The Royal Zanettos
George, Pip, Arthur, Frank & Albert Bale
artistes of the golden age of music hall

1986 Interview:      Walter 'Mick' St Leon and   his wife Jessica Georgina (née Palomar)

 

My warmest thanks once again to Mark St Leon for having shared this wonderful interview dated 1986.  

(See Mark's website about the circus in Australia http://www.pennygaff.com.au)

The main focus for Mark was naturally his own family, but I've taken the liberty of cutting to Jessica's memories (the full text is published at the end).  It was incredible for me to read, and to find confirmation of dates and scraps of information found elswhere.

     .......

MARK:                       Now, whereabouts were you married?

JESSICA:                   In Malaya, in a place called Eathon.

MARK:                       Do you remember the date?

JESSICA:                   Yes.  27 September, 1937.

MARK:                       And by that time you’d left Harmston’s?

JESSICA:                   Oh yes.  We’d left Harmston’s.  And Mick was involved in tin mining and tin dredging.  He went down to the dredge and [he] was supposed to wait six months.  You had to be with the company six months before you could get married.  He was there [about] two months....

WALTER:                  Mmm, about six weeks.

JESSICA:                   Yes, and he asked permission to get married.  They must have had confidence in him.  Next thing I knew I was on the train going down to be married.

MARK:                       Where were you born, Jessica?  In Chicago?

JESSICA:                   In Chicago.

MARK:                       And the date?

JESSICA:                   14 December, 1916.

MARK:                       And your family was in showbusiness?

JESSICA:                   Mmmm.

MARK:                       And their name was Palomar?

JESSICA:                   Palomar.

MARK:                       Can you tell me something about your family.

JESSICA:                   Oh, they met in America and married.

MARK:                       Your father was ...

JESSICA:                   Spanish.  My mother was English.  And they had my older sister and myself in America.  And they joined Santos & Artigas’ [Circus]  in South America.

MARK:                       That’s a circus?

JESSICA:                   A circus.  And ...

MARK:                       This is after you were born?

JESSICA:                   Yes.  I think I was only a few months old when they went.  My younger sister was born in South America, in San [Pablo?].  We were there until I was seven I think, over seven.  We came back to New York.  We caught to the ship to Australia to [join]  Wirth’s Circus.

MARK:                       Wirth’s Circus?

JESSICA:                   My elder sister died in America.

MARK:                       So she didn’t come here?

JESSICA:                   No, before I was born she died.  We came out to Wirth’s.

MARK:                       What encouraged your parents to come?

JESSICA:                   To Australia?  Well, my father had been out to Australia when he was a very young man with an acrobatic troupe.

MARK:                       What was their name?

JESSICA:                   I can’t remember.  He told me.  I used to know but I just can’t remember.  I’ve tried to remember.

MARK:                       Did they come out with the circus, or ...

JESSICA:                   No, they came out I think for Wirth’s.  That’s the only show we were ever with in Australia.

MARK:                       But when your father came out earlier?

JESSICA:                   With Wirth’s.

MARK:                       He came out earlier for Wirth’s Circus?

JESSICA:                   I can’t remember what the name was.  Anyway, he always said that when he went back to Europe, when he got married and had a family, [that] he would come back to Australia.  So he did.  He came out to Wirth’s.  [In] 1923 we came out to Australia.  We left [Australia towards] the end of 1929.  We went to Handy’s Circus.  They had [the] King Carnival, Handy’s Circus.  We worked about a year with them.  Papa wasn’t very happy.  So we joined Harmston’s.  He didn’t like [Handy’s] at all.  It was alright.  The circus was alright [but] we just didn’t like ...

MARK:                       Who was Handy?

JESSICA:                   [They were] American people.  They were really carnival people and I’ve got an idea that they started the circus up as a hobby, as far as I can remember.

MARK:                       This King Carnival, that’s where Con Colleano ** started out, with the King Carnival travelling through Queensland.

JESSICA:                   These were American people.  They were Americans.  They never came out to Australia, I’m sure.  It was quite a big carnival.  They had quite a big circus.  It was quite a good show.  Anyway, we went with Harmston’s.

MARK:                       Where did you go with Harmston’s?

JESSICA:                   I think it was in Java.

WALTER:                  Yeah.

JESSICA:                   Java.  We were with Harmston’s when we were on the ship.  When Mickey joined up he just caught the ship, didn’t you?  We went on through China and India again and right through the east, Manila, Philippines.

MARK:                       What do you remember about Wirth’s Circus?

JESSICA:                   Oh, I remember a lot about Wirth’s Circus.  It’s where I learnt to work.

MARK:                       Was it a big circus?

JESSICA:                   Mmmm.  [A] very big circus.

MARK:                       Hundreds of people associated with it?

JESSICA:                   Oh, I’d say so, yes.  It was just the biggest circus in Australia.  I might be howled down.  But it was a very good show.

MARK:                       Were most of the acts imported acts?

JESSICA:                   Imported acts, yes.  My father had a partner, Spanish people, Eggacharga [?] the name was.  And they did, oh, clown entrees and one clown entree I used to love, a clown bullfight with the dogs.  The dog used to have a bull’s head on.  My parents did a juggling act.  Then, afterwards, they left me in a school in Melbourne when they went to New Zealand.

MARK:                       Which school was that?

JESSICA:                   [A] convent in Elsternwick.  I can’t remember the name.  Well, I wasn’t working then so I was left behind.

MARK:                       They wouldn’t take anybody through New Zealand, possibly.

JESSICA:                   No, my parents didn’t like it at all.  [Then the Wirths] took me, Margaret Wirth.  Aunty Maggie as I called her.

MARK:                       She was the wife of ...

JESSICA:                   George Wirth.  They were very good with children, the Wirths.  Anyway, when they came back from New Zealand, Papa decided it was time I started work so the first thing I did was a perch in their act.  I had a little tiny bit of juggling.  And then, from there, we developed the risley act, a family act.  And I had my own wire act which I wanted to do.  My sister started to learn riding when we came out to Harmston’s.  She didn’t ride with Wirths.  She [was] a lovely little performer, my sister.

MARK:                       And The Honeys were with Wirth’s while you were there?

JESSICA:                   Yes.

MARK:                       What do you remember of The Honeys?

JESSICA:                   Oh, they were lovely.  I remember they were lovely.  We were very good friends.  Little ‘Snooky’ Honey used to come up to our carriage every day.

MARK:                       ‘Snooky’?

JESSICA:                   That’s the baby.  ‘Snooky’ was only about this big.  He used to come up every day and have lunch with us.  And they wondered why he wasn’t eating!  He was eating at our place, in our carriage.  But they were a really lovely family.  I liked them.

MARK:                       What do you remember of Clyde?

JESSICA:                   Oh, that I liked him very much.  [He] was a very nice man.  All the Honeys, and Clyde, were a really charming family.

MARK:                       Daisy Honey, do you remember her?

JESSICA:                   Yes.  I remember Tommy.  One day, I think it was a matinee, [he was] playing around.  When he went to put his pumps on [he] couldn’t find his pumps.  Poor Mrs Honey, she had to make a pair and sew them quickly for him to go into the ring.  Things like that you remember.  They were [a] very nice family.  The Wirths were good people.  They were very nice.  Mrs Alice Wirth was very nice to us.

MARK:                       This was the wife of ...

JESSICA:                   Philip Wirth.  The children always called her Aunty Alice and Mr Wirth was Uncle Percy.

MARK:                       Uncle Percy?

JESSICA:                   Uncle Percy.  He was Uncle Percy and she was Aunty Alice.  Then there was Uncle Jules and there was Aunty Maggie.  All the children were encouraged to call them ‘Uncle’ and ‘Alice’.

MARK:                       The other day, when I was here, you were talking of Mr Gus when he looked after [the circus train].

