Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus

The famed travelling Bostock & Wombwell Menageries, begun by George Wombwell in London in 1805, became the largest in Britain and toured the British Isles and the Continent, followed by America from coast to coast, South Africa, Australia & New Zealand and latterly India and the Far East. By the late 1880s the enterprising zoologist, circus magnate and showman Edward Henry Bostock became head of the family businesses.

George Wombwell founded a Menagerie in London in 1805. It was to become the largest in Britain and toured the British Isles and the Continent, followed by America from coast to coast, South Africa, Australia & New Zealand and latterly India and the Far East. By the late 1880s the enterprising zoologist, circus magnate and showman Edward Henry Bostock became head of the family businesses. By that time the enterprise had been renamed Bostock & Wombwell Menageries.

E.H. Bostock chose Glasgow as his headquarter and build three permanent bases for his Menagerie: Paris, New York and ofcourse Glasgow. He pioneered the combination of menageries and circuses, previously run separately, and created greater business.

He bought his first circus from his brother Frank who went off to New York. Others tried to copy this innovation, but with little success. In the 20th century the Bostock Royal Italian Circus and animals also appeared in Theatres in London and principal cities and towns (and on outdoor sites) in addition to going overseas. The Bostock & Wombwell Menagerie continued to tour Britain until 1932. Bostock also went on to create a sizeable Bostock Circuit of Theatres, music halls and cinemas in Scotland and England.

It was in 1897 that E. H. Bostock settled, as lessee and eventual owner, at New City Road, Cowcaddens Cross, Glasgow in what was then the vast but run down New Olympia Hall, extending to one acre. He constructed cages, put in electric light and, with Dean of Guild consent, erected a circus in the centre of the huge building, opening his Scottish Zoo – the first permanent zoo in Scotland. The venue was also known as the Zoo-Circus Building and later the Zoo-Hippodrome Building. It stood next to the Normal Seminary created by David Stow in 1837 as Britain’s first teacher training college.

From 1897 Bostock included film, his very first being a coloured film of “Cinderella” bought by him in Paris. Over the years, as well as all the animal entertainment, artistes would sing, or play piano in the cages and company of lions and tigers etc. This included the female magician Princess Delawarr who combined animal training with her spirit act which she carried out blindfolded while seated in a cage surrounded by four lions.

In the Variety Circus Bostock’s manager and ring master was Pearce Butler, later followed by Sam Lithgow. Over New Year there were six Bostock Circus performances each day, accommodating 29,000 people a day.

For two summers with the circus closed Bostock promoted Promenade Concerts, usually some 17 weeks each year – claimed to be the longest runs in Glasgow – with a range of orchestras including Wilhelm Morgann’s Blue Hungarian Band, the Ladies Pompadour Band, Zette Handel’s Ladies Orchestra and the Chamonix Orchestra. Added to which were top-liners such as W F Frame, Mr & Mrs Graham Moffat, Prince Bendon the ventriloquist and variety artistes in solos, duets, comedy, stomp oratory, and parties such as The Scottish Troubadors who went on to make records for Parlophone, and Valentine Benson’s troop of marionettes. Chimpanzees and orangutans now being accustomed to their new surroundings formed one of the groups of interested spectators!

Each year there were also pantomimes, water pantomimes and spectaculars. Summer holidays included a juvenile military spectacular of “The British Empire” involving 150 local children who “represented our naval and military celebrities, colonial and Indian troops, in their various uniforms.” Other juveniles performed turns on the high wire, trick cycling, bareback riding, skating and equestrianism. And the winters also had juvenile pantomimes.

There were still two touring menageries, one in Britain and one in France ( which went with its own Circus on to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand), when Bostock remodelled the building as a gigantic Hippodrome with more space than the London Hippodrome. This was in 1902 when Tom Barrasford, then based in Leeds, sought to build upon his own variety business and joined Bostock in a 50/50 partnership with the New City Road venue becoming the second Barrasford Hall, the first being the Liverpool Hippodrome. The building adopted the name Glasgow Hippodrome and was jointly owned by Bostock and Barrasford.

