Top 10 websites for tracing your circus ancestors

By Guest, 17 August 2017 - 11:16am

Circus historian Steve Ward reveals the best resources for finding your ancestors who ran away with the Big Top

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Female acrobats on trapezes at circus, c.1890. Credit: Heritage Images

The circus – it’s one of those things you either love or hate, isn’t it?

Me, I love it, ever since I was a small boy in the 1950s visiting the Bertram Mills Circus. I was fascinated by it all, especially by Coco the Clown, who became my childhood hero.

Read the full version of this article and lots more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2017, on sale now. 

But the circus isn’t only about garishly painted clowns, leotards and spangled tights.

It has a rich tradition with an intriguing history and many families may have circus performers hidden among their ancestors.

I often give talks on the history of the circus and I’m amazed how many people tell me about their Great Uncle George who ran away to the circus, or their Aunt Mabel who became a tight-rope walker.

As well as the usual family history tools such as census records, there are some specialist resources that will help you find out more about your performing ancestors.

1. The National Fairground Archive


This archive at the University of Sheffield holds documents, photos and audiovisual material relating to the history of fairs, circuses and travelling show people.

Some of its material is online. It has a complete collection of the trade paper The World’s Fair on microfiche.

2. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)

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The V&A has a large collection relating to the performing arts and early circus history.

3. The British Newspaper Archive

The National Archives

This website gives access to a vast collection of newspapers from British Library collections.

Newspapers are searchable by name and subject and provide local and national coverage relating to circuses and individuals.

The same newspapers can be searched on Findmypast.

4. Circopedia


A free online circus encyclopaedia, which contains information on various circuses, circus history, circus biographies and related topics.

5. Circus Friends Association (CFA)


The CFA fosters and promotes enthusiasm for circus and performance arts.

Its magazine, King Pole, is a trove of information on circuses and performers.

Its historical collection is held by the National Fairground Archive.

6. The Circus Historical Society


A major resource for the history of the circus, although it mainly covers the US.

It has a search facility and holdings include digitised books and articles on the early circus. It also has ‘The Olympians of the Sawdust Circle’– an online dictionary of 19th century US circuses. 

7. The Ringling


The website for the Ringling, Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. It does not have an online searchable database, but there’s an archive request service.

8. The Institute of Historical Research


The institute provides an online library which includes printed sources for the medieval and modern history of Britain. Holdings are searchable by name and subject.

A useful resource for matters relating to the circus in medieval and Tudor times, through exploration of the Close Court Rolls.

The site has material relating to 19th century London boroughs, where some early circus buildings were situated.

9. The Circus Museum of the Netherlands


An online website of circus posters, photos and prints, which includes a collection of 8,000 posters dating from the late 19th century.

10. Circus Federation


The multi-lingual website of the Circus Federation includes databases of important collections.



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