BILLY BAKER was one of the foremost bareback riders in the Thirties and Forties - an era when British circus families like the Bakers, Fossetts, Kayes, Paulos, Roberts and Rosaires were world-class exponents of this exciting equestrian art.
Billy's father Tom Baker ran a small circus and taught his sons to ride. At Willesden Fair in 1921, Bertram Mills spotted the raw talent of the eldest son, Tommy, then barely a teenager, as a comedy rider, and contracted him for Mills's Olympia circus. Later Tommy and his young brothers, Billy, Dickie and Pat, formed a juvenile riding troupe, and rode Olympia as well as in their own tiny family show. Baker's circus was the subject of the book Circus Company by the painter Edward Seago, who spent time travelling with the family. Published in 1933, the book is dedicated to the memory of Tommy Baker, whose career was cut short tragically the year before at the age of 22 when he died from a ruptured appendix.
Billy Baker and his brothers soon joined Bertram Mills's Circus more or less permanently in the 1930s, forming the basis of the Cumberlands and Corinthians riding troupes, which were featured on Mills's tenting tours and at the winter seasons at Olympia. Mills provided quality horses for the act and brought in other top British riders, such as the Yeldings and Sylvia Dash, to produce a large riding troupe, building human pyramids three people high on the backs of moving horses.
During the Second World War, Billy Baker served in the RAF and he and his brothers returned to Mills until 1952. They had their own circus at the California-in-England park for a short while, and worked for Billy Smart and on the Continent. Returning from two years in South Africa, the three Baker Boys and their wives were at the Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth in 1961. This was to be their final appearance as riders.
Retiring from the exacting role of bareback rider, Baker presented animals at Blackpool Tower Circus, Robert Brothers' elephants in 1963 and liberty horses from Cirkus Schumann in Denmark the following summer. In 1965, Billy and his wife Judy moved to the Atayde brothers' big circus in Mexico, presenting animals there, and they then settled in the US like so many European circus performers, in Sarasota, Florida. Billy and his son, Tommy, have presented horses with the top American shows, notably Ringling Brothers and Circus Vargas. The latter, keen to draw out his Englishness, dubbed the debonair horseman 'Sir William Baker'.
Newsreels of the Baker Boys riding in the Forties suggest a speed, energy and danger which has virtually disappeared from today's bareback acts. The late Harry Nutkins, writing in the King Pole circus magazine a couple of years ago, made this assessment of him:
'It is true that Billy never attempted somersaults which he might well have developed as he was a fine athlete with a wonderful physique . . . but he was a quite outstanding rider, in his day certainly the finest in Europe. He had a terrific 'attack' that was almost frightening.'