart died – still on the road with his circus. Sir Billy Butlin summed it up when he said that Billy Smart was “the greatest showman of his time – and probably the last of the great showmen.”
Circus people love Berkshire
As well as Billy Smart’s Circus, other great circuses have made Berkshire their home.
Bertram Mills Circus was based at Ascot for many years while it made annual appearances at Olympia but also during its 34 years as a travelling circus. The Ascot connection was in part to do with Bertram Mills’ personal love and knowledge of horses.
Today, too, the famous Zippos Circus has its headquarters on the outskirts of Newbury.
“Berkshire appeals to circuses because it is a really nice county to relax in when you are not travelling but also geographically it is near to London where the top shows spend a fair bit of time and has main roads leading to the west and also to the Midlands,” said Martin Burton, owner of Zippos. “I think, as well, certainly for us, being in the county which the great Billy Smart loved is an inspiration.”