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Friday, 15 May 2009

The Bouncer Wagon: A Uniquely English Invention?

Towards the end of the 19th century European circus saw the gradual decline of wild animal acts being presented inside "beastwagons" (mobile caged containers, now used on circuses just as sleeping quarters) in favour of the new caged arena style acts. However, there would be one last hurrah for these types of act, an invention that came out of the early part of the 20th century, known as the “bouncer wagon act” (aka the “bouncing lions”). Above there is a picture of a beastwagon that would eventually be used for this purpose. The act pictured is the sometimes confused “Posing Act” which is the original type of trained wild animal act presented in the beastwagons. My grandfather, Dick Chipperfield Snr., stands on the outside whilst Carol Caldwell presents the act inside. The act was presented on Chipperfield’s Christmas Circus in Bingley Hall circ.1961/62 and was televised and shown on Christmas Day.

Prior to the posing acts, animal “trainers” of the 19th century wore armour and virtually fought with the wild animals. In many respects the bouncer wagon harked back to these days albeit in a far safer and more humane fashion. The bouncer wagon act was a highly trained and energetic routine, where lionesses raced around, up the sides and even on the ceiling of the wagon.

My grandfather saw perhaps the first ever bouncer act. He also rescued his brother's father-in-law, Tommy Purchase, from a savage attack by a lion in a wagon just like this one. This was not a bouncer wagon act; it consisted of two male lions that posed while Rosie, Purchase’s daughter, danced between them. After this presentation the bouncing act was done with a single lioness called “Old Vic” who worked in just a quarter of the wagon. The rescue made front page news at the time. Sadly Purchase, an amputee, who presented the act with a wooden leg, died soon after from a gangrenous infection caused by the wounds sustained in the attack.

Our sources indicate and it was the opinion of journalist, circus historian and amateur wild animal trainer, Eddie Campbell, that the bouncer wagon act was a uniquely English invention of the early 20th century. There does not seem to be any evidence of the act existing prior to "Captain" Tommy Purchase. My father, also a circus historian and a well-respected wild animal trainer, said "I am sure he was the first, although Tommy Day could have pipped him to the post". He then added "Apart from Eddie, the Chipperfields (Dick Chipperfield Snr, Dick Chipperfield Jnr, John Chipperfield and Terry Duggan), Tommy Day and Tommy Kayes nobody else did it. All the acts from ‘Bostock and Wombwelle’s’, ‘Biddel’s’, ‘Sedgwick’s’, ‘Mander’s’, ‘Anderton and Roland’s’ only did posing acts with a few tricks, no running up the walls, which defines the true bounce. “Captain” Tommy Kayes was undoubtedly the best, with one lion and two lionesses. I have seen some footage of him and it was absolutely fantastic." Kayes also had a caged arena set up to the same dimensions as a beastwagon to perform the bouncing routine. Pathe News has footage of it on their archive site under "Manchester Can Take It", where it is featured at Belle Vue.

Dad also spoke to Tommy Day's son who told him about his father's act:

"[it] concluded with him jumping out of the wagon and leaving the door open. The lioness then stood and roared at the audience out of the open door. I actually achieved this as well when I attempted to train the act, but had a few mishaps, so best left it out".

Family politics prevented my father from presenting the bouncer wagon act. My uncle Dicki (Dick Chipperfield Jnr.), presented the act when he was just 15 and was actually televised doing it. There are some who say that he did when he was 14! Chipperfield's were forced by the authorities to terminate his performance on the basis of his age. John Chipperfield, Dicki’s uncle, took over the act before it was passed onto Terry Duggan. Clem Merk, one of the “house” animal trainers, also attempted to work the act, but despite his impressive background presenting fast-paced lion acts he did not adapt to the bouncer style. He was knocked down a few times in rehearsal and he never worked the act in front of an audience. It would appear that the bouncer wagon act was an art all of its own. Dicki would work it again in 1964 and then when his family’s circus toured South Africa, 1964-67. After this, however, there are no records of anyone else working the bouncer wagon act again.

Postscript: In 1972 Dicki and my father attempted to resurrect the bouncer wagon act an American TV show. Work even began on building the wagon, but it was left unfinished when the contract fell through for financial reasons. In 1987 Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey Circus asked my father to resurrect the bouncer wagon act again for their 1988 season as a prelude to his 14 lions in the caged arena, presented by Larry Alan Dean. The wagon was to be pulled around the track by an elephant. Dean would perform the act and then go straight into his caged arena performance. However, it was deemed impractical and the act was substituted for a single lion posing with his paws on the pedestal. Sonia Allen, “The Lady of the Lions”, presented the last of the fairground lion shows. These were posing acts in a beastwagon. The act was eventually sold to Sanger’s Circus in 1955.

