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Thursday, 6 September 2012

Gentleman of the Circus - Remembering Ken MacManus

Reading through the sad but beautifully written eulogy/obituary of Ken MacManus by Samanatha Cartmel (John Darnell's girlfriend. John also contributed to the piece), I cannot begin to explain how strange it feels to have arrived at this time. I was shocked at the feeling of losing someone who was a big part of my growing up. These people seem somehow eternal. Ken was a dear friend of my parents' back when they ran their own circus in the late '70s and early '80s. Ken was part of the Mohawks riding act and later became our ringmaster.


Relatively speaking I guess I didn't spend a tremendous amount of time with him, but the time I did spend were some of the happiest years of my life. The people we lived with on the circus left an indelible impression on me. He was an "uncle" of sorts, as his wife, Clara, was like an aunt. To him I was always "Young Jamie". His voice was unmistakable and I can hear it now all these years later. He always had time for me and the picture of him minding me as I rode Indian, our pony, is typical. Years later, when I periodically visited Paulo's Circus, Ken would always pull me from the audience to join in the "Riding Machine". I was terrible and it goes to show how much you do forget! Whilst on our circus I have fond memories of looking at the Indian/Native American pictures and paraphernalia in his wagon. He helped me build dinosaurs and introduced me to the exclamation mark! Weird how these disparate memories come back to you.
The next time I came across Uncle Ken was when I began researching my book "The Legend of Salt and Sauce". Dad interviewed him regarding his time working alongside Salt and Sauce. Ken provided us with a lot of vital primary source information on their presenter, Emily Paulo, and the various incidents that occurred on the show during their time with Paulo's Circus. He and Aunty Clara rode Sauce the elephant alongside Salt to Doncaster Registry Office on 3rd November 1943 to be married. Clara performed with the elephants in the show that night. Unfortunately the next time I would see Uncle Ken was at Aunty Clara's funeral. However, it was great to hear his voice again. It later transpired that he didn't get a copy of our book much to the huge embarrassment of Dad and me. We made sure that his grandson, John, picked up a signed copy for him and I am happy it got to him weeks before his death on 24th August 2012.

Jim Clubb’s Memories 

I first met Ken and Clara in 1971 when I joined Chipperfiled’s Circus. Ken became an immediate friend, giving me friendly advice and practical help. Our friendship continued throughout the time we worked for Chipperfield’s and I was saddened the day they decided not to come back for the following season. When I started Sally Chipperfield’s Circus in the winter of 1977 I was determined to have Ken and his family on board for our new venture. Unfortunately he was already committed for the 1978 season, but I was successful in contracting him and Clara for the 1979 season. Ken originally joined us as general manager, tent-master and his two acts; the Mohawks that only consisted of him and Clara, and their pigeon act. Carlos Michelli was also on the show that year and we put him in the riding act along with me, combining it with my own cowboy act.
At the beginning of this season we lost our tent first to the snow and two weeks later to the wind when it was completely destroyed. I couldn’t have had a better right hand man during this disaster. We pulled down, packed the show up and limped back to Chipperfield’s winter quarters in Oxfordshire. Ken and I caught a plane to Amsterdam, where we were collected by the owner of Circus Mikkenie who had two tents for sale. We bought one, packed it onto a truck owned by the circus and drove back to the UK. We had to make new king poles and quarter poles and we opened for the Easter holiday, exactly 10 days after we had lost the tent. Without Ken’s good advice, support and hard work, we would have never achieved this.

 Ken accompanied me on many foreign trips, buying tents and equipment, including being stranded in Norway through weather conditions. He shared my interest in good food and wine, and Clara was also a superb cook. He always stood at the cage door when I was working the lions or any other act. He even used to hold the third bear in our lunge bear act. When our lions escaped at Devises in 1980, Ken was right there with me, helping the capture. When we succeeded in getting the last one in the back of our horsebox, which was half full of hay, Ken was the one who came in and helped me get the lion back out again and also handled the Health and Safety officer who came down the next day. This was probably the worst experience I ever had running a circus, but the incident happened in the morning and after the recapture of the lions we opened the same day at 3 o’clock with the lions in the show just like nothing had happened. Ken gave me that confidence. 

