Bertram Mills circus performers, 1939

Zippos Circus has opened on Hove Lawns this week, and is part of a long tradition of circuses visiting Brighton and Hove during August. Back in August 1939, on the eve of World War Two, Brighton was treated to the arrival of Bertram Mills circus on the Level. A photograph taken by the Brighton and Hove Herald newspaper showed some of the female performers gathered outside of the big top. The photograph suggests innocent fun, even though it was a time of international tension. Yet the circus would go on to play a surprising role in the war effort.

Bertram Mills Circus performers, August 1939 (BH400158)
Bertram Mills Circus performers, August 1939 (BH400158)

Bertram Mills Circus was one of the most popular circuses in Britain for much of the 20th century. Although based in Olympia in London, the circus regularly toured the country. In addition to dancers and acrobats, the circus used performing animals. The Herald reporter was particularly impressed by the circus’s ‘uncannily intelligent’ football elephants.

Surprisingly, Bertram Mills Circus played an active role in World War Two. Bertram Mills, the founder, had died in 1938, and the circus was managed by his sons. One of these sons, Cyril Bertram Mills, was an agent for MI5, the British internal security service. Mills used his role as a circus owner to gather intelligence during the war, and ran several security operations.

The circus remained popular until the 1960s. In 1964, the circus closed and the company was sold to a hotel chain. In 1978 Cyril Bertram Mills came out of retirement to organise his final circus at the Brighton Centre.

Kevin Bacon
Digital Development Officer

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