On this day … 12 March 1884

The Preston Guardian advertised the opening on Monday, 17 March of Ohmy’s Grand New Circus in Pitt Street, which it described as ‘a beautiful new building, the best ever erected in Preston’.

This is tantalising because there is so little information about the presence of the circus in Preston or its ‘beautiful new building’. There is nothing in the usual sources (the on-line Preston Chronicle and Barney Smith’s Preston Digital Archive). According to Barney, the late Peter Vickers did some research into the circus owner, who was known as King Ohmy.

Sheffield University’s circus archive has the following:

The Ohmy Circus was founded by Joseph Smith (c.1852-1931) aka The Great Ohmy in c1867, when he inherited his father’s circus. Still an inexperienced teenager, Ohmy took a partner to run the circus but the partnership did not last long. It took thirteen years of hard work to make the Ohmy Circus succeed, when he opened his first show at Southport in 1880. During this time, he also bought a circus in Accrington and erected around 80 circus buildings in cities across England including; Rochdale, Oldham, Preston, Blackpool and Leeds as he travelled his show with his wife and children, Ada, Lily and Claude, who performed as The Ohmy Sisters, an equestrian act in which son Claude pretended to be a woman.

According to the Blackpool Circus School’s website:

He got his name from his outdoor display at Raikes when he used to perform daring stunts on the high wire. The audience used to exclaim Oh My! Outdoor displays were common at Raikes, the most famous of all was Blondin the Tightrope walker, he was a great attraction and featured there for a number of years, eventually he fell and was nursed by the landlady of the Station hotel. He did not perform very much after this and soon died.

‘Raikes’ was the old Raikes Hall grounds on Whitegate Drive in Blackpool, for many years the home for such entertainments.

The Preston Guardian is not on line and so without making a trip to Lancashire Archives, the only source is the extract above from the digest of Guardian articles produced by Henry Kirby. The digest has always proved a very reliable source, so why does a search of the rival Preston Chronicle not bring up any mentions.

Even more intriguing is that there are only a couple of references in the Chronicle to a circus in Preston in that year, and neither mentions Mr Ohmy (pictured). One of the references is to an assault at a circus, and that says the circus was in Butler Street.

It’s not clear from the plans of Pitt Street and Butler Street, which were surveyed in 1891, where either circus would have found a site.

4 thoughts on “On this day … 12 March 1884

  1. The Southport Visiter on BNA has an inconvenient gap around 1880, but when it comes to life again in 1886, there are a few mentions of OHMY’s Grand Circus and their performances as part of the Winter Gardens, where there is a circus marked on the town plan surveyed in 1889: 

    The Visiter is only just readable so I haven’t copied it. There were two performances daily in July 1886, with a Grand Troupe of Artistes and a ?Stud of ‘perfectly-trained Performing Horses, Ponies, Donkeys, Goats &c’.

    In relation to Preston, there is a planning application for ‘Temporary Wooden Circus Structure- Pitt Street, Preston’ in February 1884 at Lancashire Archives. William Roberts is the applicant. CBP2/5506 and another in October 1890 by ‘J Ohmy’ for a ‘Circus – Corporation Street’, CBP2/10821. There are other applications for circuses, including Quaglieni’s, mostly for Corporation Street so presumably Pitt Street was no longer an option from the mid-1880s. Also one for Lancaster Road, north of Harris Street.


    1. Glenn Swarbrick added the following on the Preston Historical Society Facebook page:

      Lancashire Archives holds some material under document reference CBP/2/10821, which is described in their on-line catalog as:
      Title: Circus – Corporation Street, Preston
      Applicant: J Ohmy
      Architect or surveyor: Thomas Woodhouse, L H Woodhouse & Co Ltd, Architects, Hound Road, West Bridgeford, Nottingham
      Date: Oct 1900
      As these are dated from 1900, they may have been for alterations to an earlier building.

      I’ll add your Preston info to the PHS page.


  2. I did some research on Ohmy some time ago, I will dig it out and email you. I believe that ‘Oh my’ was an expression of his, as part of his act, not the audience’s expression. I believe that he first appeared in Preston in 1876 performing at Keith and Weldon’s Circus in Butler Street. I tracked him performing in various towns including Blackpool, Burnley, Southport, Liverpool, Manchester, Blackburn, Wigan, Warrington. It looked like he became a proprietor in 1884 opening the Circus in Pitt Street, and also going into partnership that year with the builder of the unsuccessful Blackpool Circus at Hounds Hill. I recall reading a description of the plush interior of the Preston Circus, allegedly modelled on one in Paris, but not the exterior. However, it would probably have been a wooden framed building with ‘crinkly tin’ cladding like the ‘iron’ ones in Blackpool and Rochdale. Roles were reversed in later years after Charlie Keith’s bankruptcy, with Keith appearing on Ohmy’s bills. Ohmy’s family were also performers on his later bills, his son Claude appearing in drag with his two sisters in a riding act. They were performing in Germany at the outbreak of WWI and were interned there.


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