In my eyes, he was the quintessential gentleman of the circus – both in and outside ring. It was far more than act. Tony Hopkins – who was our advance publicity manager when Ken was on the show - said to me, at Ken’s funeral, “I always admired the way Ken introduced you to anyone.  He always gave you the greatest respect.”  I have nothing but the highest opinion of Ken MacManus. He was a manager, a tentmaster, a ringmaster, an excellent animal trainer and, above all, a true star of the circus. It still gives me a cold shiver of excitement when I remember the music of the Indian Love Call as the Mohawk act was introduced and Ken walked through the curtain in his full Indian war bonnet – the mark of a true artiste.


by Samanatha Cartmel (assisted by Ken's grandson, John Darnell)

Ken was born in 1925 in the Barbican, Plymouth, to Patrick and Selina MacManus, a Naval family. Ken was a middle-child of eight brothers and five sisters.

From a young age Ken proved he was hardworking and independent. At 12 he learned to drive, and his earliest job was working for a fruit and potato merchant, which he proved to be so good at that he soon practically ran the business for the owner.

His eldest brother Henry, an accomplished boxer known as “Lightning MacManus”, married Grace Paulo in 1934. Grace was the daughter of “Madame Clara” Paulo, one of the only female circus proprietors in Great Britain. It was around this time that Ken met Grace’s sister Clara (known as Clarinda) when he was just 17. Ken and Clara fell in love and were married in Doncaster in November 1943, just one month before Ken was conscripted into the Army and joined the 6th Airborne Division of the Devonshire Regiment. Ken and Clara’s love was a true war-time romance.

Just like many young men during this difficult time away from his family Ken performed more than his duty during World War II. On 5th June 1944, Ken was expecting to be a member of the glider force, ready to land in Normandy, but as suspicion in the ranks grew they realised things would change. At the last minute, Ken found out he would be a member of the land force and on 6th June 1944 (D-Day) he bravely took part in the second wave of the famous Normandy beach landings. As a highly regarded Private, he also took the responsibility of Officer’s Batman (the Officer’s right-hand man who was responsible for radio communications).

On one not-so-very-special day when the Germans were retreating, Ken and his fellow soldiers were travelling through a small French town. They came across a group of local people throwing stones and tormenting a terrified horse, which had apparently belonged to the German forces. As a lover of horses and always the one for doing the right thing, it was Ken who stepped forward to rescue the injured animal. The horse was understandably terrified, but Ken persisted and (even speaking to it in a little German) he eventually calmed the animal down enough to treat its wounds. Ken lead the horse to the S.S. Stables and was surprised to find them full of new and beautifully crafted leather saddles and bridles. Obviously thinking that only the best would do for the horse, Ken saddled it up with the best harness he could find.  After Ken’s fellow soldiers joked with him about being a circus boy, Ken proved to them that he was a true ‘horse whisperer’ as he gently encouraged the horse to trust him enough to ride it in the troop’s advance through France. Nobody could miss Ken MacManus as he was the only Private on horseback.

Later in the war, Ken was present at the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge, a massacre at Bastogne. Not long after, he was wounded by the shrapnel from an exploding landmine, which had detonated close-by, killing his friends. Ken was taken to hospital where he recovered and was discharged, finally getting the chance to return home to his beloved wife Clara (and son). In March 1946, Kenneth Junior died at the age of 16 months. It must have been a terrible time for Ken and Clara, but later that same year Evelyn Clara MacManus was born.

Ken grew to be a talented bareback rider, trapeze artist and clown in the Paulo’s family circus. The family troupe travelled in the early 1950s to many countries, including Belgium, Germany, and Norway, Holland, Sweden and Italy and also Switzerland. Tours included their 1951 and 1953 seasons with Circus Franz Mikkenie.

In 1954, Ken spent a lot of this time breaking and training new horses until in 1955 him and Clara formed a new bareback riding act, which debuted at Great Yarmouth Hippodrome. They performed as a Red Indian act known as The Mohawks, and later as a comic jockey riding act known as The Ascots. From 1956 to 1960, they toured mainly with Bertram Mills Circus.