Seating 2,500 people, the new construction reflected Bostock’s ideas with plans drawn by architect Bertie Crewe. E. H. Bostock used the same designs for his new Paisley Hippodrome and the Hamilton Hippodrome, and its style was copied by others in Britain and by some in America. In his autobiography he records:– “From a fully-equipped and gigantic stage there was a sloping floor for 90 feet, and then a step erection to the back, or cheap seats, so that virtually the entire audience was on one floor without either circles or gallery, the building being 90 feet wide. It was beautifully decorated by De Jong of London, and fully carpeted.”

The new iron framed structure was clad in brick, and dressed in stone, and the entrances had twin towers and onion domes. The Hippodrome was separate but connected to the Zoo. In the new building, variety was king and included circus acts, twice nightly, with matinees added on two days. The Zoo was open from 10am to 10pm with animal performances four times daily, and with Organ Recitals, Elephant, Camel and Zebra Riding provided continuously. Feeding of the carnivores at 9.30pm.

Bostock provided £13,000 to Barrasford to open a London Theatre, which proved to be unsuccessful, and the Alhambra Theatre in Paris, which was successful (it was also the first theatre in Paris under British ownership.)

Curiously Barrasford excluded Bostock from investing in the next expansions which, opening in 1904, were the Pavilion Theatre, Renfield Street, Glasgow and the huge Palace Theatre, Main Street, Gorbals. All four theatres mentioned were built to designs by architect Bertie Crewe. Finally Bostock took legal action, ending the partnership and reasserting himself as sole owner of the Zoo-Hippodrome.

Bostock vowed to remain his own boss, although he entered an agreement with Moss Empires for them to supply artistes (and help deter Moss from opening a new venue at nearby St George’s Cross) but Bostock discovered that Moss’s top performers were not coming to the Hippodrome but were being booked for the Empire, Sauchiehall Street and the newly opened Coliseum in Eglinton Street. The agreement was ended.

Now he started to develop his own Theatre circuit starting with Paisley Hippodrome designed by Bertie Crewe, Hamilton Hippodrome, Ipswich Hippodrome, (Shown Right) and Norwich Hippodrome. In 1905 he also bought the Royal Italian Circus from the Valpi family.

E. H. Bostock was a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society and frequently gave exotic specimens to institutions here and overseas. A few years after the citizens of Glasgow had been gifted Rouken Glen and its parklands a few miles south of the city, Glasgow Corporation considered establishing zoological gardens there for educational purposes. Bostock already had Indian sacred cattle, called Zebus, grazing there. When dispersing his whole New City Road animal collection at auction in April 1909, attended by buyers from Britain, America and the Continent and which achieved £4,350, his offer of them to the city at a discount of some 40% had been declined.

Ever the showman, E. H. Bostock transformed half the New City Road building, into a roller skating rink in May 1909, complete with maple floor. The skating craze encouraged him to pull down the Hippodrome and therefore double the size of the rink. He regretted this later when the craze waned in 1910.

In July that year Bostock added more animals to their travelling menageries and circus, namely animals and birds from fellow zoologist and trainer Carl Hagenback of Hamburg; these included lions, tigers, leopards, ostriches, pelicans, antelopes and a hippopotamus. Zoological promenades and lectures were provided.

Frank Bostock, younger brother of the owner, used the venue as one of his destinations for his Jungle Training Animal Shows. During this time 6,000 thousand people – and more – came on the evening of Friday 15th April 1910 to witness the first wedding in Europe conducted inside a lions’ cage when Alexander Gaston and Mary Mackie got married, the ceremony being officiated by the Rev. E. Lloyd Morris, of Hutchesontown Congregational Church, and the witnesses in the arena cage were six lions and lionesses, all preceded by the evening’s normal entertainment.

E. H. Bostock rebuilt the circus in the centre of the building with all the cages in position around it and reopened as the Scottish Zoo & Circus. He also provided cinema in it designed by architect John Nisbet, whose senior assistant Charles J McNair became a prolific cinema architect.

