Gilbert, George


Residence of. Corner House Hotel, Nelson Road. He founded the Hippodrome Circus, one of only two permanent circus buildings in the country.

George Gilbert was born in Norwich and was the son of a penniless coachbuilder. When he was eleven years old he ran away to join Hannaford’s London Travelling Circus. At the age of 15 years, an opening was offered to him in the form of an apprenticeship for three years, to the circus company of Powell, Foottit and Clarke.


At the age of 17 years he joined Adams’ Circus. He was the first to perform the jockey act in many northern towns. Ambition caused him to run away and he set off on his own to Spain.


In 1880, George Gilbert was brought back to England to perform in Hengler’s Cirque. Performing with this prominent circus was one of the first lady circus equestriennes, Jennie O’Brien, whom Gilbert married three months later.


In 1887, they both left Hengler’s Cirque and extensively toured Europe, North Africa and America with their speciality, the jockey act: a daring and dashing one an Arab thoroughbred. Their tour concluded with an engagement with the Paris Hippodrome Company, which took a leading part in the opening of Olympia in London. They stayed for the season, with Jennie Gilbert riding and driving a team of 32 horses and George Gilbert performing his Indian act on bare-back horses at full speed.


They accepted an offer to go to the United States of America. They were now connected with the Greatest Show on Earth. The Gilberts went on to perform in Madrid, where George Gilbert dislocated his knee. His knee never fully recovered. George Gilbert then hired the Agricultural Hall in Norwich to stage a show. Later, similar shows were opened in Nottingham, Leeds, Leicester, Derby, Exeter and Great Yarmouth. A wooden building was erected in Great Yarmouth for his show. 


In 1903, George Gilbert replaced this building with the Hippodrome. He was very keen to obtain the best turns for his circuses. He gave his audiences variety and his water scenes were a novelty. His enterprise led to the sinking water ring being introduced into his amusement houses. One of his biggest hits was to bring, at vast expense, the star tight-rope walker, Blondin, to the locality. George Gilbert was generous in his support of hospitals, widows, the fatherless, the poor and many in distress. He gave hundreds of tons of coal to the poor during a particularly bitter winter and provided thousands of pairs of boots to needy children.

Gilbert's wooden circus

Gilbert's jockey act

The Hippodrome in the Edwardian era

The Hippodrome, 2019