In 1961 Ken and Clara’s daughter Evelyn, aged just 14, joined the family bareback riding act. The family spent the ‘60s touring with numerous circuses across Great Britain and Europe and in 1966, Evelyn’s husband John and Ken’s new son-in-law joined the act. The family troupe toured with many European circuses, the Blackpool Tower Circus in 1964 and 1966, the Kelvin Hall Circus in Glasgow, Sarassani in Germany, Cirkus Scott in Sweden, and the Chipperfields and Gerry Cottle’s Circuses in the UK.

In 1977, Ken’s family’s riding act represented Great Britain at the Circus World Championships in London where in the finals they gained 40 points for presentation and 37 points for content, only to be narrowly beaten by the Swedish riders. During this year Ken, Clara, Evelyn, John and other family members also appeared in the Granada TV production of Charles Dicken’s “Hard Times” as the circus artists.

In 1978, a special article about The Paulos, but specifically The Mowhawks, featured in the June issue of King Pole, which said Ken “considers that they are first and foremost entertainers and as such it is their duty to be well turned out and visually pleasing.” They made all of their own costumes, including Ken’s beautifully hand carved leather belts and gun belts.

After spending 1978 with Circus Hoffman, the family riding act split up and Ken became General Manager of Sally Chipperfields Circus in Britain with Ken and Clara performing at Chipperfields as the Mohawks once again.

In 1983, after years of performing in the ring, Ken and Clara started their own circus, reviving the proud title of Paulo’s Circus. For 10 years their travelling show was regarded as among the finest in Great Britain, attracting prestigious visitors including the Queen in 1984. 

In 1996, after 53 years of working in Circus, Ken retired to Lincolnshire with his beloved wife Clara, where they exchanged their trailer for a bungalow. In 1999 the Circus Friends Association of Great Britain presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Ken and Clara in recognition of their achievements and dedication in the ring. It was a very proud moment for them and their family.

Sadly, in 2001, Clara passed away. It was a very sad time for the whole family and one could say the end of an era. Clara was the second youngest of eight children and she will no doubt be remembered as one of the last great circus prima-ballerinas on horseback.

Evelyn tells of how she was a daughter but also a son to her Dad as her elder brother Kenneth died at such a young age. Evelyn remembers how the strict father she knew mellowed so much in later years and devoted a lot of time to his grandchildren, teaching them many things, from rope splicing, to juggling and gymnastics. It was very evident that he valued them very much and was proud of them all. Grandson, John Junior says how he has never met anyone like his grandfather. He did his own cooking, he encouraged everyone to strive and be better at the things he taught them, and the talents they themselves had. He was a master of being able to criticise and encourage at the same time.

In his later years, Ken busied himself in his leather-crafts. As an exceptional craftsman already experienced at making his own gun belts, Ken focused his time on making miniature western saddles. All individual with carefully crafted and intricate designs, any would look at home in the Wild Wests of America. Those who have been lucky enough to have been given one by Ken will appreciate each were made with a care that was remarkable.

As part of his desire to keep fit Ken loved to take a bus to Spalding or Boston and walk around the town, often popping into charity shops on the look-out for good quality items he felt he could use in his crafts or could give to his grandchildren. He was a proud man, and always very independent. He was a proper English Gentleman, and a true gentleman of the circus.

Ken will be regarded as a wonderful father for Evelyn and father-in-law to John, grandfather to Kenny, Natalie and John, great-grandfather to eight and great great-grandfather to two.

He will be remembered always as “granddad Mac,” one of the greatest and most special granddads the family could have, a magnificent showman and master horseman.

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Kenny Darnell jnr said...

He will always be loved and forever missed by us all x R.I.P Grandad Mac

david macmanus said...

What a beautifully written and poignant history of a person I remember so well from my childhood when with my parents Ron, Kens brother, and Dolly ( Doris ) we stayed with Ken, Clara and Evelyn in Great Yarmouth and touring in Scotland. Wonderful memories of a world so different to our more " normal " life in Plymouth.
And thank you for the details I didnt know , his wartime activities were, of course, never mentioned such was the style of the man.
To Evelyn and all of Uncle Ken and Aunty Clara s family all the very best.
David MacManus

Jamie Clubb said...

Hello David,

Thanks for your kind comments. I will pass them onto Samantha and John.