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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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