The Family La Bonche Circus Collection, Part 1, an introduction – a guest blog by Alexandria Brown

Whilst on placement at Discovery Museum, aiding with contemporary collections, I was tasked with documenting the rather interesting La Bonche circus collection.  Throughout the process, I discovered that the world of circus carries a legacy of unique skills, customs and values.  In order to share some of what I’ve learned, I’d like to give a brief overview of the Family La Bonche and their motivations for donation.

The Family La Bonche is a youth and community circus troupe which started at Circus Central based in Christ Church, Newcastle.  In 2013, stemming from a curiosity concerning their circus history and heritage, they researched circus histories from the North East in collaboration with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM).  This initiative uncovered a strong regional circus history and a contemporary circus network within the local festival and arts circuit, culminating in a 2014 published book, Circus Histories from the North East of England: 1237 – 2013.  Inspired by their findings, the troupe decided to donate circus related objects and ephemera to Discovery Museum – an act of contributing to the regional circus history which they had uncovered.  As an introduction, I’ve chosen to look at their research and community, as these were the main motivators and sources for the La Bonche circus collection.

Local circus histories

The La Bonche collection originates with the research undertaken and published by the Family concerning regional circus histories. Delightfully, large portions of the book include early 20th century documents and printed ephemera from Arthur Fenwick’s scrapbooks, son to the founder of Fenwick’s department store. As a close collaborator and supporter of the local circus, Arthur’s personal papers on the subject add a valuable primary perspective to many of the historic photos, articles and posters amassed.  The Family La Bonche themselves state in their book that ‘we are very fond of him and consider him as an important elder in our circus family…thanks to Arthur we know our local circus heritage much better.’  There is no doubt that Arthur’s efforts to preserve and document the local circus community influenced the creation of the La Bonche circus collection.

Scrapbook entry of Arthur Fenwick on a 1934 circus festival at the Newcastle Town Moor


In addition to circus histories, the book also profiles contemporary circus artists and groups of the North East.  Sprinkled throughout are mini biographies and anecdotes concerning individuals, acts and traditions within recent decades.  One of my favourite sections is a list gathered by a young La Bonche revealing ‘circus secrets’ or comedic notes relating to circus superstitions.  Several of these were written down for a 2014 Fitzwilliam Museum show and later added to the collection. Here are a few examples:

  • Do show elephants in your posters with their trunks up.  An elephants’ trunk pointed downwards symbolises mourning.
  • If you mess up a trick, do it again or all your tricks will be messed up.
  • As soon as you can walk on your hands you must go out to work.

Closed circus secret note with Family La Bonche symbol stamped on front


Overall the book provides memorable details without feeling too heavy.  The posters and 20th century ephemera are fantastic and the performer profiles give insight to the fascinating individuals which chose circus as a way of life.  Many of the objects in the collection are also featured within the context of their use and associations, a helpful resource for those interested in circus histories.


‘If you mess up a trick in the circus, you must do it again’


Contemporary circus groups

All objects in the collection were gathered by the Family La Bonche and donated by their mentor, Helen Averley, aka Madame La Bonche.  These objects have personal stories attached to them in relation to their former owners, and so to understand the collection, it is a good start to look into the community itself.  Despite the Family being a newly-formed youth group, the contemporary regional circus community really took off in the late 1980s.  Many of those who started circus groups and acts at this time went on to mentor younger performers in workshops, continuing the heritage of circus performance within the North East into today.  Although Circus Central only became an established company in 2009, it follows in the footsteps of other clubs such as the Durham City Jugglers, and University Circus Skills Society, and Circus 2000.  Previous groups had been quite informal in their advertising and constituency, ebbing and flowing according to membership demand and availability, whereas Circus Central is firmly established and active within the local community.

Family La Bonche performing in the Great Hall, Discovery Museum


Skills which are routinely taught within Circus Central include acrobatics, unicycling, and juggling, among others.  This is reflected in the objects which have been donated, the majority being retired equipment and costumes passed down by mentors and elders; things which the younger generation wished to preserve in order represent their community.  Gathered from aforementioned retired circus clubs and workshops, current organisations, and personal collections, these objects are not decorative in nature but heavily used with a handcrafted element to them, reflecting the active and self-sufficient attitude of the community.

Something I wish to address in a subsequent post concerning the La Bonche collection are some of the skills required to use selected objects in the collection and how they relate to the circus community at large.  Keep an eye out – the post will be titled ‘Tools of the trade’.

Delve into the drama of the big top and explore the incredible stories behind the spectacle in Circus! Show of Shows (until 2 June 2019), Discovery Museum

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