On 16th January 1934, the Cantabs that were out shopping or having their lunch in Victoria Square were delightfully surprised when the ‘Wirth Circus’ elephants took to the Avon River to cool down their legs and have a drink. This took place between Victoria (now the Hamish Hay Bridge) and Armagh Street bridges.
The marketing team at the Hay’s Department Store had seen a golden opportunity and approached the circus with a business deal. Could the circus elephants take part in the Hay’s Parade that would not only promote Hay’s in a completely unique way but also highlight the arrival of a circus in town? What resulted was a sight that would not be forgotten for many years! After the parade was finished, the elephants were taken to the Avon for a much deserved cooling off.
The Australian ‘Wirth Circus’ had arrived in Christchurch a few days earlier and set up their big top in an empty paddock on Moorhouse Ave. The Wirth family (originally from Germany) had been entertaining the Australian public since 1856; firstly as musicians and dance hall owners in the gold fields of Victoria and North Queensland. In 1873, the family went into business with William Barlow who owned a circus and when he retired, the Wirth’s took over. Their last circus performance was in 1963.
The first circus to visit Christchurch has been dated to around the mid 1850’s in a paddock that is now the site of the Isaac Royal Theatre on Gloucester Street. There is little to no information about this visit but the discovery of pony remains in the theatre’s rebuild during 2013 could serve as confirmation of this story. The bones have been dated back to the 1850’s but as ponies would have been used in the city for all kinds of reasons, no one can say for sure.
* Image courtesy of the Canterbury Public Library – http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/ – File Reference CCL Photo CD 15, IMG0092