According to Chris…
Chris muses on an often overlooked modelling subject – circus trains.
Just before he went off for a holiday week in France, my son and I got into a conversation about movies. As usual, I was bemoaning the fact that, despite there being around 75 channels on Freeview – and one or two of them with signals actually strong enough to penetrate the digital wilderness that is East Northamptonshire – I could seldom find anything worth watching. I mentioned scrolling through new additions to the itunes list and he asked if I wanted to borrow The Greatest Showman, which he had on DVD. This is a modern Hollywood musical based around the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891). Barnum was, of course, one half of Barnum & Bailey, whose ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ was a massive circus with a three-ring big top which toured by train around the turn of the 19th century. The European tour required new rolling stock and W.R. Renshaw of Stoke-on-trent built the four trains totalling more than 60 bogie vehicles. In order to accommodate the huge horse-drawn wagons, the 30-plus flatcars were longer than any then running in the UK, and for ease of loading from ground level they ran on very small wheelsets, cast in Germany. There were also bogie stock cars for the horses, a camel car and three huge elephant cars. The circus tour of the UK was a logistical masterpiece. At each town the show began with an afternoon parade through the streets followed by a huge display of outside stalls, sideshows and caged animals. As the evening performance took place inside the big top, the outdoor show was dismantled and moved to the railway yard where it was loaded and the trains dispatched to the next location. Even as the crowds departed the site, the big top came down and was loaded onto the horse-drawn wagons and taken to the railway yard. From there, the last two trains, including the eight sleeping cars of staff and performers, departed for the next town where, after an early morning arrival, the whole procedure was repeated. Despite its ‘political incorrectness’, the GSOE has long fascinated me. I once stumbled across photographs of the British train without knowing what it was. The research to identify and understand what I was looking at was utterly enthralling. After the GSOE returned to the USA, many of the railway vehicles were used by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which toured the UK around 1905 and was owned by Bailey. After that, the trains were split up and sold. Many went to the Alexandra (Newport) Docks & Railway, where the elephant wagons became transit vehicles for grain storage and several sleeping cars became trailers for the railway’s railmotors. Rescued at the behest of preservationist D.M. Rouse, one of these coaches, which had become a bungalow in Devon, is now stored as part of the Welsh Museum collection. The GSOE had one vehicle which travelled on its own, and that was the advance car. It ran several days ahead of the show so that its staff could provide all the advance publicity. The meticulous operation by both the circus and the numerous pre-grouping railways which moved the train became legendary. The show never missed a performance, despite the British weather and the fact that it toured some surprisingly small towns, often up to 150 miles apart. Way back in the 1980s, I began to build some of the cars. Only the body of the advance car survives as a reminder of the days when the prospect of carrying out the lettering by hand did not deter me. Perhaps I should finish it off?
The real thing in Renshaw’s publicity photograph. The sleeping cars were maroon and the wagons were yellow with red lettering, shaded blue.
Mostly hand-lettered, on both sides, my Barnum & Bailey advance car just needs bogies and couplings and a general tidy-up.