From the very beginning women were part of the circus. Petsy, the wife of the circus founder, Philip Astley, and known as “La Fille de l’Air”, was the first female ‘circus’ performer. In the early and mid-nineteenth century theatrical and circus performance were areas where women could freely express their physical talents in a world dominated by men. Women were readily accepted as performers by the circus community in Britain. The tight-knit family tradition of the Cookes, for example, ensured that women members of the family performed in the ring as much as men. Many were equestrian[ne]s.

Camille Leroux in the Cachucha 1849 London Cirque

Camille Leroux in the Cachucha 1849 London Cirque

However, this was not necessarily the case with some female members of the family performing on the slack and tight ropes. For example in June 1829, Cooke’s Royal Circus performing in Portland Street, included among the artistes:

“On the Tight Rope, will appear, Mr. HENGLER, MISS COOKE, and MISS HENGLER. – On Two Ropes MISS and MASTER H. COOKE; and on three ropes (never before attempted,) MISS COOKE, MISS E. HENGLER, and MASTER H. COOKE.” – Brighton Gazette, 28 May 1829 p.2.

More daring performance on a rope, or corde volante, was left to men, except perhaps in the case of Carlos Pablo Paddington, for Pablo was probably a woman dressed as a man. This case came to light from a story recounted by Ellen Lowther to the master of the York workhouse in 1826/7:

A woman now in the York poor-house has given to the master there a strange account of herself and of another female imposter, who formerly travelled with Cooke’s equestrian troop. They appeared as men of colour, and in all the feats of the most dextrous horsemanship were not to be surpassed by any others of the company. In addition to this, being dressed in male attire, and having their persons stained black, suspicion of their real sex was readily subdued by an allowance for the difference of personal appearance which opposite climates generally occasion. The real name of the woman now in the poor-house, is Ellen Lowther, but when with Cooke’s company she called herself John Clifford — she is of eastern origin, though born in England; her grandfather, she says, was called Signor Rammapattan; he was brought to England from Bengal, by the late Lord Lowther, and when they arrived in London, his lordship changed his name to Lowther: he afterwards resided in the north of England, was killed by a pitman at Sunderland, when he was 106 years and nine months old. Her father, she says, lives at Tadcaster. She represents herself as being but 20 years of age, and having commenced ber equestrian performances at 5 years old; she has been with the two Cookes 15 years. As might have been expected, this vagabond way of life led to vice and immorality, and the woman (alias John Clifford) was removed to the parish at St. Martin’s, Coney-street, in a state of pregnancy, and thence to the work-house, where on the 2d inst. ” John” was delivered of a still-born male child. The other woman, who passed for a black man, in the same company, went by the name of Pablo Paddington, and effected the deception so dextrously, as to have deceived even those about her, and by assiduous attentions gained the affections of a Miss King, who also travelled with Mr. Cooke. The courtship thus commenced was carried on for sometime, till scandal whispered in the ears of the unsuspecting fair one, that her favourite Pablo was too much a man of the world, possessing more of female acquaintance than was consistent with his solemn promises and plighted vows. A lover’s quarrel was the consequence: and slighted attachment led to some estrangement of the lady’s affections. Misfortunes, however, often overtake the faithless, and the fair are sometimes, in those cases, too ready to forgive. This was the case with the parties in question. Pablo had his arm broken soon after, and pity again called forth the tender affections of Miss King, who, during her lover’s illness, attended him with peculiar care. How the impostor rewarded her kindness, or whether she ever found out the cheat, we know not — but the whole carries with it such an air of romance and of a novel story, that we cannot but think the detail will be amusing to some of our readers.” – York Herald, 13 January 1827 p.2.

Certainly parts of the story are true, Pablo Paddington, was indeed black, being described in various of Cooke’s advertisements as, “the Flying African” (Leeds Intelligencer, 9 June 1825), “The Flying Indian” (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 2 April 1825) and “the Brazilian Phenomenon” (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – 25 March 1826) and an equestrian performer called Miss King was also with the troupe during these years:

Sheffield Independent, 23rd Apr 1825

Sheffield Independent, 23rd Apr 1825

Whether the story was true or not we will never tell. Certainly it did not dent Pablo’s career as s/he continued to perform at Cooke’s and other circuses for some years after:

“EQUESTRIAN ARENA, Vicar’s, Croft, Leeds. Mr. ADAMS respectfully intimates that during his SHORTSTAY in Leeds, Rontiue of elegant Novelties will in pleasing Uniformity be presented.

PABLO PADDINGTON, the Siamese Aeronaut, will take his flight on the Corde Crescent, exhibiting peculiar and elegant Devices, rapid circulation equal to the power of complicated machinery.” – Leeds Patriot and Yorkshire Advertiser, 17 July 1830 p.3.

Written by admatters

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