The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A nineteenth-century family circus

A few months ago, I wrote about the process of creating brief catalog records for the Folger’s playbill collection. Since then, I’ve completed records for playbills from London and all of Scotland, and have begun working my way through playbills from the rest of England.

Recently, I came across a playbill for a performance by Cooke’s Royal Circus in Birmingham. I thought the name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it until I checked our catalog and remembered that I had cataloged another playbill for Cooke’s Royal Circus over the summer. This other Cooke’s Royal Circus was located in Edinburgh, though. Was this a simple authority control problem, or something more?

Playbill from Cooke’s Royal Circus, Edinburgh, 1846 (BILL Box G4 C77 1846)

It turns out that Cooke’s Royal Circus was a prominent traveling show, operated by a family often described as a “dynasty.” The Cooke family, guided by patriarch Thomas Cooke, started their first circus in Scotland, probably in the 1780s. Robert Burns described seeing their fiddle player perform during a 1784 visit to Mauchline, Scotland.1 By the turn of the century, the performing family was traveling regularly throughout Scotland and England, stopping in cities large and small. They were particularly known for their equestrian acts, although many members of the circus (both of the Cooke family, and additional hired performers) could also perform as acrobats, strongmen, or contortionists as well. However, the horses were the stars of the show: at least half of the acts featured on the playbill for a performance by James Cooke’s Royal Circus in Edinburgh in 1846, at left, are equestrian performances.

In 1830, the circus became Cooke’s Royal Circus following a well-received performance before King William IV and Queen Adelaide.2 The Cooke dynasty continued to grow, and by the mid-1830s nearly forty members of the family were participants in the circus. Thomas Cooke was succeeded by his son Thomas Taplin Cooke, who took the show to America in 1836. They played for a season each in New York and Boston and were received enthusiastically in both cities. In 1837, the family opened “Cooke’s Extensive Equestrian Establishment and New Arena” in Philadelphia, where they played for another season before traveling down the East Coast to open another establishment in Baltimore in 1838. Their Baltimore theater met with misfortune, however—on the night of February 3, 1838, the entire building went up in flames, and the Cookes lost not only the building but all their wardrobe and props inside it, as well as fifty horses. After returning to Philadelphia for a brief attempt at repairing the family’s American fortunes, Thomas Taplin Cooke took his circus back to England after “an unfortunate year in America.”3

Playbill from Cooke’s Royal Circus, Birmingham, 1843 (BILL Box B53cc 1843)

Both of the Folger playbills pictured here are from the decade following the circus’s mixed fortunes on their American tour. The Birmingham playbill is from 1843, and features a large illustration of a scene from their popular equestrian production based on Lord Byron’s poem Mazeppa, about the journey of a Hungarian cossack forced to wander while tied to his horse, which they had first performed in Philadelphia shortly before returning to England. The Edinburgh playbill, three years later, advertises a performance about another legendary historical figure and his horse—in this case, the highwayman Dick Turpin. The accompanying illustrations seem to feature the non-equestrian performers in the circus, however.

Cooke’s Royal Circus continued operating into the 20th century, at times as a touring company and at times leasing permanent theater buildings. Early circuses such as Cooke’s were prominent examples of family firms. Younger family members would go through apprenticeships in the various parts of the circus, eventually working their way up to managing the show once they had mastered each of its components. Thomas Taplin Cooke had five sons who all followed him into the circus world, and at least eight of the sons’ offspring did so as well. The circus encompassed other branches of the family tree as well: after Thomas Taplin Cooke, management of the circus was assumed by James Cooke (probably his son), and from the 1880s through the turn of the century it was led by John Henry Cooke, nephew of Thomas Taplin Cooke.4

As I continue working my way through playbills from provincial England and beyond, I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes open for other performances by scions of the Cooke family!

  1. Scottish notes and queries, ed. John Bulloch. (Aberdeen: D. Brown & Co., 1901), p. 107
  2. Webster, David P. “Too many Cookes?” in Iron game history v. 4: no. 5-6 (August 1997), p. 14
  3. The Circus Scrapbook, number 9 (January 31), pp. 37-42
  4. More information about figures of the Cooke family is available in Olympians of the Sawdust Circle: A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus (San Bernardino, CA : Borgo Press, 1998).

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