John Ginnett was born in 1826 in Lea, Essex, son of a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Ginnett, founder of the circus. John made his circus debut in 1832, billed as the ‘Infant Ginnett’, and rode a ‘speeding horse’ in front of King William IV and Queen Charlotte during a performance at Brighton. According to the Brighton Herald, he was considered to be the ‘finest tight-rope dancer, ceiling walker and rider of his day’.
Ginnett arrived in Brighton in about 1876 with his wife Annie and four sons, one of whom, Louis J Ginnett, became a renowned artist and designer. John built his first permanent circus or hippodrome at Park Crescent Place. It became the Gaiety Theatre in 1890 and was eventually replaced by a block of flats in the 1930s.
His most impressive development was the building of the Hippodrome (later the Grand Theatre) at the top of North Road, near the corner of Queen’s Road. The building opened on 19 October 1891, and was built to commemorate the jubilee of the founding of Ginnett’s Circus in Nottingham in 1841.
An eye witness at the time described the interior. The ring was forty two feet across, and beyond this was an outer ring measuring sixty feet. In just fifty seconds,this outer ring could be submerged and formed into a lake leaving the central ring as an island in the centre.
The Brighton Herald gave a vivid account of some of the acts:
‘including amongst other things a “boneless wonder”, a troupe of lady acrobats, some remarkable somersault turning and living pyramids by the Bashi-Bazouk Arabs, and some intrepid feats of balancing on the high trapeze by Mdlle. Emmeline.’
The Hippodrome had been barely open three months when Ginnett died in January 1892. There was a large crowd at the funeral and amongst those paying their respects were the clown, James Doughty, whose dog act performed on the West Pier, and representatives from various Brighton theatres. As a tribute to John’s French ancestry, a wreath of red, white and blue flowers was laid with a bow of silk ribbons representing the French tricolour.
John Ginnett’s place of burial and that of other members of his family, (in the Extra-Mural Cemetery) is marked by a magnificent mausoleum. A statue of a circus pony, its head lowered in sorrow, dominates the structure.
By the time of the 1911 census many of the Ginnett family were listed as music hall artistes but the circus continued until the 1940s. Just over twenty years ago Ginnett’s Circus was re-established and continues to tour the United Kingdom.
Paul Jordan, Senior History Centre Officer