Now you see it!
The showman who provided many with their first magical memory of a motor-car
Few, if any, people in Lapford had seen a motor-car prior to 1896. They could to be seen on the roads of continental Europe but in Britain the government’s walking-pace speed restriction had throttled the progress of motoring.
Change was coming! On 14 November 1896—”Motor-car Day”—the speed limit was to be raised to 14 mph and car sales began to take off. Across the country people revved in anticipation of seeing a motor-vehicle, hearing its reportedly strange whirling noise, and smelling its strange odour.
It is difficult today to image quite how alien the concept of a “horseless carriage” was. For some the notion was a thing of magical wonder; for others, it was a thing of nightmares.
In Lapford, like every other town and village in the country, there would have been hotly contested debate. The North Devon Journal summed the mood, querying whether the motor car would be a blessing or
an unmanageable Juggernaut apt to run amok in public streets.
Many believed it would be a fad for the rich, the fashionable plaything of the season. There was doubt that it would ever be useful to trade and commerce in Devon.
The circus comes to town
There was an early opportunity for Lapfordians to see a motor-car before Motor-Day. A circus was coming to the South-West and newspapers carried an advert that a car would be on display “worth a 100 miles to see!”
Fourpawr’s American Circus and its accompanying animal menagerie visited both Exeter and Barnstaple in September 1896. The name emulated (or perhaps falsely impersonated) the famous American Circus of Adam Forepaugh, the great rival of JP Barnum; but, there was little American about it. The circus company was led by a steel worker Sheffield turned conjurer: Albert Haslam, “The King of Wizards”.
His circus, like that of Forepaugh, had a separate menagerie of exotic animals that people could visit even if their religious beliefs prevented them from attending the main circus show. So many people were vehemently against performing shows that the extra income from the menagerie was critical to the circus’s survival. Lapford’s non-conformist minister regularly warned his congregation against attending any form of show..
He prayed there might be none in their midst who were going by way of the theatre and the dance hall along the broad road of wickedness to eternal damnation
…there was at least one more taboo to members of this man’s congregation, and this was “shows”.
Albert Haslam billed his spectacle as “Absolutely the Largest and Grandest Show the World” and three times the size of any other touring party in the country. In truth, it never approached the heights of the great American circuses but it was no small affair sometimes playing to a full capacity of 7000 people in a single tent! On occasion, the lure the circus resulted in emptied classrooms forcing schools to shut.
When the circus reached Exeter and Barnstaple in September 1896, hundreds flocked to see the grand parade advertising the show. There were 120 horses and ponies; 300 menagerie animals; 50 clowns and performing artists; and two separate bands. It would have been the first time that most people had caught sight of an elephant, lion, wolf or camel, but these natural wonders were eclipsed by the star of the show: a real motor-car!
Albert Haslam was a showman and needed a showman’s car that people would marvel at. When parades could not be arranged, even the sight of his new Benz Victoria travelling around the streets was enough to draw large crowds.
Exeter and Barnstaple were just a train journey away from Lapford and, despite religious opposition, some villagers would almost certainly have journeyed to see the motor-car and the 20 dens of savage animals, if not the full spectacle of the circus.
Newspapers reported that Albert’s car was the first ever to be seen in the South-West. It visited Exeter, Newton Abbot, Devonport and Okehampton reaching Barnstaple on 29 September 1896.
The arrival of the circus’s car into towns and villages was not without incident. In Exeter, a young boy was injured as he attempted to chase it in sheer excitement. In Wellington, Albert was fined for speeding and for not having a person walking in front of the vehicle. Abolition of this legal requirement was days away and Albert may have been the last man in Britain to have been charged for the offence.
When the circus left Barnstaple for Axminster, it is possible that it took a route via Lapford Cross. What a thrill it must have been for any town or village to see the long convoy of some 50 wagons, 120 horses and ponies and a motor-car to boot!
The circus travelled incredible distances across England, Wales and Scotland. The logistics of finding stabling, food and water for such a large outfit seems daunting. All arrangements with new venues and artists had to be done by post but, with the circus constantly on the move, arranging for a reply was far from easy.
With so many animals and performers, Albert had very large overheads. Finances were not helped by negative publicity following the terrifying collapse of the massive marquee onto the audience on two occasions.
The circus fell into debt. Early in 1898 the Benz Victoria, the first car to be seen in the South-West, was sold in Bolton, Lancashire, for £93. In the same sale, Albert sold his entire menagerie in lots for a total of £1400. It was an eventful week: a few days before the sale Albert’s bear escaped at a fair; there was panic during another incident when a publican entered the lions’ cage for a bet; and, the day after the sale, a leopard went on the loose for over an hour.
Albert reinvested in a less troublesome form of entertainment: cinematography. He had enjoyed his 1896 visit to the South-West and saw potential in the regions strong tradition of fetes. He based himself in Devon and created a tented cinematography experience, preceded by an outdoor spectacular of song and dance. It did well and business went from strength to strength.
Sadly, Albert Haslam died in a swimming accident in the River Sid in 1909. However, the family business continued and diversified into fairground rides. Today, several generations on, the family business remains the largest fairground business in the South-West!