IN recent Memories we’ve been watching dancing bears at Stanley Zoo, near Consett, and we’ve visited the winter zoo in Newcastle’s Bigg Market, where there was a giraffe called Geordie and a pet puma that wandered around the pubs.

And we took a rather anxious drive through Lambton Lion Park, near Chester-le-Street, where, in the early 1970s, there really was a safari-load of lions, elephants, hippopotami and zebras on the loose.

It was an anxious drive because of stories like the one told by Harry Brown, of Bishop Auckland, who was driving through the lion enclosure in his 1968 Ford Cortina 1300 when the solenoid failed.

The instructions were that in case of breakdown, you had to sit and wait for assistance. Do not, whatever you do, get out of the car.

This was made doubly difficult for Harry’s family as monkeys were bouncing all over the car, and his young son was wailing for food – which was in the boot and only accessible from the outside.

After 20 or 30 nerve-wracking minutes, the wardens arrived and pushed the Cortina to safety. But today we leave the zoos and safari parks behind, and turn our attention to the travelling circus.

By chance, we’ve just stumbled upon this marvellous set of apparently unpublished pictures in the Echo archive of the day in the mid-1960s that Billy Smart’s circus came to Darlington.

Mr Smart, a Londoner, had started out with his travelling funfair in the late 1930s but in 1946, he bought a secondhand big top and began touring with his New World Circus. The animals proved so popular, that in 1952 he dropped the funfair.

As Memories 217 and 220 reported, there were several similar circuses touring the country on special circus trains before and after the Second World War – one of the last trains to use Durham’s Elvet station before it shut in January 1954 was a circus train which disgorged its colourful cargo of clowns, acrobats and animals so they could perform on the nearby Racecourse. Chipperfields and Bertram Mills had circuses on the tracks, but the biggest was Billy Smart’s – it was the biggest in the world in the 1960s, with 15 elephants and 40 horses among its 150 show animals which performed in a 6,000 seat big top.

We reckon Billy Smart’s first visit to Darlington was on April 24, 1954 – a full page advert for it was placed in the Echo’s sister paper, the Evening Despatch, which we reproduce on today’s Page in History to give you a flavour of it. To publicise the show, he performed his trademark elephant parade, in which a dozen or so elephants processed along the longest possible route from Bank Top station to the South Park showground. Somehow, this pachyderm parade wound its way up Bondgate and along Skinnergate before coming back down through the Market Place and out to the park.

The Northern Echo:

Our pictures come from what was probably Billy Smart’s second visit to the town, which would have been ten years later – perhaps you can help us with the precise date. The parade didn’t venture as far as Skinnergate as the elephants plodded their way up Tubwell Row and then turned down Church Row to reach the Market Place, as today’s front cover shows, which they exited via Feethams on their way to the park.

By 1970, the economics of touring with so many animals didn’t add up, and Billy Smart’s Big Top folded in 1971. Attitudes to animals also changed – in 1984, the town’s leftish wing Labour council banned animal circuses from its district. But seeing these huge, mighty animals lumbering through the town centre must have been extremely memorable.

If you recall witnessing any of these circus parades in any town in our area, we’d love to hear from you. Please email chris.