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Anonymous said...

from Jim Stockley:

Can you also post some pictures of lions 'bouncing'?

Do you have any pictures showing Dick Chipperfield (Snr or Jnr), Terry Duggan or Tommy Kayes in action ?

Jamie Clubb said...

I will check with Dad. I'd certainly like to get some up here. It was an act I always wished I'd seen live.

John Smithy said...

Funny isn't it ....... I grew up watching it, saw it many times and thinking that it was the norm! Ask your Dad if I remember correctly Tommy Chipperfield presenting it one year? Was it for a TV show? My memory isn't good, I'm amazed at the detail your Dad remembers ;-)
I would have loved to have seen Tommy Day's lion standing at the open door or the lioness Zulika doing a roust.

ps: couple of typos have crept in but it's a good article.... really need to get a couple of stills of lions going round the walls so readers can see what you are talking about? Dig in your archive!
I have film of Dicky working it as a younster of 15yrs ..... wonder how you put it on youtube?

Anonymous said...

from Jim Stockley: was I posting here with an alias? sorry ;-) Also, I meant to ask ... you knew that Tommy Day was married to my GGGranfather's (your GGGGrandfather ;-)sister's daughter Pauline Wesley Chipperfield.
very best

Jamie Clubb said...

The article has been revised and I have added more information. Tommy didn't do the bouncer wagon act. He was promised it, but it never materialized. We will post pictures to demonstrate what defines the bouncer wagaon act in due course, as there is a little confusion. As mentioned, there is footage of Tommy Kayes demonstrating this act in the adapted cage (same dimensions as the bouncer wagon) on the Pathe News archives website. It is under under "Manchester Can Take it", a newsreel on the circus at Belle Vue during the war.

John, Thanks for the feedback. It was Tommy Kayes not Tommy Day who jumped from the wagon, and had the lioness roar from the open door. You will need to transfer it to an electronic format in order to get it up on YouTube. It might be easier just to shoot it with a phone or a YouTube camera and then upload it.

Jim, thanks for the information on the Tommy Day connection. Try this link for the Tommy Kayes footage As I said, it is not of the bouncer wagon act, but it is virtually the same. Sallyann tells me that Aunty Sheila (Doreen Duggan's sister) has pictures of Terry performing the act.

Jamie Clubb said...

Sorry, my mistake it was Tommy Day who did the exciting conclusion to the act. Getting mixed up with my quotes!

Anonymous said...

Have pictures of my Grandmother, Freda Cuthbert, from my mums side, working a bounce here in Australia.2 lioness. Somewhere around the early 1900's. Working on new Gasser (Swiss) show here in Melbourne at the moment.Will try to get them posted here.
Craig Bullen

Jamie Clubb said...

Thanks for the information, Craig. I am glad this has got people talking and contributing. If you could email me the pictures, I will happily put them up on my blog if you wish.

Do the pictures show the lions climbing the sides of the wagon and/or ceiling as defines "the bounce" as opposed to a "posing act"? I've had a lot of people get confused over this issue. This is the evidence we need to support any pre-Purchase claims or, at least, a written commentary at the time describing this particular action.

Jamie Clubb said...

Craig, I presume your father was Stafford Bullen. My father, Jim Clubb, was a good friend of his. Your father frequently used to stay with us in the UK when we had our circus around 1980. He knew him from when he visited Chipperfield's in the early 1970s. My father says he had very fond memories of Stafford's visits. We had a leopard cub that my mother was hand-raising on one visit, which promptly parked itself on your father's bed at night without him knowing. You can imagine his amazement in the morning to find a half-grown leopard sharing the same bed!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jamie. Yes, my dad was Stafford. I was with my father when i met your dad at Blackpool, the last year they had animals on the show My dad spoke very highly of Jim, a good animal man he always said. Dad had lots of stories about the Chipperfields and your dad from his visit's. I took our elephants to New Zealand to work with Dickie in 1988-89. My dad came for awhile, he and Dickie had the time of their live's, reliving all there times together in UK. I went to South Africa in 2003 to train some Zebra for a movie. Cut along story short Jim Stockley owned one of the Zebra's, we met, my wife and I have become very good friend with him, Silvana and Jamie and have been back to work with him every year since.He has such a selection of animals to work, we love it there.
Craig Bullen