Travelling circuses were a regular feature of Great Yarmouth’s entertainment scene from 1830, and possibly as early as 1815, while resident circuses, produced in temporary, wooden buildings, were here from 1845 onwards. In 1898, George Gilbert of Norwich, a former circus performer turned manager, built a wooden structure on the site of former stables of the Bath Hotel. For five years, his circus used that building, presumably, successfully, as he then decided to replace it with a permanent, purpose-built structure, which opened as the Hippodrome in 1903.
This building, designed by Ralph Scott Cockrill, son of the then Borough Surveyor, had concrete walls and a double zinc roof; the St. George’s Road frontage was faced with terracotta and brick in Art Nouveau style. Gilbert bought and demolished the Bath Hotel billiard room so that the full impact of this decoration could be appreciated from Marine Parade. It was said that the new building could accommodate 4,000 people, but that is probably an exaggeration, although there was a lot of bench seating and standing room as well as more comfortable seats; six entrances made it possible to empty the building very quickly, if necessary. Today, about 900 customers sit in comfort. The high, arched, decorated ceiling added to the drama of the interior, but the pièce de résistance was the sinking-ring, which is still operational and, although quite common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, now one of only four to survive worldwide. Beneath the wooden ring floor is an 2.4 metre deep well, holding over 275,000 litres of water. For the Water Spectacle, giant bolts are drawn to release the floor, which sinks as water flows through its perforations. Today, some of the rising water is heated so the artistes perform at a comfortable temperature.
The opening circus in 1903 featured both human and animal acts and a singer performed. Some acts stayed all summer while others varied weekly. Shows, including choirs, continued during the herring fishing season and in December, an equestrian melodrama was followed by a pantomime. Some shows included Bioscopes (early films). Benefit performances were often held to raise funds for local disasters and charities. In January, Lloyd-George addressed a political meeting in the Hippodrome. A mixture of circus acts, Bioscopes, variety turns, beauty contests, wrestling and boxing and Sunday concerts continued until 1914. In 1908, the summer season lasted 30 weeks and in 1912, Russell’s Vivarium opened on the forecourt, featuring 50 reptiles; that structure was later converted to a bandstand, which remained until 1924.
From 1st September 1914 to 1920, there were no circuses and George Gilbert died in 1915, but cine/variety shows continued, some with a water spectacle, under various managements until 1923, when the Read family brought the business. After renovation of the interior, summer circuses returned (but without the water feature after 1932), followed by plays or reviews and pantomime. Boxing also re-started and talking pictures came in 1930. In 1928, a mass meeting of the Conservative Party was addressed by Stanley Baldwin. From 1934, only occasional boxing promotions ran in the winter and spring and the 1939 circus was curtailed by war. The building was then requisitioned for military use, which caused much damage and dilapidation. The War Office was slow to pay compensation, but repairs, including re-roofing and re-wiring, were under way by 1951, when ownership passed to William Russell, who had run the Vivarium. He re-started circuses in the summer and boxing in the rest of the year, with the circuses of 1953-55 again featuring the sinking ring. During 1961-64, productions were televised for a national audience.
In 1978, Jack Jay and his rock musician son, Peter, became the owners. At first, they engaged established circuses to appear and in 1981, a Water Spectacle returned; a special show for the building’s centenary saw the announcement of a winter show. Over the years, wrestling, productions forming part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, pop-tribute concerts, inter-schools Carol Services and a memorable local amateur production of Barnum have all used the venue.
Now, the next generation of the Jay family is involved and special shows are held at intervals throughout the year, with the building remaining a star of Great Yarmouth heritage.