JESSICA:                   Oh yes, yes.  That’s before I was working.  My sister and I were always nervous.  Mum would go to the show and I would hear somebody walking past.  “[Is] that you Mr Gus?”  “Yes, dears, it’s me.  Don’t worry, I’m here.”  He was very sweet.  Or else he’d pop his head in the door and say “It’s me passing.”  He always let you know if he was around to protect you.  When Mickey joined the show, my sister did a riding act with him, the jockey [act], and her own [act].  I worked very hard when I was a little girl.  Mickey [says he] went shooting [as a boy but] I worked hard.  When the tent went up so my wire went up.  [I] practised all morning on the wire.

MARK:                       What sought of wire did you do?

JESSICA:                   Tightwire.  Yes.  No umbrella, no fan, no nothing.  I didn’t want that ever to happen.

MARK:                       Was Golda doing the wire too at that stage?

JESSICA:                   I learnt a long time after Golda learnt.  My grandmother was a wirewalker but she did a slackwire, in Europe.

MARK:                       But Golda was with ...

JESSICA:                   Golda was with Wirth’s, yes.  I think Golda was my inspiration.

MARK:                       She did a slackwire.

JESSICA:                   ...  No, I think Golda did a tightwire.

WALTER:                  Yeah, tight[wire].

JESSICA:                   And I think, from my mother and watching Golda, that’s where I got my love of the wire.

....................... 

JESSICA:                   Papa was [a] very good teacher.  He always taught us how to fall.  So we never really had any bad falls because he taught us how to fall.  That’s something you should learn, isn’t it, how to fall?

MARK:                       You were in Malaya for several years up until the war broke out.  Did you have any inclination to get out of Malaya when the war ...

JESSICA:                   I could have got out in the beginning with Philip, my son.  He was only five months old.  I could have got out.  Our company begged me to go.  Had I gone on the earlier ships I could have got through, but Mickey was fighting.  I wouldn’t leave Mick ‘til I saw that he was alright.

MARK:                       Mickey was fighting?

JESSICA:                   He was a volunteer.  And when I did see him, it was too late.  Anyway, I didn’t want to go because my family were there, my mother and sister.  I didn’t want to be lost at sea.  I would rather go on land than sea.  So we were caught there in Sinking.  Yes, we were in the gaol.  We were in Changi Gaol for two and a half years.  Then they moved us out of there.  They put the soldiers in and moved us to Syme Road.

MARK:                       These [soldiers] were obviously Australian POW’s?

JESSICA:                   They were outside, you see, the POWs.  They were outside the gaol and we, the women, and the internees were inside.  I made Mickey come with us, thinking that we would all be together, but it wasn’t so.  He was over the other side in the men’s side.  We were over [in] the women’s side.  Oh, sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d see each other through the grid.  Philip was a toddler then.  He’d hardly seen anything of Mickey.  We used to sit around where we could see if anyone passed, you know.  You might catch a glimpse of them.  Anyway, Mickey happened to come out into the courtyard of the gaol on fatigue.  All of a sudden, I saw Philip run to the rails.  He was only a little tot.  “Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!”  He recognised Mick and he hadn’t seen [him in ages].  My goodness, who’s he calling?  I looked up and it was Mick.  It’s strange isn’t it.  Anyway we came out of camp.  We came home for a while, didn’t we?  Then we went back again to Malaya, back to his mining.

MARK:                       You say you came ‘home’.  [You] came back to Australia?

JESSICA:                   We came back to Australia.  Then Lesley Ann was born out here.  We went back again to Malaya.  I liked the mining.  [It was] a bit lonely but we made good friends.  It was a bit strange after showbusiness but we got used to it.  We met some very nice people.  They thought we were a little bit strange at first, being showpeople, asking ridiculous questions.  Anyway, they finally accepted us.  We were OK weren’t we?  I loved showbusiness when I was in it, I really loved it.  My sister hated it.  My mother wasn’t really that keen.  My father loved it and I loved it.  After we got out of it I wouldn’t have gone back for anything.  I worked very hard as a little girl.  I practised all day.  In between [I] got my school work in.  And practiced, practiced, practiced.

WALTER:                  Yes, but in Malaya, the last time [we were there], I think, was for eleven years,  I had a bungalow with all half-inch [armour] plate all around for Jess and the kiddies.  I’d go to drill with all the soldiers ...

JESSICA:                   This was after the war.

MARK:                       The insurgency.

JESSICA:                   Yes, the Communist terrorists.  We’d just gone through the war and Changi gaol and everything.  Then they started on us in the mines and [on] the rubber plantations.  One poor chap had only just arrived ten days before and they took him and shot him.  They were shooting [at] the bungalows.  They were shooting you going into town, anywhere men [were] going to work.  When we went into town Mickey had a revolver.  We had a chap with [a] revolver just sitting in the car [while we were] doing [our] shopping.  People wouldn’t believe you at home if you told them that.  You had to be armed to do your shopping.  But we got through it.

~~~~~~~~~~

** My note:  In 1921 in Australia (his country of origin), Con Colleano was performing as Zeneto, 'Prince of Wirewalkers’ or 'The Wizzard of the Wire'.  I can't help but link the name to The Zanettos and to slack-wire artiste The Beautiful Jessica!

~~~~~~~~~~

Here is Mark St Leon's full text:

WALTER [‘MICK’] AND JESSICA ST LEON

15 CAMBRIDGE STREET, MAIDSTONE, VIC

23 AUGUST 1986 

Mick was the son of Leslie St Leon, a son of Walter and Amy St Leon, and Kate formerly Ashton.  This interview was conducted at Mick’s home in Melbourne in the company of his wife Jessica.

 

*****

 

MARK:                       What can you remember about your grandmother, Amy?

WALTER:                  I never heard much of Grandma, never had much to do with her.  We knew her but I was only a kid.  When I was with them the longest, Ray[1] was fishing in Lake Victoria.  I was with him fishing.

MARK:                       Where’s Lake Victoria?

WALTER:                  Other side of Wentworth.  Between Wentworth and Renmark.  He was fishing there and he used to [send the] fish through [to] Melbourne.  He’d send them down every fortnight or week.  And Grandma, I never had much to do with her, just “Good morning, Grandma,” or “Good night,” that’s all.  [I] never got in a conversation with her.  I used to work with Ray and I had to shoot rabbits,  put the meat up every morning, put new bacon up, fish, cod, Murray cod....On Lake Victoria he was fishing there [and] then I joined up with him again.  I went to see Dad and I stopped with him in Rosedale.  It’s a sheepstation.  We were rabbiting.  I went rabbiting with him.  We picked ninety, hundred, two hundred a night.  We made good money.  Dad was there.  He was doing a bit there.  He was starting to get a bit shaky then.

MARK:                       What do you mean?

WALTER:                  Bit whoozy, you know.  Dad got something wrong with him.  [It] wasn’t serious, you know.  He’d walk but he’d [be] walking along and he’d lose his balance.  I think they had him walking right round.  Dad was there.  They were tumbling one day and Clyde said, “Oh, better go and get my things on.”  Well, Clyde never asked him.  He went over, got his supporter on [and] did a handstand.  So I looked at him.  I said, “Can’t you do anything else, Ray?”  Said, “Nup.”  So I said, “What you got your supporter on for?”  He said, “Oh, I just put it on.”  I was there tumbling, practising tumbling...  So anyhow I got a position to go to.  I don’t know who it was.  It might have been Charlie Ridgeway, or one of them.  I only stopped with him about a week, I think.  I didn’t see Ray there but after that and after rabbiting [I] didn’t see Allan [or] Clyde [again][2] ..  And that was the last of them.  I didn’t know Allan’s wife, Grace.  She’s not alive, no.  She was a nice person.  Jessica liked her.

JESSICA:                   Who, dear? 

