oll up, roll up, for the greatest show in town!

A grotesque half-man half-grasshopper, a gorilla with impeccable table manners, a legendary buffalo hunter and a ‘Zebra Man’ whose body is punctured with 500 million needle pricks are all part of a fascinating exhibition at Bradford Industrial Museum, celebrating showmen and fairground families who performed in and hailed from the district.

Held in association with the National Fairground Archive, Roll Up, Roll Up: Showmen In Bradford sheds light on the touring fairs and shows of the 19th century and the colourful figures who brought them to Bradford, most notably circus maestro Phineas T Barnum and Wild West legend Buffalo Bill.

The first thing you see is a startling life-size hybrid human grasshopper hanging in the air. Created by Sheffield sculptor Anthony Bennett, it’s a fitting tribute to PT Barnum, master of the freak show and co-founder of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

On the wall are striking posters depicting characters from Barnum’s American Museum, including the Fee Jee Mermaid, a ‘mummified’ half-mammal/half-fish that was a common feature of sideshows, conjoined twin brothers Chang and Eng Bunker who, in the 1860s, became known as the original Siamese Twins, and General Tom Thumb, alias tiny Charles Sherwood Stratton, who was presented to Queen Victoria in 1844.

The Barnum and Bailey Train, known as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, arrived in Bradford on September 18, 1898, for two days of performances. Hundreds of people lined the streets to watch the huge procession, comprising caged tigers, lions, leopards, hyenas, wolves, camels and elephants.

Based in a tented village in Girlington, the show featured Roman racing chariots, a re-enactment of Columbus’s discovery of America, featuring a cast of 140, and a South African gorilla called Johanna who swept her cage with a broom, ate at a table using cutlery and uncorked a bottle of port. Other marvels included a bearded lady, a sword swallower and a man with ‘elastic skin’.

According to a report in this newspaper at the time, Barnum “had a positive genius for tickling the public appetite with novelties of a strange and grotesque kind”.

Memorabilia on display includes a programme for the Barnum and Bailey Circus’s Bradford visit in 1898, and an original programme for Buffalo Bill’s 1908 tour.

Both Barnum and Buffalo Bill, alias William F Cody, were regarded as the greatest showmen of the 19th and early 20th century. On October 5, 1903, three trains steamed into Bradford, carrying 800 men, 500 horses and 18 buffalo for the grand opening of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress Riders of the World tour, which saw Cody recreate his legendary buffalo hunting. His freakshow included a ‘human ostrich man with a giraffe neck’ and an Egyptian giant.

Cody’s Wild West show had a significant impact on the British fairground. On display is a uniform worn by Hal Denver, rodeo performer and leading sideshow figure, who worked with the Elephant Man. Dangling in a glass case are knives Hal threw at his assistant, wife Ella.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a waxwork sculpture of the Great Omi, a heavily-tattooed pre and post-war sideshow performer. Born Horace Ridley, he was decorated with black dye tattoos between 1927 and 1934. It took 150 hours to cover his face with 15 million needle pricks, and a further 500 million on his torso. He and his wife Gladys, known as Omette, would tell audiences of his ‘capture by savages’ in New Guinea, his transformation into Zebra Man and his thrilling escape.

The exhibition sheds light on Bradford families famous throughout Europe for their extravagant shows and thrilling rides, including the Waddingtons of Bolling Hall Farm and the Marshalls, whose fairs remain a big part of Bradford events such as the Mela, the Lord Mayor’s Parade and the Christmas lights switch-on cremony. On display are old photographs of circus families, including the delightfully-named Florence Shufflebottom in a stetson and fringed jacket.

Printing company Berry’s of Bradford, established by William Berry on Currer Street in 1888, became one of the world’s leading producers of film and circus advertising posters. On the walls are some of Berry’s colourful posters for Billy Smart’s and Chipperfield’s circuses. As someone who loves fairground rides and has a fascination for Victorian freakshows, I was captivated by this exhibition. My nephews, Jack and Sam, were particularly intrigued by the Great Omi and the weird insect man.

“Would you rather have a boy’s body and a grasshopper’s legs, or a grasshopper’s body and a boy’s legs?” I asked Jack as we wandered through the museum to check out the Jowett cars. “I’d rather just be a whole boy,” came the reply.


* Bradford Industrial Museum is at Moorside Mills, Moorside Road, Eccleshill.

* Roll Up, Roll Up: Showmen In Bradford, runs until March 13.

* For more information about the museum and its exhibits, ring (01274) 435900 or visit bradfordmuseums.org.