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

9 Responses

  1. Martin Adams

    I have been trying to track down a relative that worked for Bertram Mills Circus . I have family pictures of him at the circus but because he ran away to join and did not keep in touch we have little information . He was the partner of a trapeze artist we only know as Florrie who also had a twin who too was a trapeze artist who he eventually wed . Could you help ?

    • kevinbacon

      I am afraid we don’t hold any more information on the circus. This photo simply came to us as part of a collection of newspaper photos.

      I know that the V&A hold an archive of circus material. It may be worth contacting them in case they have any photographs.


    • Sandie Dennis

      Hi Martin, my nan is in the photo above and we as a family would love to join forces and share resources to find out more about the people who worked at Bertram Mills, I wonder if we can communicate? Do let me know, Regards, Sandie

  2. sue turner

    Good afternoon Kevin
    Please could you contact me as I have seen this image which my Grand mother is in.
    She was with Bertram Mills Circus and would like to know if you have any more images of her and others etc.
    Many thanks
    Sue Turner

    • kevinbacon

      Hello Sue,

      I’m afraid we don’t hold any more information on the circus. This photo was part of a local newspaper collection.

      The V&A Museum holds an archive of circus material, and although it’s more design led, they may hold some photos from Bertram Mills.



  3. Justin orban

    My grandad worked with the horses at bertramills he was caught by germans in secound world war after his family was killed in romaina and was let go by british he was a former pow .my grandad was named johan orban or hans orban later he married my nan she work as a ticket woman for the circus her name was moria …ive got photos of them at the circus and coco the clown with them.also i discoverd my grandad was also question about about the berlin wall coming down or somthing along them lines .

  4. Linda Vardy

    In 1976 I met and had dinner with Cary Grant and he told me about his time with Bertram Mills circus

  5. Daisy Whitehouse

    Hi there everyone, my great aunts lily and ivy lower worked as trapeze artists at Bertram Mills circus around the time of the photo (I’m not sure if it’s them in it…) they rode in on the elephants. Would be greatful if anyone had any info regarding them? Many thanks, Daisy

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