WALTER:                  Aunt Grace. 

JESSICA:                   Oh, she didn’t want to meet us ...

WALTER:                  No, [she] didn’t want to meet us so we ‘wiped’ her ...

JESSICA:                   She wasn’t the least bit interested.

WALTER:                  No.  [She] didn’t even speak to you.

JESSICA:                   No.  Didn’t even acknowledge me.

MARK:                       Why was that?

JESSICA:                   I don’t know.

WALTER:                  I said, “Allan, this is Jessica.”  And she didn’t want to know.  No skin off our nose so we just ...

MARK:                       How about your grandfather, Walter.  Do you remember him?

WALTER:                  Yes.

MARK:                       What do you remember about him?

WALTER:                  Well, I don’t know anything [about him] in the showbusiness.  I met him when I went to run away.  I told you when Joey was born, Joey Perry, I met him then.  He was a nice fellow, [a] nice man.  He was like Uncle Gus.  And easy going.  I don’t think he smoked.  [I] don’t remember him smoking.

MARK:                       Maybe a pipe.

WALTER:                  Maybe a pipe, I don’t know.  I used to smoke but I never cared for it.  One day I bought some tobacco.  I used to roll my own.  I met a fellow coming out I knew.  I said to him “Where’re you going?”  He said, “Oh, I’m going to buy a packet of tobacco.”  I said, “Here, I only just bought it.  [It] hasn’t been opened.  There, there’s the papers,” I said, “And a box of matches.  You can have them.”  I haven’t smoked from that day to this.  That’s how long?  Yes, I never smoked anymore.  I wasn’t a heavy smoker, I smoked four or five a day. 

MARK:                       Did you hear of anything of the earlier generations of the family?  Gus and Walter’s father?

WALTER:                  No, never.  They never ever spoke [about them].

MARK:                       Did Gus tell you about when he challenged Jimmy Robinson, the American champion rider [who] came to Australia?

WALTER:                  No.  I know he was a good rider but he never said anything to me.  I don’t know what Uncle Gus or grandfather did.  I don’t know what he did in the ring.  I think they had some lovely horses.  People have told me.  I think they had a dramatic show or something didn’t they?  I’m not sure.

MARK:                       They did a dramatic piece.  It was called Dying to Save the Colours.

WALTER:                  Dying to Save the Colours.  Yes, that was a dramatic piece.

MARK:                       Did you ever see that one?

WALTER:                  No, never.  Dad used to talk about it...and Wally.  But Uncle Gus, no.  He never talked to me as a kiddie and I never knew what he could do.  But Norman [had] a good act for the public.  The big drops, you know, coloured paper and cellophane or something and different poses [with the] horse on his back and [the band playing] Comrades, all different music.  I never got tired of it.  As a kid I’d wanted to be in every night to watch it.  The best part of it for me was when they broke up the act at the finish.  All the flour or whatever they had on would go everywhere.  The dogs was running around the horse.  It was a really good show.  [It was a] good act for the public.

MARK:                       Which show was this?

WALTER:                  With Eroni’s.

MARK:                       And what was the name of the act?

WALTER:                  Oh, ‘The Statue Act’.

MARK:                       ‘The Statue Act’.  This was Norman and his posing dogs.

WALTER:                  He was marvellous.  He had one horse [and] three dogs.

MARK:                       Prince, Patch and Puppy.

WALTER:                  Puppy.  I think Puppy hanged himself.  I’m not sure.  One of them did.  One of them ...  jumped.  He had the chain around his neck and jumped off the truck.  Well, he couldn’t get back and he was dead.  He got another dog from somewhere.  But it was a good act for the public.  Her colouring was nice too.

MARK:                       And Norm’s wife used to take part in the act too?

WALTER:                  Yes.

MARK:                       To dress the act?

WALTER:                  No.  She did a part.  She dressed the act too but she did [so] much posing.  I forget the music they used to play [but] she used to come in two or three times.  [The band would play] Pals  and Comrades.

JESSICA:                   She wasn’t a performer, was she?

WALTER:                  No, but she didn’t have to.  She had to pose and that.

MARK:                       What did the band play, Comrades?

WALTER:                  Comrades, yeah.  They had all different music, you know.  Funny, I can’t think of it now.  For every fellow it was different music.

MARK:                       Like Auld Lang Syne?

WALTER:                  Auld Lang Syne, they played that there.

MARK:                       Home Sweet Home?

WALTER:                  No.  The horse would be ‘shot’ or something.  It was a lovely act.  I think they had about seven or eight poses and they had to move that horse into different positions, marvellous.  They’d get the horse on his back with his head like that, down.  Not a move.

JESSICA:                   Wirth’s had a posing act too.

WALTER:                  Did he?

JESSICA:                   I think so.

MARK:                       Did they talk of Probasco?

WALTER:                  Dad and Wally talked of Probasco.  I knew who he was through listening to Grandpa and [to] talk among themselves.  I know he went to the Philippine Islands but where from there I don’t know.

MARK:                       Did you go to the Philippines with Harmston’s?[3]

WALTER:                  Yes.

MARK:                       And you didn’t hear of Probasco when you were there?

WALTER:                  No.  Did you hear of him, Jessica?

JESSICA:                   Mmmm.  Sounds familiar but ...  I can’t say ...

WALTER:                  That’s where [Marcovitch’s] went.

JESSICA:                   We went to the Philippines two or three times.  It sounds familiar but I can’t place it.  I couldn’t say yes.

WALTER:                  What was Probasco?  Spanish-Mexican?

MARK:                       American.

WALTER:                  American was he?

MARK:                       He came out here for FitzGerald’s Circus about 1895.  He came with the talking horse, Mahomet, a trick-horse.  He had an argument with the FitzGeralds because he owed them money.  And so the FitzGeralds took Mahomet and settled the debt.  Then Probasco went out on his own [and] started his own circus.  This was in New Zealand.  He met up with your grandfather, Walter, and all his family and they ran the circus together for about two years.  They travelled through New Zealand and all through New South Wales and Victoria.  He married Alice, who was the eldest of Walter’s children.  And Alice died in childbirth in Manila about the turn of the century.

WALTER:                  Who was the [other] one [who] died?

MARK:                       She was Ruby.  What did you hear about Ruby?[4]

WALTER:                  I didn’t hear anything].  That’s the only thing I know about Ruby.  Dad said she was getting some water from a tank and an old drunk came up and [gave her] such a shock [that she] had heart failure.

MARK:                       This is at Bega.

WALTER:                  Bega, yeah.

MARK:                       [At the] Metropolitan Hotel.  Do you know how your father happened to meet your mother?  Were they with the circus together?

WALTER:                  They were with the circus together.  They never spoke of that.  I know when they broke up, I was only a little bloke, a kiddie.  [I] don’t know anything.  [It] chopped the wind out of my sails.  I was only a little bloke, you know.  I couldn’t stick that.

JESSICA:                   [George has been an] extremely good stepfather.

WALTER:                  Yes.  He’d been a good fellow to me.  [He] never ever said ‘boo’ to me.  He asked me to call him dad one time.  That’s fair enough.  He’s a good bloke.  [He] bought me the things I wanted, you know.  I was always a bit of a loner.

MARK:                       Did your mother ever say anything about her family, the Ashtons?

WALTER:                  No.  No.

MARK:                       Did your mother have much education?

WALTER:                  Yes.  Mum wrote a real nice hand.

JESSICA:                   Spelling was very good.

WALTER:                  Spelling was good too.

MARK:                       Do you know where she went to school?  Or did she learn on the road?

WALTER:                  I don’t know.

JESSICA:                   Most of us learned with the Correspondence School.

WALTER:                  Correspondence most of them.

JESSICA:                   Or else there was usually someone in the band [who would act as teacher] as much as they could. 

