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History of the Royal Hanneford Circus

The Royal Hanneford Circus
This rare photograph shows the Hanneford Circus in Strabane, Ireland
in the late 1800's. It was a popular attraction among
the rural communities, as well as the major cities of the British Isles.

Appearing at the 27th Annual
Sahib Shrine Circus

Robarts Arena - April 18 & 19, 2008


Tommy Hanneford and Sahib Circus Chairman, Harv Lambert

Struppi Hanneford is the owner and producer of the Royal Hanneford Circus -- the second largest circus in America. With its three complete performing units, it tours the country each year for some forty weeks -- appearing both in arenas and in its own big tops. In adjacent photo, Tommy Hanneford is on the right, with Sahib Shrine Circus Chairman Emeritus Harv Lambert. Tommy Hanneford, of the Royal Hanneford family, passed to the big lot in the sky on December 5, 2005.

Prior to forming their own show, Tommy and Struppi were both circus super stars. Struppi was a multi-talented award winning performer -- first as an accomplished aerialist, and then as a high wire artist and tiger trainer. Although she now only makes only occasional appearances in a performance, her style and showmanship instantly communicate one of the reasons for her performing success.

Tommy was known as "The Funniest Man on Horseback" and his sister, mother and father presented what was considered the greatest and most entertaining bareback act in circus history.

Born in 1778
The earliest origins of Hanneford involvement in the circus can be traced to Edwin Hanneford, a foot juggler who performed on London street corners and at fairs. Among the honors bestowed on Edwin was a summons to perform before King George III in 1778, in a contest to determine who was the best juggler in England. Having become preoccupied with other matters during the competition between Edwin and Walter Scott, the King never delivered a verdict.

A Family Affair
The Hanneford family first toured as a troupe in 1807. All successive generations of Hannefords performed in some capacity, and by 1903, the family had its own show, the Hanneford Royal Canadian Circus, and was touring the British Isles by horse drawn wagon and performing under canvas. During the winters of these early seasons, they would appear with other featured acts with indoor shows on the European continent.

A Ringling Brothers Purchase
While performing in Spain in 1915, the Hannefords were seen by John Ringling. Mr. Ringling wished to get the Hannefords signed to the Ringling Brothers-owned Barnum and Bailey Circus. To do so, he had to buy the entire Hanneford Circus. The show at the time included family members George, Sr. and Edwin "Poodles" Hanneford. In the years that followed, Poodles, George, Grace and Elizabeth (or "Lizzie") performed together at various shows in a multitude of places.

A Hanneford Circus Again
Tommy Hanneford is recorded as a circus performer as early as April of 1933 with the Downie Brothers Circus. At the time, he was a clown and only 5 years old. Not since his father, George, Sr., had a Hanneford owned and operated his own circus. So it was at Pleasure Island Park in Wakefield, Massachusetts in 1965 when Tommy, his sister Kay with her dog act, his wife Struppi on the high wire, and other acts performed the first Hanneford Circus, a title incorporated in Macon, Georgia.

After that, Tommy began to solicit fairs for the new show and performed the Circus' first major fair in Saginaw, Michigan in September of 1966. His brother George, Jr. even contributed his bareback riding act to the performances. This is considered to be the first performance of the Royal Hanneford Circus.

Later, Tommy met Bill English while taping a Gary Moore television special at the Circus Hall of Fame. The special, which aired on December 12, 1966 included acts from both of the managing parties. Later, in 1968, Bill English was with the Sells and Gray Circus and left that show to team up with Tommy Hanneford. The two operated the Circus and in 1969, were joined by Art Concello, the famed trapeze artist-turned General Manager of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Shows. Bill English acted as president, Tommy was vice president, and Concello was treasurer.

The show operated under the company name Circus Classics, Inc. and operated until the close of 1974, when the three men separated. At the beginning of 1975, Tommy Hanneford reorganized the Royal Hanneford Circus and took it on tour. By the following year, the show performed the Moslem Shrine Circus, and developed a name among Shrine Temples as a first-rate show.

So, by individual accomplishments, by presenting an act that was the essence of circus, by their equestrian heritage and by several royal appearances, the Hannefords are truly circus royalty.


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