The Diary: A fair amusing look at history...

Vanessa Toulmin from Sheffield University with Jimmy from the exhibition on Sheffield Fun Fair
Vanessa Toulmin from Sheffield University with Jimmy from the exhibition on Sheffield Fun Fair
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A DANCING midget dressed as Napoleon? An escapologist locked in a milk churn? A giant who was – gasp! – French?

Showbusiness, it’s fair to say, ain’t what it once was.

This little list of entertainers and merry-makers are among some of the more unusual acts to have shown off their, er, talents here in Sheffield.

Now they are to be celebrated in a fascinating new exhibition which will shine a spotlight on the shows and circuses, fairs and freak galleries which kept the city amused during the 19th and early 20th century.

There’s Harry Houdini. There’s General Tom Thumb. There’s a bloke called Cyclone Billy who gave up a life as one of Europe’s top stunt bikers to open a chip shop in Attercliffe. As you do.

Some 200 artefacts – including props, handbills, photographs and at least one rather ominous-looking ventriloquist doll – will be on show as part of the display at Western Bank Library. A big screen, meanwhile, will feature early film footage recorded here and played nightly in the city’s halls before cinemas were even dreamed of.

“Sheffield has a fascinating history when it comes to what we term illegitimate entertainments,” says organiser Professor Vanessa Toulmin, head of Sheffield University’s National Fairground Archive. “It was a must-stop place for many of the great European travelling show families, and it had its fair share of entertainers and magicians born right here. The city also has one of the richest heritages in the country for early film and cinema, so life wasn’t dull.

“The point of this exhibition is to celebrate that colourful heritage.”

Colourful is certainly one word to describe it. Bizarre and distinctly un-PC are a couple more.

Houdini (who escaped from that milk churn) and General Tom Thumb (a famous American little person who sang and danced while dressed as various military leaders) are only the most famous of the unconventional acts to have appeared here.

The exhibition also reveals how punters flocked to see a French giant at the Angel Inn, in Haymarket, in 1865. His size scared several children. His French-ness is said to have had a similarly unnerving effect on many adults.

Another big draw was Ching Ling Soo (non-stage name Bill Robinson). The American illusionist performed here in 1913, although he was less famous then than he would become five years later when he was shot dead on a London stage as he attempted to catch a bullet between his teeth.

“In many ways these kind of people were the movie stars of their day,” says Vanessa. “People would queue for hours to see them.”

Home-grown tricksters also feature in the exhibition.

There’s memorabilia relating to both to David Devant, the first president of Sheffield Circle Of Magicians, and Professor De Lyle and daughter Wynne, a famous ventriloquist double act based in Ecclesall Road.

“Why was this entertainment so popular?” ponders Vanessa who has put the collection together largely from items in the NFA. “Because it was fun and colourful and affordable, and I think in many ways that’s why these items are still a draw today.

“Many have never been exhibited in public before so we’re hoping plenty of people will come down and have a look at this unexplored piece of their city’s history. I’m sure those that do will be fascinated.”

Sheffield Entertained runs at Western Bank Library from Thursday to May 6. Entrance free.