MARK:                       And Ethel.  Do you remember Kate’s sister, Ethel?  She was married to Roy Barton.

WALTER:                  Yeah.  [I] knew her well.

MARK:                       Well, what can you tell me about her?

WALTER:                  Only [that] she did a wire act.

MARK:                       Did she have much education too?

WALTER:                  That I don’t know.  I know Vera didn’t have much.  Stella didn’t have much.  Freddie couldn’t read or write.  Leslie used to go to school in Sydney.  Leah could read and write.  On the other side of the Ashtons, I think Maudie could read and write a bit.  Ruby couldn’t read.  Dossie couldn’t read.

JESSICA:                   Ethel was a very beautiful woman.

WALTER:                  Nearly all of them couldn’t read or write. 

JESSICA:                   But, in those days, it was what you did in the ring not what your education was.

WALTER:                  Yes.  Jimmy Ashton couldn’t read or write.  Mickey, I don’t whether he could read or write.  [He was very] sketchy, very, very thin.

JESSICA:                   It wasn’t too important in those days.

WALTER:                  No, but I’m not saying it was important, dear.  As long as you done a flip-flap, you were alright.  Captain Ashton.  [Did] you ever meet Captain?  He [was a] nice fellow.

MARK:                       This was one of Freddie’s sons was it?

WALTER:                  Freddie’s sons, yes.  He was a nice fellow.  He mostly had [a] little pony, and did boxing and Roman rings.  He wasn’t a bad performer and he couldn’t read or write.  Ruby couldn’t and Mary couldn’t.  We met Mary Ashton.  She married Bolcombe.

MARK:                       Now, whereabouts were you married?

JESSICA:                   In Malaya, in a place called Eathon.

MARK:                       Do you remember the date?

JESSICA:                   Yes.  27 September, 1937.

MARK:                       And by that time you’d left Harmston’s?

JESSICA:                   Oh yes.  We’d left Harmston’s.  And Mick was involved in tin mining and tin dredging.  He went down to the dredge and [he] was supposed to wait six months.  You had to be with the company six months before you could get married.  He was there [about] two months....

WALTER:                  Mmm, about six weeks.

JESSICA:                   Yes, and he asked permission to get married.  They must have had confidence in him.  Next thing I knew I was on the train going down to be married.

MARK:                       Where were you born, Jessica?  In Chicago?

JESSICA:                   In Chicago.

MARK:                       And the date?

JESSICA:                   14 December, 1916.

MARK:                       And your family was in showbusiness?

JESSICA:                   Mmmm.

MARK:                       And their name was Palomar?

JESSICA:                   Palomar.

MARK:                       Can you tell me something about your family.

JESSICA:                   Oh, they met in America and married.

MARK:                       Your father was ...

JESSICA:                   Spanish.  My mother was English.  And they had my older sister and myself in America.  And they joined Santos & Artigas’ [Circus]  in South America.

MARK:                       That’s a circus?

JESSICA:                   A circus.  And ...

MARK:                       This is after you were born?

JESSICA:                   Yes.  I think I was only a few months old when they went.  My younger sister was born in South America, in San [Pablo?].  We were there until I was seven I think, over seven.  We came back to New York.  We caught to the ship to Australia to [join]  Wirth’s Circus.

MARK:                       Wirth’s Circus?

JESSICA:                   My elder sister died in America.

MARK:                       So she didn’t come here?

JESSICA:                   No, before I was born she died.  We came out to Wirth’s.

MARK:                       What encouraged your parents to come?

JESSICA:                   To Australia?  Well, my father had been out to Australia when he was a very young man with an acrobatic troupe.

MARK:                       What was their name?

JESSICA:                   I can’t remember.  He told me.  I used to know but I just can’t remember.  I’ve tried to remember.

MARK:                       Did they come out with the circus, or ...

JESSICA:                   No, they came out I think for Wirth’s.  That’s the only show we were ever with in Australia.

MARK:                       But when your father came out earlier?

JESSICA:                   With Wirth’s.

MARK:                       He came out earlier for Wirth’s Circus?

JESSICA:                   I can’t remember what the name was.  Anyway, he always said that when he went back to Europe, when he got married and had a family, [that] he would come back to Australia.  So he did.  He came out to Wirth’s.  [In] 1923 we came out to Australia.  We left [Australia towards] the end of 1929.  We went to Handy’s Circus.  They had [the] King Carnival, Handy’s Circus.  We worked about a year with them.  Papa wasn’t very happy.  So we joined Harmston’s.  He didn’t like [Handy’s] at all.  It was alright.  The circus was alright [but] we just didn’t like ...

MARK:                       Who was Handy?

JESSICA:                   [They were] American people.  They were really carnival people and I’ve got an idea that they started the circus up as a hobby, as far as I can remember.

MARK:                       This King Carnival, that’s where Con Colleano started out, with the King Carnival travelling through Queensland.

JESSICA:                   These were American people.  They were Americans.  They never came out to Australia, I’m sure.  It was quite a big carnival.  They had quite a big circus.  It was quite a good show.  Anyway, we went with Harmston’s.

MARK:                       Where did you go with Harmston’s?

JESSICA:                   I think it was in Java.

WALTER:                  Yeah.

JESSICA:                   Java.  We were with Harmston’s when we were on the ship.  When Mickey joined up he just caught the ship, didn’t you?  We went on through China and India again and right through the east, Manila, Philippines.

MARK:                       What do you remember about Wirth’s Circus?

JESSICA:                   Oh, I remember a lot about Wirth’s Circus.  It’s where I learnt to work.

MARK:                       Was it a big circus?

JESSICA:                   Mmmm.  [A] very big circus.

MARK:                       Hundreds of people associated with it?

JESSICA:                   Oh, I’d say so, yes.  It was just the biggest circus in Australia.  I might be howled down.  But it was a very good show.

MARK:                       Were most of the acts imported acts?

JESSICA:                   Imported acts, yes.  My father had a partner, Spanish people, Eggacharga [?] the name was.  And they did, oh, clown entrees and one clown entree I used to love, a clown bullfight with the dogs.  The dog used to have a bull’s head on.  My parents did a juggling act.  Then, afterwards, they left me in a school in Melbourne when they went to New Zealand.

MARK:                       Which school was that?

JESSICA:                   [A] convent in Elsternwick.  I can’t remember the name.  Well, I wasn’t working then so I was left behind.

MARK:                       They wouldn’t take anybody through New Zealand, possibly.

JESSICA:                   No, my parents didn’t like it at all.  [Then the Wirths] took me, Margaret Wirth.  Aunty Maggie as I called her.

MARK:                       She was the wife of ...

JESSICA:                   George Wirth.  They were very good with children, the Wirths.  Anyway, when they came back from New Zealand, Papa decided it was time I started work so the first thing I did was a perch in their act.  I had a little tiny bit of juggling.  And then, from there, we developed the risley act, a family act.  And I had my own wire act which I wanted to do.  My sister started to learn riding when we came out to Harmston’s.  She didn’t ride with Wirths.  She [was] a lovely little performer, my sister.

MARK:                       And The Honeys were with Wirth’s while you were there?

JESSICA:                   Yes.

MARK:                       What do you remember of The Honeys?

JESSICA:                   Oh, they were lovely.  I remember they were lovely.  We were very good friends.  Little ‘Snooky’ Honey used to come up to our carriage every day.

MARK:                       ‘Snooky’?

JESSICA:                   That’s the baby.  ‘Snooky’ was only about this big.  He used to come up every day and have lunch with us.  And they wondered why he wasn’t eating!  He was eating at our place, in our carriage.  But they were a really lovely family.  I liked them.

MARK:                       What do you remember of Clyde?

JESSICA:                   Oh, that I liked him very much.  [He] was a very nice man.  All the Honeys, and Clyde, were a really charming family.

