John Frederick Ginnett (1826 – 1892)

Zippo’s Circus arrives in Brighton on the 18 August but Victorian Brightonians would have been entertained by an equally famous circus troupe run by the Ginnett family.

The Ginnett family mausoleum
The Ginnett family mausoleum

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.

Ginnett's Hippodrome as the Grand Theatre
Ginnett’s Hippodrome as the Grand Theatre

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

4 Responses

  1. Circus Ginnett

    Hi this is Ginnett’s circus calling!!! I was very interested to read your article and would also like to point out that Ginnett’s also owned the Levels in Brighton and left it to the council in the late 1800’s on the condition that circus would always be permitted to visit. I am sure you know that Ginnett’s were big horse people in their day and even boasted over 300 horses at their peak, but now when I try to visit the Levels in Brighton aside from the ground rent being so high that it is impossible for me to pay I am also told the I am not allowed to visit with my one pony and dog! We are now a very small circus seating just 200 people. We are currently set up in Southampton where my Great great grandfather is buried “William Ginnett”
    It would be much appreciated if you could attach a link to our Ginnett web site alongside the Zippo one you already have. “”. We are currently at Southampton SO19 8NJ, until the 16th August then we go to Ringwood BH24 1EF from 19th to 23rd August. Our booking and info line is tel: 07582 353634.
    I would greatly appreciate as much as you could do by way of helping to promote us. Also if you would like any more Ginnett info please don’t hesitate to contact me or if you have any other info yourself or photos I would love any copy you might have. We have a history page on our website, you can also find us on facebook.


    Patrick Austin
    Circus Ginnett

    • Stewart Partridge

      Hi Patrick,
      I’m a geneologist doing some researching and record cleaning for “Wikitree” at the moment, and have started to work on the “Ginnett” records since Jean Pierre Ginet / Ginnett married Ann Partridge in 1926, who were the parents of John Frederick Ginnett.

      I’d be grateful if you can point me towards any good articles, obituaries, press releases and records relating to the Ginnett family, circus and their French family roots, which would speed up my research.

      I’d like to try to ensure the accuracy of the data.

  2. Wendy Johnson

    The circus horse was sculpted by Edwin Roscoe Mullins (1848 – 1907). He was a boarder with my ancestor, Robert Crane, at 40 Bessborough Gardens in London in the 1871 census.

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