In the couple of years leading up to 1914 the Zoo-Circus was let, (with the menagerie still travelling) including being let to Hengler’s for cinema for a few months who then sublet it to Bostock’s nephew James Gordon Bostock fresh from the USA. He ran the building under the name of Joytown – a collection of all sorts of amusement devices, and dancing was provided. There were occasional trade and city Exhibitions and a 1913/14 Winter Carnival presented by the Bostocks. Following more exhibitions it was used for 8 weeks by the American evangelists Chapman and Alexander, when the building seated 10,000 people at a time.

The Bostock Royal Italian Circus set sail in early 1914 to tour India and the Far East under the directorship of Douglas Bostock. It returned to Britain in 1922.

When war broke out in August 1914 the building became a billet centre for troops in the first few months and then an aeroplane store, of planes crated awaiting delivery, until October 1917. The following year Bostock resumed roller skating in one half of the building, and the menagerie returned using the other half. He was approached in 1919 by the new British Motor Transport Company who wanted to buy the building; after modernisation it was used as an SMT super-garage and car showroom for five decades. After that it was known as Chinatown, housing oriental restaurants and food stores. It is said that inside parts of the original ironwork structure can still be seen.

More Bostock history

From 1921 Bostock had the annual contract to provide his combined Menagerie and Circus for Glasgow Corporation’s Christmas and New Year Carnival inside the immense new Kelvin Hall. Each year new animals, born within the menagerie or purchased overseas, were of special interest added to the excitement of wild animal performances; and performing horses and equestrian acts gave speed and thrills to the circus with its high wire artistes, acrobats and clowns. The Carnival of course had its full range of sideshows and rides with special features added, including in 1924 Tut’s Tomb from the Wembley Empire Exhibition and an Indian Theatre with state performers from India.

In 1931 E. H. Bostock and his son Gus Bostock announced that, due to increasing costs, this year would be the Farewell Year of the travelling Bostock & Wombwell Menagerie. It toured the major cities of Britain arriving finally in Glasgow in time for their last combined Circus appearance in the Kelvin Hall. At the end of the final show in January 1932 the lion tamer, journalist and politician John S Clarke MP made a moving and dramatic valedictory speech from inside the beast-wagon of the Kelvin arena accompanied by two tigers and two lions.

Newspapers reflected on the ending of an era:- “Big, florid E. H. Bostock ran the Royal Menagerie and the Kelvin Hall Circus. Last year he was 73. He arranged to disband the animals, then went off to South Africa to avoid seeing the menagerie broken up.”

Glasgow Corporation still had no plans for a Zoo but Glasgow’s loss in 1932 was London’s gain when the animals were sold instead to London Zoo and travelled by train from Glasgow to Dunstable near Whipsnade.

The Bostock Circuit embracing variety, plays and film included the Glasgow Hippodrome, Paisley Hippodrome, Hamilton Hippodrome, Hamilton Victoria Hall / Playhouse, The Blantyre House, Wishaw Pavilion, Motherwell New Century Theatre, Greenock King’s Theatre, Greenock Empire, Ipswich Hippodrome, Ipswich Lyceum, Norwich Hippodrome, Harwich Regal, and latterly the Colchester Playhouse which was designed in 1929 by architect John Fairweather of Glasgow. He had blossomed from his early days designing amusement rides for George Green and Edward Bostock. Fairweather designed the largest cinemas in Europe and, for different owners, the Edinburgh Playhouse which is now the largest theatre in Scotland

The Bostocks, with Gus Bostock now managing director, continued to organise each year’s International Circus in the Kelvin Hall Christmas & New Year Carnival promoted by Glasgow Corporation. Gus Bostock was also one of the founding directors and promoters behind plans for a major Sports Stadium for Glasgow unveiled in early 1938. But the Second World War intervened. The site remained as car showrooms until the 1970s when the luxurious Albany Hotel was built.

The company of E.H. Bostock & Sons Ltd, chaired latterly by Gus Bostock, ceased in 1948, after which members of the family continued with cinemas until the 1960s.


42 New City Road
Glasgow G4 9JT

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