MARK:                       Daisy Honey, do you remember her?

JESSICA:                   Yes.  I remember Tommy.  One day, I think it was a matinee, [he was] playing around.  When he went to put his pumps on [he] couldn’t find his pumps.  Poor Mrs Honey, she had to make a pair and sew them quickly for him to go into the ring.  Things like that you remember.  They were [a] very nice family.  The Wirths were good people.  They were very nice.  Mrs Alice Wirth was very nice to us.

MARK:                       This was the wife of ...

JESSICA:                   Philip Wirth.  The children always called her Aunty Alice and Mr Wirth was Uncle Percy.

MARK:                       Uncle Percy?

JESSICA:                   Uncle Percy.  He was Uncle Percy and she was Aunty Alice.  Then there was Uncle Jules and there was Aunty Maggie.  All the children were encouraged to call them ‘Uncle’ and ‘Alice’.

MARK:                       The other day, when I was here, you were talking of Mr Gus when he looked after [the circus train].

JESSICA:                   Oh yes, yes.  That’s before I was working.  My sister and I were always nervous.  Mum would go to the show and I would hear somebody walking past.  “[Is] that you Mr Gus?”  “Yes, dears, it’s me.  Don’t worry, I’m here.”  He was very sweet.  Or else he’d pop his head in the door and say “It’s me passing.”  He always let you know if he was around to protect you.  When Mickey joined the show, my sister did a riding act with him, the jockey [act], and her own [act].  I worked very hard when I was a little girl.  Mickey [says he] went shooting [as a boy but] I worked hard.  When the tent went up so my wire went up.  [I] practised all morning on the wire.

MARK:                       What sought of wire did you do?

JESSICA:                   Tightwire.  Yes.  No umbrella, no fan, no nothing.  I didn’t want that ever to happen.

MARK:                       Was Golda doing the wire too at that stage?

JESSICA:                   I learnt a long time after Golda learnt.  My grandmother was a wirewalker but she did a slackwire, in Europe.

MARK:                       But Golda was with ...

JESSICA:                   Golda was with Wirth’s, yes.  I think Golda was my inspiration.

MARK:                       She did a slackwire.

JESSICA:                   ...  No, I think Golda did a tightwire.

WALTER:                  Yeah, tight[wire].

JESSICA:                   And I think, from my mother and watching Golda, that’s where I got my love of the wire.

MARK:                       It’s funny that Golda was a wirewalker while her brothers and sisters were acrobats.

JESSICA:                   Trapeze artists and acrobats.  Doris did the trapeze, didn’t she?

WALTER:                  [A] good trapeze too.

JESSICA:                   [A] very good trapeze.

MARK:                       Single trapeze?

WALTER:                  Yes.

JESSICA:                   She was lovely.

MARK:                       Did you ever hear of an act called The Winskells?

WALTER:                  Yes.

JESSICA:                   I’ve heard of them.

MARK:                       Did you see them?

JESSICA:                   No.

MARK:                       You saw them Walter?

WALTER:                  Yes, plenty of times.

MARK:                       Where did you see them work?

WALTER:                  Wirth’s.

MARK:                       They did a casting act.

WALTER:                  That’s correct.

MARK:                       What’s the difference between a casting act and a normal trapeze act.

WALTER:                  In a casting act you have a big frame this end.  You’ve got [a] bar there [that] you sit on.  And they sit and they turn.  They can hang down.  They give you that arm [and] take you down.  And the other fellow comes down.  And that’s it, that’s the ‘cast’.  They throw you somersaults and whatever.  You got a net underneath you and ...

JESSICA:                   It’s just like the bars that they do, the gymnasts, something like that.  Only somebody catches you here.

WALTER:                  Mmmm, [it’s a] good act.  They opened up in Brisbane.  I was up playing around in the casting [net].  I’d been up twice, I think.  We opened up in Brisbane, in some big place there. 

MARK:                       What’s it like hitting the net?

WALTER:                  If they teach you how to fall it’s easy.

JESSICA:                   You can hurt yourself.

WALTER:                  [You] can hurt yourself,  break your neck or arm, anything.  As you fall, always turn your back and double up just a little bit or go straight out.  That’s the correct way to fall.

JESSICA:                   Papa was [a] very good teacher.  He always taught us how to fall.  So we never really had any bad falls because he taught us how to fall.  That’s something you should learn, isn’t it, how to fall?

MARK:                       You were in Malaya for several years up until the war broke out.  Did you have any inclination to get out of Malaya when the war ...

JESSICA:                   I could have got out in the beginning with Philip, my son.  He was only five months old.  I could have got out.  Our company begged me to go.  Had I gone on the earlier ships I could have got through, but Mickey was fighting.  I wouldn’t leave Mick ‘til I saw that he was alright.

MARK:                       Mickey was fighting?

JESSICA:                   He was a volunteer.  And when I did see him, it was too late.  Anyway, I didn’t want to go because my family were there, my mother and sister.  I didn’t want to be lost at sea.  I would rather go on land than sea.  So we were caught there in Sinking.  Yes, we were in the gaol.  We were in Changi Gaol for two and a half years.  Then they moved us out of there.  They put the soldiers in and moved us to Syme Road.

MARK:                       These [soldiers] were obviously Australian POW’s?

JESSICA:                   They were outside, you see, the POWs.  They were outside the gaol and we, the women, and the internees were inside.  I made Mickey come with us, thinking that we would all be together, but it wasn’t so.  He was over the other side in the men’s side.  We were over [in] the women’s side.  Oh, sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d see each other through the grid.  Philip was a toddler then.  He’d hardly seen anything of Mickey.  We used to sit around where we could see if anyone passed, you know.  You might catch a glimpse of them.  Anyway, Mickey happened to come out into the courtyard of the gaol on fatigue.  All of a sudden, I saw Philip run to the rails.  He was only a little tot.  “Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!”  He recognised Mick and he hadn’t seen [him in ages].  My goodness, who’s he calling?  I looked up and it was Mick.  It’s strange isn’t it.  Anyway we came out of camp.  We came home for a while, didn’t we?  Then we went back again to Malaya, back to his mining.

MARK:                       You say you came ‘home’.  [You] came back to Australia?

JESSICA:                   We came back to Australia.  Then Lesley Ann was born out here.  We went back again to Malaya.  I liked the mining.  [It was] a bit lonely but we made good friends.  It was a bit strange after showbusiness but we got used to it.  We met some very nice people.  They thought we were a little bit strange at first, being showpeople, asking ridiculous questions.  Anyway, they finally accepted us.  We were OK weren’t we?  I loved showbusiness when I was in it, I really loved it.  My sister hated it.  My mother wasn’t really that keen.  My father loved it and I loved it.  After we got out of it I wouldn’t have gone back for anything.  I worked very hard as a little girl.  I practised all day.  In between [I] got my school work in.  And practiced, practiced, practiced.

WALTER:                  Yes, but in Malaya, the last time [we were there], I think, was for eleven years,  I had a bungalow with all half-inch [armour] plate all around for Jess and the kiddies.  I’d go to drill with all the soldiers ...

JESSICA:                   This was after the war.

MARK:                       The insurgency.

JESSICA:                   Yes, the Communist terrorists.  We’d just gone through the war and Changi gaol and everything.  Then they started on us in the mines and [on] the rubber plantations.  One poor chap had only just arrived ten days before and they took him and shot him.  They were shooting [at] the bungalows.  They were shooting you going into town, anywhere men [were] going to work.  When we went into town Mickey had a revolver.  We had a chap with [a] revolver just sitting in the car [while we were] doing [our] shopping.  People wouldn’t believe you at home if you told them that.  You had to be armed to do your shopping.  But we got through it.

MARK:                       Do you remember talking about Gus last week?

