Published in 1910 and re-issued in 1926, the memoir of English circus showman, ‘Lord’ George Sanger, is in so many ways a delight. I came across his Seventy Years as a Showman at the University of Sheffield’s National Fairground Archive yesterday, and revelled in every minute of reading it. I can think of so many ways in which it might be used: not just its obvious value to enthusiasts of fairgrounds, freak-shows, circus and Victorian showmanship (although God knows there are enough of those), but also to those interested in the history of popular Victorian masculinity, in East London street life, in Sanger’s passing commentary on customs in English provincial towns, or simply for those wanting to luxuriate in his narrative powers and endearingly humane voice.
One of the most terrible moments in the memoir keeps sticking with me now, however, and that is Sanger’s description of the murder of a gingerbread salesman at Stalybridge fair during the 1850s. ‘There was a careless brutality about a Lancashire mob in those days’, he writes, adding that one afternoon he saw an argument break out among this salesman and some of his customers. As he watched from a distance, this salesman’s stall was suddenly overturned, ‘and the next minute he himself was under their feet with all of them kicking at him anywhere and everywhere… We could see the poor fellow’s body with the heavy clogs battered into it as though it was a stuffed sack instead of a human thing’. As a crowd gathered silently around to watch, this man was literally kicked to a pulp by a group of men. And when the crowd and the kickers quickly melted away ‘there lay the body – I can see it now – a ghastly, shapleless thing in the clear sunlight, with the white dust of the roadway blotched here and there about it with purple stains’. It was one of those things ‘that a man once seeing carries for ever after as a shuddering recollection, and I never hear the name Stalybridge but the picture of that battered, awful object lying prone in the sunlight comes before me’.
This description is all the more lingering and terrible because of what it happened to Sanger himself in his old age. According to Kenneth Grahame’s preface to Seventy Years a Showman (the 1926 edition), Sanger sold his circuses in 1905 and went to live on a farm, anticipating a tranquil dotage amid bucolic scenery. Shortly afterwards, one of his employees battered him to death with a hatchet, after attacking some of his fellow workers. From other accounts, it appears that it might not have been this simple: Sanger might actually have been killed from a heavy vase falling during a fight in which the employee tried to attack one of his relatives. But however precisely it happened, the fact of his own violent death lends his memoir a pathos it would not otherwise have had – except, that is, in his wrenching description of that beaten Stalybridge man.
Lord George Sanger, Seventy Years a Showman (London & Toronto: J M Dent, 1926).
Above photograph appears on Berkshire Family Historian, along with a biographical note on Sanger.
The V&A Theatre Collection has also put a photograph and biographical note of Sanger online on its PeoplePlayUK site.