Before the Victorian period, circus-styled entertainments such as those advertised here were confined precisely to the big top of a travelling roadshow. But the growing concentration of Britain’s population in metropolitan areas made the travelling circus a less lucrative prospect. The most successful circuses thus began to establish permanent amphitheatres in big towns and cities; while individual circus performers – such as Isaac Van Amburgh, whose ‘astounding and intellectual’ elephant is expected to draw crowds here – could now tread the boards in mainstream theatres as the equals of opera singers or dramatic actors.
The first appearance of elephants in a British circus is generally taken to be the opening parade of Edward Hughes’s ‘Mammoth Equestrian Establishment’ in 1843. Very soon, all the big British circuses had their own elephant, shipped at great expense from India or Burma. The mid-Victorian period marked the height of the British public’s fascination with Britain’s colonies. As this poster clearly shows, it was already not enough to have a performing elephant: the elephant had to perform in a supposedly authentic pageant based on processions and entertainments of its native land.