WALTER:                  Yes.  I knew Uncle Gus, yes.

MARK:                       Where did you first meet him?

WALTER:                  In, oh my golly, in a little town.  I wouldn’t know where I first met Uncle Gus.  I wouldn’t know that but I met him in Canley Vale, the second time, where Cass [and] Reg lived.  We had a good yarn there.  He told me about the old days.  He told me never to get wet.  That’s one thing he always stuck in my memory.  And his hands!  You know the photos you’ve got of him?  My hands are the same, like that.

MARK:                       He suffered from arthritis or something?

WALTER:                  No, but I do that, the same thing.  And Uncle Gussie told me this and that.  You see the photos in the first book.  You see his hands would be like that.  I do the same.  [It] must be a trait.  Anyhow, I met Cass there, and Syl and Reg.  [We] all had a good yarn.  I went away to Queensland, I think.  I never met Uncle Gus after that.  I think he was with Wirth’s.  I had a yarn to him there.  I think it was in Forbes or Parkes, somewhere [where] we met.  After that, I never did see Uncle Gus any more.

MARK:                       What circus were you with then?

WALTER:                  It was Eroni’s or Barton’s.  I forget now.  There were so many.  But I think it was with Barton’s.

MARK:                       Your father was Leslie?

WALTER:                  Leslie, yes.

MARK:                       Was that his full name, Leslie?  Did he have a middle name?

WALTER:                  I wouldn’t know that.[5]

MARK:                       And your mother?

WALTER:                  Kathleen Ashton.

 As I said, we looked [up] to nobody.  We were our own bosses.  That’s when I got older.  You meet a lot of people.  If I went back there I’d remember them again.  When I went away over to Sole’s, in Africa, I was there only three years.  [I] come back again and went with Ashton’s.  I got a cable to go to Harmston’s.  So that’s where I went off from there.

MARK:                       Where did you go?

WALTER:                  [To] Africa with Sole’s.

MARK:                       You went there in 1926?

WALTER:                  ‘26, ‘27.

MARK:                       ‘27, and came back in?

WALTER:                  Came back in 1932, ‘31 [or] ‘32.

MARK:                       Who do you remember with Sole’s Circus?

WALTER:                  Georgie Eroni [and a]  fellow called Pedrini.  [Pedrini] used to [do] a monkey act.  It was [a] good act.  And then there was Andy [Sole].  Andy and I used to do [a] ‘jockey’ [act].  I was in every act [with] Jackie [Sole when we] used to do the jockey.  Bert Lindsay did a bit of [an] acrobatic act.  Mary [Sole] used to do the trapeze act, balancing trapeze.  We all did two, three or four acts.  [There was] the dog act, [the] jumping dog act.  I could never stick a dog act.  [Have] you ever seen high jumping dogs?  Jackie used to have a dog and he was very, very good.  ‘Whiskey’.  He used to close the show.  They had some African chaps there.  They used to do acts.  [There were] high jumping horses in the ring.  They had a good show, a real good show.  In Capetown you couldn’t get them in.  Georgie Eroni was there with his wire act.

MARK:                       What sort of a wire act [did he do]?

WALTER:                  Oh, he did a bouncing wire act.  That’s a different act altogether [to the act that Connie used to do].  Georgie and him were different altogether.  [Georgie] used to go down [on] his crutch and side seat and all that.  He was marvellous.  A marvellous balance he had.  [He’d] get down and go for his life.  [People] come from everywhere to see him.  Billy Sole used to train the lion[s].  He was very good with the elephants...  Andy Sole did an act with Jackie and them.  I used to go in the jockey act then.  I hadn’t taken on riding then.  I could ride because Georgie Eroni, used to teach me.  He used to teach me the wire but I was too small.  I didn’t like it.

MARK:                       So what did you do on the horse [in the] jockey act?

WALTER:                  I could do everything.

MARK:                       Somersault?

WALTER:                  Somersault, yes.

MARK:                       On the horse?

WALTER:                  Yes.  That was nothing.

MARK:                       That was easy was it?

WALTER:                  Yes.  When you get onto the ground, the somersault up become hard.  [I did] all the tail tricks you could mention, grab the horse and, you know, this side, two legs around, one leg around, pirouettes, ‘backs’ up onto the horse and that.  I was a bareback rider with the pads.  Harmston’s asked me if I could ride.  I said yes.  He told me to get up and do a back somersault.  [That] meant nothing to me.  I think every morning he’d make us practice.  [You’d be] in there [in the morning for] about twenty minutes.  You’d take your singlet off and squeeze it out.  It was so hot.  [Harmston] used to love trick horses.  He had six horses he used to have.  [It was a] good act too.  I was very, very sorry when he went ...

MARK:                       He committed suicide?

WALTER:                  He committed suicide, yes.  It was [all because of] just a silly clown entree.  He could speak I don’t know how many languages.  He said, “Oh, I’ll try him in Vietnamese”.  [He] could speak French and everything.  He’d go off to this fellow, another clown, his father.  “Will you please get out of my way.  I want to work here”.  “Eh?” and he’d kick [him in the backside].  Well, he’d turn ‘round and slap him.  But, for that, the Vietnamese had a boycott.

JESSICA:                   They were insulted.

WALTER:                  Yeah, they were insulted.  That went right through [Vietnam].  Gee, he lost some money, a lot of money.  And as I say, he killed himself in Vientiane.  I had money.  I could have got anywhere I wanted to go.  We were there, I with Jess and father and mother.  Was your mother there?  No.

JESSICA:                   No.  She was in Singapore.

WALTER:                  Anyhow, I had money.  That’s where the Foreign Legion fellows took a liking to me.  They’d bring cheese and jam.  They thought we were starving.

MARK:                       About what year was this?

WALTER:                  Oh, I forget what year it was he killed himself.

JESSICA:                   Before we were married.  We’ve been married fifty years next month, next year.

WALTER:                  Oh well, that’s very good Jess.  Don’t know how I put up with you but.  Yes, it’d be ‘36, wouldn’t it?  ‘35 [or] ‘36?

JESSICA:                   Yes, I suppose it would have been.

WALTER:                  You know that photo I had taken in Shanghai, well that was on my birthday.  That was [1935] in Shanghai.  It was taken on my birthday.

MARK:                       Was that the end of Harmston’s Circus?

WALTER:                  Yes.  Dickie Bell, his brother and the old lady, Mrs Bell, they took the show then.  There was some Vietnamese circus there.  They were doing something between them.  Anyhow, they wanted to take the animals [but Dickie Bell] kept the animals.

JESSICA:                   And then we went to Japan.

WALTER:                  Japan, Korea.  [We] come back down through the end of Korea.  What’s the name of that place?

MARK:                       Seoul?

WALTER:                  No.  We weren’t in Seoul [but] another place.

MARK:                       This is with Harmston’s still, under Dickie Bell.

WALTER:                  And there was a big fort [there].  Gee, it was cleverly [constructed].  They had this big fort under the ground and a big gun there.  It’s right up near the Russian border.  Anyway we got back down through Malaya.  [We] played Hong Kong and different places.  Jess left the show.  Well, I was there and they had no women at all.  They were going from bad to worse.  They come up I think about three weeks later and I went and got a job for myself in Malaya tin dredging.

MARK:                       When you were travelling through Asia, you travelled by train?

WALTER:                  Train, yes.

MARK:                       Through Korea and China?

WALTER:                  Yes.

MARK:                       How did you come you come to join Harmston’s in the first place?

WALTER:                  They sent me a cable.  I got it in Grafton.

JESSICA:                   I think that the Williams told Mr Harmston about you.

WALTER:                  Yes, that’s right.

MARK:                       The Williams were already in Harmston’s Circus?

WALTER:                  Yes, Jackie Williams, Millie Williams, the father.  Jackie was a good rider and looked lovely in the [ring].

