Running Away to the Circus

Running Away to the Circus
Author Stephanie Owen Reeder discovers Marvellous Miss May
20 February 2018

When I was a child in the 1950s, running away to the circus was an exciting prospect. For children, the circus was an exotic place, where you dressed up in sparkling costumes, travelled around the country in colourful caravans, played with dangerous animals and performed daring feats. 

Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Poster

Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows: May Wirth the Greatest Bareback Rider of All Time, c.1919,  

The reality was often quite different. Circus life in Australia was hard, especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As well as training and performing in the circus every day, children as young as five helped out with the hundreds of jobs that needed to be done to keep the circus running as it toured around Australia.

When I first came across the story of May Wirth—a tiny but strong and agile performer who wore a trademark big bow in her hair—I was impressed by her resilience and determination. May was one of the original ‘Mighty Girls'—a little girl who overcame the odds to achieve great things.

Miss May Performing from The Critic

'Miss May Martin Wirth', The Critic (Adelaide), 12 July 1916, 

In 1901, May Zinga was given away to Wirth Brothers Circus by her desperate mother when she was just seven years old. At first, May was overwhelmed by her experiences, but she didn't give up. She worked hard to become the best circus performer she could be. Her dream was to become a bareback rider, the most difficult and dangerous job in the circus, and to perform acrobatic feats on the back of a cantering horse that, at that time, only men could do.

Researching Marvellous Miss May, Queen of the Circus was both a delight and a challenge. Like many circus performers, May had a number of pseudonyms. As well as her birth and adoptive names—May Zinga, then May Martin and later May Wirth—there were her professional names, including Mademoiselle Mayola and May Ringling. In total, she performed under at least a dozen different names.

Wirth's Circus, SLNSW

Wirth's Circus, 1941, State Library NSW, Home and Away-30689 

The National Library holds a wealth of material on this little girl from Bundaberg in Queensland who went on to become a world-famous circus superstar. There are a plethora of reviews and articles about her and her performances in the newspapers on Trove. I also sourced photographs of May from the May Wirth Scrapbooks, which are held on microform.

The Library has an impressive collection of original programs from Wirth Brothers Circus, manuscripts from eminent circus historian Mark St Leon and oral history interviews with Australian circus performers who were May's contemporaries. And then there is the stunning collection of circus posters in the Pictures Collection. The artwork in these vintage posters is particularly impressive, and NLA Publishing designer Amy Cullen has featured them to great effect in the opening pages of each chapter in Marvellous Miss May.

Opening spread from Marvellous Miss May

Opening spread from Marvellous Miss May

Marvellous Miss May touches on a number of difficult topics, including the treatment of animals in circuses, domestic violence, child labour, adoption and sexual discrimination. Life for children in the early years of the twentieth century could certainly be rather bleak, and I was very aware of the need to deal sensitively with all these issues while writing this book.

What kept me going as an author was that May herself never gave up. She overcame difficult family circumstances, abandonment and unequal treatment to achieve her dreams and become the greatest bareback rider in the world, travelling around the world and performing for presidents, kings and queens. May Wirth was a role model for the suffragette movement in the early nineteenth century, and she was ultimately inducted into the American Circus Hall of Fame. May also became a much-treasured and valued member of her adoptive family.

Please welcome marvellous Miss May and her inspiring story into the Heritage Heroes family! 

Marvellous Miss May by Stephanie Owen Reeder was released by NLA Publishing on 1 February 2018. 

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