Mr Fillis’ Circus

The circus was coming to Australia. On 5 July 1892 a letter of application was penned requesting that a troupe of 40 performers, as well as various exotic animals, be allowed to visit Queensland.

Frank E. Fillis was born in Lambeth, London, in 1857 and arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, sometime between 1879 and 1880. There, he joined the circus of Richard Bell and began his own circus around 1883. Fillis became renowned across the globe for his extravagant productions that included man and beast alike, including the world’s first human cannonball, all for the admission price of 10 guineas.

Inwards correspondence 1892, ITMM847438

Looking to branch out beyond the African performance scene, Fillis organised a tour of Australasia, beginning in 1892. However, he didn’t expect some roadblocks in bringing his circus to Queensland.

The times were very different in 19th century-Queensland and entertainment wasn’t as accessible as it is today. With limited options, a circus coming to town was a thrilling prospect for many Queenslanders. Despite the potential for excitement, permission to tour was not immediately granted: there was an issue with a specific type of animal in the circus’s line-up.

Inwards correspondence 1892, ITM847438

Fillis wrote in his application that his troupe contained ‘5 elephants, 4 lions, 1 tiger, 1 leopard, and 1 black panther … 25 horses and 20 ponies … all in good health.’ So, which of these animals was the problem? For Queensland’s Colonial Secretary, the exotic African animals Fillis listed were of little concern. It was, in fact, the four performing dogs he didn’t mention that were a problem. In 1892 rabies was not yet present in Queensland, but the disease was feared worldwide and the Colonial Secretary refused to put Queensland at risk.

Inwards correspondence 1892, ITM847438

Fortunately, the people of Queensland were not to be disappointed and eventually Fillis and the rest of his troupe were admitted into the state and enjoyed a successful tour. The Queensland Times reported that the circus’s Ipswich performance drew ‘a large attendance, and the excellent programme provided was evidently appreciated.’

Fillis’ four performing dogs, however, never heard the applause of a Queensland crowd, remaining caged in quarantine for the duration of the tour. It was a sacrifice that Mr Fillis was willing to make in order to bring his circus to the people of Queensland.

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