Saturday, 2 July 2016

Early Sideshows Proved Popular with Townsville Show Patrons

The Townsville Show has been running since the 1880s, when its primary focus was to showcase North Queensland’s pastoral and agricultural industries. Sideshows, which are now a staple of the modern show circuit, were discouraged because they might attract a disreputable crowd.

Sideshow alley, Townsville Show, 1956.
Photo: Christensen Collection, Townsville City Libraries.
(This image is copyright. Used here with permission)
By the early 1920s, the show’s organising body - the Townsville Pastoral Agricultural and Industrial Association - was under increasing pressure to allow sideshow exhibits. One of the earliest sideshow attractions in Townsville, and one of the most successful, was Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Troupe, which first appeared at the Townsville Show in 1924.

Sharman was a boxer and showman from New South Wales who was famous in Australia for his travelling troupe of boxers and wrestlers. With catchphrases such as: “who’ll take a glove?” and, “a round or two for a pound or two”, Sharman invited locals who fancied themselves as fighters, to challenge his boxers in the ring and win some prize money.

Jimmy Sharman's Touring Stadium, New South Wales, 1959.
Photo: National Library of Australia.
In 1926, 177 showmen from throughout Australasia banded together to form a showman’s guild and elected Jimmy Sharman as their president. The move served to put an end to the reputation of untrustworthiness that had previously tarnished many travelling showmen, and gave the group an air of respectability. This meant that country shows began to allow them to have their sideshows closer to the main show ring, instead of expecting them to be on the fringes of the grounds.

Sideshow attractions quickly grew to be very popular with Townsville show-goers, and the Townsville Daily Bulletin reported in 1929 that the sideshows “were never so numerous as at this show.”

“In the silo-drome the Fearless Jacksons trifle with death, and defy the laws of gravitation. The combination comprises Miss Jackson and two brothers, who undertake daredevil rides on Indian motorcycles. Attaining a speed of a mile a minute they ride up and down spirally, a perpendicular wall, driving and ascending at will, and flying at break neck pace around the round top of the drome, at times taking their hands from the handles of the cycles. Apart from the defiance of gravitation, this is a most thrilling performance,” the Bulletin reported.

Another “attraction” was Jolly Ray, a 22 year-old American woman who was billed as “the fattest girl in the world”, weighing in at 260kg. Early sideshows commonly exhibited people like Jolly Ray, or those with disabilities or genetic malformations, as “freaks of nature”, that show patrons all too willingly paid to leer at. 

Others, such as Elsia Baker, whose claim to fame was that she was “genuinely half woman and half man”, were an obvious fake, but attracted large crowds nonetheless. The left side of Elsia’s body was presented to crowds as female in appearance, and the right side as male. Using her right arm, Elsia could lift a man weighing 82kg, completely off the ground.

There were also firewalkers, performing pigs, and a monkey named “Cannon Ball Joe” who drove a car around a silo-drome.

Jimmy Sharman’s Troupe was there again that year, with boxers Reggie Dodd (featherweight) and Vic Stevens (Queensland champion bantamweight) among the local contenders prepared to take on Sharman’s fighters.

An advertisement from the Townsville Daily Bulletin, July 1933, advertising boxing matches between local boxers and Jimmy Sharman's boxers, including Vic Stevens. Queensland champion bantamweight.
Source: Trove.
One happy customer told the Bulletin after seeing a wrestling match in Sharman’s tent, that it was “the best two-bob’s worth” he’d ever seen.

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