Ken MacManus: The last of the bareback riders

 

Some readers can look back with nostalgia to the days when a quaint sight was the annual visit of a small circus to the village green. It would materialise overnight, give a couple of performances ad then steal off in the night, leaving only a circle of sawdust traces and happy memories for children.

Today, while there are still two dozen or so travelling circuses in the country, they tend to be larger and grander affairs. Paulo's Circus, launched before the First World War, was one of those magical travelling shows eagerly awaited by children of all ages – and nearly 100 years on it can still be seen. It began life as Frisco Frank's Western Circus in Ireland before coming to Britain and growing until it boasted a string of 75 horses and ponies.

Frank and Clara Paulo overcame setbacks and closures and the show eventually flourished until 1949, when "Madame" Clara Paulo called it a day at 65. Her talented family of eight children took to the continent, starring in circuses in Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Switzerland – and the Netherlands, where they performed with Sabu the Elephant Boy, star of the Alexander Korda film.

With 75 horses, used not only in the sawdust ring but also to haul the show from town to town, Paulo's Circus produced a family replete with equestrian skills. They proved to be the last great family of British circus bareback riders, and a leading member was Ken MacManus, who had married into the Paulo line.

Kenneth Gordon MacManus was born in 1925 into a naval family in Plymouth. His elder brother, Henry "Lightning" MacManus, had been a professional boxer but joined Paulo's Circus as stud groom, and married Grace, one of the eight children. As a teenager Ken spent his summer holidays at the stables and a romance developed with Clara, Grace's younger sister. He went off when war broke out and returned as Sgt MacManus of the 6th Airborne Division to marry his sweetheart in 1943.

He quickly became an accomplished rider and animal trainer and presenter. When the family show closed in 1949 he travelled with the Paulo siblings in Europe until they were forced to disperse: running a huge troupe, including the costs of keeping a stud of expensive "rosinbacks", the horses of broad beam used for riding acts, meant that they had to form smaller groups.

Ken and Clara, along with Clara's sister Evelyn and others, formed The Mohawks – Red Indian braves, with Ken sporting a magnificent feathered bonnet as chieftain of the clan. They made their debut at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome with Billy Russell's Circus, before a spell with Billy Smart.

They became the best of their kind in Britain – and eventually the last, too. They went on to feature in most of the great British postwar travelling circuses, among them Chipperfield's, Smart's, Sally Chipperfield's, Hoffman's and Sir Robert Fossett's, appearing at venues like Blackpool Tower and the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.

They competed against Europe's finest riders at the Circus World Championships in London, and provided the circus element in Granada TV's 1976 adaptation of Dickens' Hard Times. They were especially proud to work with the "blue riband" of the circus world, the Bertram Mills show, at Olympia in London and round Britain, performing both as the Mohawks and as the jockey-riding group The Ascots.

Ken and Clara retired at the end of the 1978 season, leaving the strenuous demands of bareback riding behind. In 1983 they revived the intimate and charming travelling show Paulo's Circus until 1993, then finally gave up their traditional travelling wagon for a bungalow in Gosperton, Lincolnshire. Their daughter Evelyn, born in 1946, had become an accomplished rider herself, and had married a local boy, John Darnell, while working at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome. Their three children followed them into the circus world, one of them, Kenny, reviving Paulo's Circus in 2000. It still tours, run by Kenny and his children – the fifth generation to run the show.

Kenneth Gordon MacManus, circus performer and owner: born Plymouth 18 February 1925; married 1943 Clara Paulo (one daughter, two sons); died Boston, Lincolnshire 24 August 2012.

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