MARK:                       Which circus were you with in Grafton when the cable came?

WALTER:                  Ashton’s.

MARK:                       Now this was Fred Ashton, was it?

WALTER:                  Yep, Fred Ashton.  Then Joe had taken over.

MARK:                       So this was, what, about 1932?

WALTER:                  Yes, it’d be about 1932?

MARK:                       This was during The Depression.  What was the circus business like?

WALTER:                  Very bad over there [in Southeast Asia] but they got enough people to pay the way.

MARK:                       But with Ashton’s?

WALTER:                  Very bad.  [We saw] more pay days than pay.

MARK:                       Who else was with Ashton’s Circus at that time?

WALTER:                  There was ‘Captain’ [Ashton].  There was only the Ashtons’ crowd and myself.

MARK:                       Your mother was at the show?

WALTER:                  No, no.  I left home the night Joey Perry was born.  I went to Dad and Clyde up to [the] other side of Wentworth.  I forget the name of it now.  [I] went up there and I stopped with Clyde then for quite a long time.  [He] sent word to Ted Secombe and we started the acrobatic act then.

MARK:                       Was Clyde, you and Ted Secombe.

WALTER:                  Yeah.

MARK:                       And that tour was on the the Tivoli and ...

WALTER:                  Tivoli, Fuller’s and all around the shows.  Clay’s ...

MARK:                       How old were you then?

WALTER:                  Oh, about ten.

MARK:                       So this about 1919, 1920.  What sort of money would you earn?

WALTER:                  We’d get good [money] ...  I never thought about money but Clyde come up and give me five pound here, five pound, seven pound.  Nothing to me.  He paid the way.  I never bothered.  I’d say I don’t want it.  I’d give it back.

MARK:                       What sort of a fellow was Clyde?

WALTER:                  Oh [he was a] marvellous man, Clyde.  In fact, he wanted me to go to America.  I was a silly boy.  I thought more of going out shooting then.  I didn’t drink or smoke or anything like that.  Clyde went with the Honeys to Wirth’s.  I knew they were going but they just went.  They stopped there.  That’s about the last time I saw Clyde.  He went to America with the Honeys but me, no.  I joined Ray.  He got a contract to burn off a big property, about 3,000 acres.  We did that and rabbiting.  He was a good rabbiter, Ray.  I made quite a bit of money[helping him].  I got a cable there, [at] a place called Rosedale, a sheep station.  Would I come over to [Sole’s Circus in] South Africa?  So I buttoned up and went to South Africa.  I think Ray had a barber shop in Wee Waa.  We settled down here [in Melbourne eventually].  [We] bought this home for the kiddies, a place to live.  I was working in Malaya then ...

MARK:                       You had two sisters, Alma and Sylvia.  Do you know where they were born?

WALTER:                  Yes, Sylvia was younger.  Alma was born in Sydney I think.

MARK:                       Parramatta?

WALTER:                  I don’t know.  [It] might have been too.  Alma was born in Sydney and Sylvia was born in Melbourne here.  She was born in Melbourne because I remember we used to have jokes with her to kid “Go on, you’re born in Melbourne.  You’re a scab”.  That’s what we used to say.  Sylvie died in Sydney, in the North Shore [hospital] ...

MARK:                       This was quite early in life [when] she died?

JESSICA:                   [She was] nineteen.

MARK:                       Nineteen?

WALTER:                  I think she had one little baby.  I think Mary Sole told me she had a miscarriage and died bringing on a miscarriage.  I don’t know.  I went out.  When I came back from Africa I think I went out and saw the kiddie, [a] bonza little boy [he was] too and I never seen them again.  ‘Wharf’ is her married name.  She met him at Warren’s, old Alfie Warren’s show.  He had a small show and he was married to Maudie Ashton.  Sylvia was there taking tickets, you know, [a] hanger-on.  She met this Reg [Wharf] and fell in love and got married.  That’s how she met him.  And I never seen Sylvie after that.

MARK:                       What do you know what the little boy’s name was?

WALTER:                  Rex.  [He] took his father’s name, Rex Wharf.  Yeah, he lived in [the] North Shore [of Sydney].  I went out to see Sylvie and Rex one day.  [I] had a meal with them.  I had to get back to the show again.  That’s the last I ever saw of Sylvie but she had a lovely little boy, [a] bloke about that high, curly hair.  He thought that I was Rex, “Oh, my dear daddy.” I remember it.

MARK:                       So Sylvia was younger than you.

WALTER:                  Yes, Sylvia was younger.  Sylvia was about a year or two younger, I’m not sure.  Alma’s a couple of years [older] than me.

JESSICA:                   About two years.

WALTER:                  But circus life is a good life, a marvellous life.  I’ve been in Malaya so many years, in mining, tin, gold, and living the outside life.  The circus life is exactly the same.  I fitted in with them.  The only thing, I wasn’t too clever on what’s this here and what’s that there.  As I said, I was self-educated.  I got my dredgemaster’s ticket.  We settled here and I went to work as a fitter and turner up here at Smorgon’s big paper mill.  I was there for quite a while.  I came home one day and Jess had a steak on for me.  I was sitting in the chair there.  I said “Jess, this steak’s tough”.  She said, “No, it’s not Mick.  It’s good eye steak” or something.  I said, “Oh” so I had go at that but after a while I packed up altogether.  I had a stroke.  [I] didn’t know I had it.  I lost my voice.  I had two strokes.  I’ve had a couple more since.  [I was in] Melbourne Hospital ...  But you, you never been with a show?

MARK:                       I travelled with a circus in Tasmania about twelve years ago, just [for a few days] ...

WALTER:                  That’s nice, a good experience with a show.

MARK:                       I saw my grandfather with Bullen’s Circus when I was a boy.

WALTER:                  The last time I saw Uncle Norm [he] was [with] Bullen’s Circus.

MARK:                       We used to go to visit him in Wentworth Park in Sydney every Easter when Bullen’s Circus came.

WALTER:                  Oh yes, yes.

MARK:                       What do you remember of Golda Honey?  You were describing to me the other day how she used to do the wire act.  She’d go along sideways, like a parrot on the wire.

WALTER:                  Yes.  In Sydney I joined them up, Honey family, Doris and the family.  I saw Golda on the wire.  I thought,  “That’s funny”.  But she was a good wirewalker, a marvellous wirewalker.  She used to jump, get down, [jump] up in the air, jumping a barrel about that high and about that round.  Jump in, jump out and dancing.  She was a good dancer and she used to skip, just like a wire act at the circus.  She was a good performer and Doris did a lovely trapeze.  I forget what Coochie and Loreen used to do, but they were nice in the ring.  I think they did an acrobatic act ...

MARK:                       Wasn’t Clyde with them?

WALTER:                  Yes, this was when Clyde came with them.  I didn’t know what Clyde was going to do.  When I went, he went with Wirth’s and I stopped with Ashton’s.  I didn’t go with him.  I could have but I was with the Ashton’s ...

MARK:                       This was when the Honeys were with Wirth’s.

WALTER:                  Yes.  They went with Wirth’s.  I think I would have been better off if I had gone with them.  My name was down on the quota I think to go to America.

MARK:                       When you say ‘quota’, what do you mean by that?

JESSICA:                   Well, they used to let so many ...

WALTER:                  ...  let so many [people in] at a time.  Say they had a thousand, well my name was down on the quota.  I don’t know whether Clyde was on the quota.  I think he was on the quota too.  Yes, that’s right.  Jess knows more about the Honeys than I do because I was only with them for about three months around Sydney suburbs.

MARK:                       So you were with Ashton’s at [the] stage that the Honeys were with Wirth’s.  What was it like in Ashton’s Circus?  Were they using motor vehicles or were the still with wagons?

WALTER:                  No, they were still with wagons.

