Bostock and Wombwell’s circus.


When I was a kid, around 4 or 5, I used to have a sheepskin rug by my bed.
My Pa used to josh me and say it was a lion skin, and that he’d caught it when he visited Africa. He said because he was very strong he’d caught the Lion by the tail, and with some amazing sleight of hand he’d turned the critter inside out! Whereby he’d grabbed it’s skin, turned it inside out again, and sent the no doubt highly bemused animal on it’s way, unharmed, to grow another coat!
Of Course there’d be lots of laughs involved, and it was never wicked or cruel, but a show of his amazing strength and bravery, and how all the Ruffle family were so good with animals.
As I got older, I remember asking my Pa if he’d ever been to Africa, which of course he had, though only the south, and nowhere near as frequently as Australia, or Hawaii, or India, or America.
And I had to ask him if the rug really was a Lion’s skin, at which point he laughed and said no, BUT my great, great grand Father was a lion tamer, he said, although at that time he never really elaborated on the story.


After my Nan Moore  ( my Father’s Mother ) died, in the late 70’s, aside from the Princely sum of £100, she left me all the old photos that she’d had passed to her, of Bostock and Wombwell’s Circus. This was probably the first time my Pa properly talked about the circus to me, though his recollections were still sketchy,  he did say he’d seen the circus as a young lad, and was greeted at the entrance to the Maldon prom by a midget lady with a very long beard!
Unfortunately, so my Father had it, his Sister’s son Clive had got into Nan’s house prior to our clearance of the place, and had taken most of these precious snaps ( and a good deal of other antiques and bric a brac, including a Queen Anne kidney shaped dressing table) and whatever else he’d fancied.
The snaps you see on this blog are the best of what remains, and these photos were restored by Ken Linge, a good friend of my family and I, and Father to 2 of my closest friends, Ian and Neil.


As it turned out  George Wombwell was the owner of the Circus, and one of his nephews Freddy, was the lion tamer. I remember feeling dreadfully disappointed that I wasn’t a direct descendent of a Lion Tamer, however I did console myself with the fact that George was obviously the brains behind the operation.

I really don’t fully know all the pieces of the jigsaw surrounding the Wombwells and the Ruffles, though obviously Nana Moore was the connection. Her Mother was Eliza Harriet Wombwell. Eliza married Willie Layzell, called by some “The smartest man in Maldon”. Perhaps that’s where Pa and I get it from!?! But he’s another tale for the future……….


Nan  was an amazing lady, she doted on me and used to make me Lemon Meringue pies, which I loved as a child. She was a renowned psychic, and her idea of a good read was a funny little paper I remember seeing many times at her house, Psychic News.
She’d sometimes  go into “trances” when I visited with my Pa, she’d look seriously vacant, and mumble away in a strange voice, then suddenly snap out of it and smile. I’m pretty sure I asked her once if she was ok, and she told me she’d just been speaking with friends on the other side. But she said it so serenely, with a smile on her face, that it never disturbed me. I’d just think it was my funny old lovely Nan.


Her second husband, Jim Moore, was a game keeper for Lord and Lady Montague, as a result of reading the cards for her husband’s employers, and apparently giving amazingly accurate readings, other members of the gentry would ask Nan to read the cards for them, to read their future fortunes.

My Pa said she was well loved by many, and was given several lovely gifts of jewellery by various Lords and Ladies who’s fortunes she’d read.
I used to joke that my Nan was so psychic she could read that cat’s hairs on your sofa! ( sorry Nan, just joking! ) But she did indeed read palms, tea leaves, regular cards, and Tarot, and as I say she claimed she could speak to the Spirits.
For me now, I can see that Nan was probably one of the last if not famous then certainly respected Victorian mediums, who indeed could tell people amazing things about themselves, that she couldn’t possibly have figured through mere detective or guess work.
I’m thinking Madame Blavatsky and the Esoterics, which I suppose is really the philosophy my Nan  followed, the roots of the Spiritual and moral attitude which she transmitted to my Family, basically the laws of Karma, do unto others as you would have done to you.

My Pa would always speak of our Algerian Romany roots, and  of course the Circus and it’s people were travellers. The name Ruffle is I believe French, the name of lacemakers no doubt. I think we started our travels shortly after the Revolution kicked off,(in 1789 to 1799) not wishing to have our heads separated from our bodies! The Ruffle name was apparently first recorded in the 1300’s, and Nan did say she’s traced our name back to the 1600’s.
But I think that the Revolution made us itinerant. And my romantic bent would have us as entertainers and performers, just like my good self! A wandering minstrel, a troubadour……..
Well, at least my ancestors make this conjecture highly feasible, and of course if there’s anyone reading this who knows more, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


Photos from top to bottom:

The Circus entrance 1910

The Snake Lady(?) year unknown

Fred Wombwell 1900

George Wombwell

Ada Eveline Layzell (My Nan) 1930

Jim Moore 1912

Anita the Living Doll year unknown

And here’s Pam Malkin’s wonderful photo of her Grandfather, Matthew Johnson:

And here’s the wonderful Pathe newsreel of Bostock and Wombwell’s last road trip to Whipsnade in 1931.

152 Responses to “Bostock and Wombwell’s circus.”

  1. My/our great great grandfather is on the 1851 census as being a travelling musician with Wombwells menagerie, in Ipswich, Suffolk at the time. he was Richard Smith from Batley in West Yorkshire. not sure how long he was with them or when/how he came to join them but in later years he was famous for brass band competitions, composing and conducting brass bands he got together. then he started the British Bandsman magazine and ended up music publishing, based in London, where he died. Was told bits of info that an ancestor was in a circus and was a clown but not sure if this is correct unless he was and played a musical instrument too, he was mainly known for playing the cornet.

  2. Looking for bottom of page

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