MARK:                       Wagons?  That’s pretty late.  About 1925, 26?  This was Fred Ashton’s Circus?

WALTER:                  Fred Ashton’s, yes.

MARK:                       Who was in the circus with Fred Ashton at stage?  All his family?

WALTER:                  Oh no, ...  I was with Barton’s.

MARK:                       With Barton’s?  So that was Ethel Ashton.

WALTER:                  Ethel and Roy.  Lindsay wasn’t there.  All the Ashtons anyhow.  They had a nice show, a good show.

MARK:                       A circus?

WALTER:                  Yeah, a circus.  They run it clean and fast.  That’s what the people liked.  They had a good show.  I stopped with them.  I don’t know where I went to from them.  There was Holden’s Circus after me and Bullen’s after me.

MARK:                       Holden’s Circus?

WALTER:                  I never ever went with Holden’s.

MARK:                       Bullen’s Circus was active then?

WALTER:                  Bullen’s were just starting.  Holden wanted Freddie and I and Leslie [Ashton but we] never went with them.  I stuck with the mob.  Otherwise, there [were] plenty [of] shows, plenty [of] work if you wanted it.  But they were very small on spondoolicks.

MARK:                       What did you call that?

WALTER:                  Spondoolicks.

MARK:                       Spondoolicks?  That means money.  Where does that word come from?

WALTER:                  I don’t know.

MARK:                       Is that a circus term?

WALTER:                  Yes.

MARK:                       Spondoolick?

WALTER:                  Spondoolicks.

MARK:                       Do you know any other circus words?

WALTER:                  ‘The ghost walks’.

MARK:                       What does that mean?

JESSICA:                   Pay day.

WALTER:                  ‘Is your ghost going to walk today?’  That was, ‘Are you going to get paid today?’

MARK:                       Do you know the terms ‘bounce’, to ‘bounce’ a town.

WALTER:                  Yes.

MARK:                       That means to go ...

WALTER:                  ...  go in without billing.

MARK:                       And ‘bridge’.  Do you know what ‘bridge’ means?

WALTER:                  Good show, good outfit.

MARK:                       Any other terms you can think of?

WALTER:                  ...[A] marvellous ‘bridge’ we’d say to each other, marvellous ‘bridge’.  [A] ‘squealer’ [in] the show [is someone who]...

JESSICA:                   ...  runs to the boss.

MARK:                       [A] ‘squealer’ runs to the boss.

JESSICA:                   [A] ‘squealer’ or ‘crawler’.

WALTER:                  Yeah, go to the boss and squeal.

MARK:                       [A] ‘freeze’?

WALTER:                  [If] business was bad [we’d say that there was a] ‘freeze’ there.

MARK:                       A ‘grade picnic’?

WALTER:                  No, ‘picnic’, no.

MARK:                       When a whole family of children come along and ...

WALTER:                  Yeah, that’s true.  That’s right, yes, a ‘picnic’ ...  Anyhow, I don’t think I could be more happy the day I got out of business.  I liked it [but]....

MARK:                       It’s a hard life?

WALTER:                  Showbusiness?  I’ll tell you what it is.  You see these people who are going on holidays, [with] caravans and this and that.  To me the circus was one big holiday.  It was one big holiday.  We [went] shooting and fishing.  We got everything we wanted.  We got paid for it when we did get paid.  I was very, very happy.  But when I got overseas, I missed all that stuff ...  In Australia it was marvellous.  We got the best of everything.  I was a good shot and Dad was a good shot.  He taught me to shoot and [as] long as I fired a gun I was happy.

MARK:                       What do you remember about your father?  He was a good shot?

WALTER:                  He was a good shot.

MARK:                       Had he had much education?

WALTER:                  I don’t think so.  Dad could read and write.  I think he taught me the alphabet.  From there on I taught myself and my dad ...

MARK:                       ...  he was a tumbler.

WALTER:                  Yeah, he was a tumbler too.

MARK:                       Did you see him doing any horsework?

WALTER:                  No.  Him and Wally used to do acts horseriding and that.  Wally was a good tumbler, flip-flap [thrower].

MARK:                       Did you see Wally with the circus or had he settled down?

WALTER:                  No, he’d settled down then.

MARK:                       He never went back to the circus?

WALTER:                  No, [he] never went back.  His son, Alfie, went away with a show for a while. 

MARK:                       Which circus?

WALTER:                  With Ashton’s.  I wasn’t there.

MARK:                       What, as a performer?

WALTER:                  No, I don’t think Alfie could do anything.  I think he went [only] for a trip and [as] agent I think.  But I remember Wally on the bank of the Murray.  Wally could still tumble.  I was only a young kid, about ten.  I could tumble good then, you know.  Wally used to get the mat out on the bank of the river there and we’d go to town, do this and that.  “Can you do this Mickey?  Can you do that?”  He was a good performer, Wally.  He could ride.  He’d get on a horse cantering and do a flip-flap.  He could turn that way and he do a flip-flap, sideways [as the] horse [was] going.  He could do it.

MARK:                       Sideways?

WALTER:                  Well, that’s the horse going round there.  [It’s] not a hard trick if you can [manage] it.  But he was a good rider.  I can remember [that] Dad was a good clown.  I remember him in the show doing flip-flaps.  He’d have a bell in a hand.  He’d ring this bell doing flip-flaps right ‘round the ring.  That’s all I can remember about Dad.

JESSICA:                   You take after him in clowning.

WALTER:                  Oh, you know, I’m the worst clown.  Jess was the only one [who] ever laughed at me trying to be funny.

JESSICA:                   He was trying to be funny but ...

WALTER:                  I couldn’t, never ...

JESSICA:                   He was the worst clown you’ve ever seen.

WALTER:                  If I ever had to get in the ring with the clowns I was always the ringmaster ...  I could get by with tumbling.  I was a good tumbler.

MARK:                       Did you ever see Norman perform?

WALTER:                  With the posing dogs.  He was a good musician, [a] good cornet player.

MARK:                       Where did you see him as a cornet player.

WALTER:                  [In] Eroni’s.

MARK:                       Eroni’s?  This is in Tasmania?

WALTER:                  Yes, [in] Queensland.[6]  We were all together a long time.  Yes, we had a good time then.  I was telling Jess the other day.  That’s one thing with a show, they’ll teach you music straightaway.  Norm said “The worst thing [that] can [happen to you] is someone come past and suck a lemon while you’re playing”.  The first thing I [did] I got a lemon and [sat] waiting for him to play, right in front of him.  He grabbed the lemon.  “Here y’are Mick.  That’s the best thing to do if anyone comes up to you when you’re playing,” he said.  Just take take the lemon and dribble it into whatever you’re playing, cornet or trumpet.

 

 

 

 



 

[1]     A son of Walter & Amy St Leon, and a younger brother to Les, Mick’s father.

[2]     Allan and Clyde, were also younger brothers to Les, Mick’s father.

[3]     Harmston’s Circus was of English origin, but toured extensively throughout South East Asia in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.  Harmston’s Circus visited Australia twice, in 1890 and in 1897-8.

[4]     Ruby, a daughter of Walter and Amy St Leon, died at Bega, NSW on 27 May 1900 of meningitis and heart failure, apparently occasioned from fright.  She was buried in the Church of England Cemetery two days later.

[5]     Mick’s father was born Leslie Bertrand Jones at Brunswick Cottage, Fitzroy, Melbourne, on 27 April 1884, the third child of Walter and Amy Jones.  Leslie married Kate Ashton, a daughter of James and Elizabeth Ashton, at Dubbo, NSW on 29 December 1906.  Leslie died at the Lidcombe State Hospital in Sydney on 19 July 1930 and was buried two days later in the Church of England Cemetery at Rookwood.

[6]     Norman travelled with Eroni’s Circus during 1922.