ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY years ago, the people of Darlington were thrilling to the daring high wire trapeze skills and gasping with delight at dare-devil equestrian feats of the famous performers in the big top that had been pitched on a field off Duke Street.

Last week 150 years ago, they were amazed to see “novelties without a parallel” at Allen’s Excelsior Amphitheatre and Temple of Varieties. There was T Wainratta, “the king of the invisible and lofty vibrating wire” and his brother, W Wainratta, “the renowned one-armed juggler and equilibrist”.

The Northern Echo: The Excelsior circus, DarlingtonA contemporary drawing of the Allen's big top, off Duke Street, Darlington, 150 years ago. We think it is fairly accurate

And then next week 150 years ago, they were promised the appearance of Miss Ada Isaacs, “the great female jester” supported by Sillo and Elspa, “the infant aerolites who created such a furore at two of the principal halls in London”, who were two unfeasibly young acrobats who performed hilarious death defying stunts high in the roof.

And, despite it being February in Darlington, they were promised a warm welcome at the big top, which was pitched behind Skinnergate, between the boundary wall of the Quaker graveyard to the south and the new street of Duke Street to the north.

“NB,” said the adverts in the Echo’s sister paper, the Darlington & Stockton Times. “The circus is brilliantly lighted, warm and comfortable, being well aired with fires.”

Plus there was the ever-present equestrian brilliance of the Allen family.

The Northern Echo: The first Theatre Royal in Northgate, DarlingtonThe first Theatre Royal in Northgate

They had ridden into Darlington at Christmas 1873. The town’s first theatre, the Theatre Royal, had opened in Northgate in 1865 where the defunct Odean stands today. However, the primitive theatre had closed in 1868 and had been demolished so Darlington was unentertained until the Allens arrived.

Frederick Allen came from Gateshead, and was the business brains of the operation, and his wife, Mary Jane, was the daughter of the Morpeth postman who had grown up around horses.

Despite Mary Jane only being 32, the couple had four children who were already incredibly skilful riders, and between them that Christmas, the Allens had entertained the town with a pantomime, Harlequin Tom Tally Ho!


"The stunts of the accomplished rider Mr C Allen are executed with a skill and ease often lacking in older and more experienced artistes," said the D&S Times. "Among others maybe mentioned his daring leaps and backwards somersaults on horseback and jumps on a bareback steed over a glove and gentleman's hat."

Even though the Quaker hierarchy deplored such debauchery, the Allens had found an audience, and after their panto finished, they remained in town, engaging new acts from around the country to bring new thrills and spills to the big top to keep the people coming back for more each week.

The Northern Echo: The Excelsior in Darlington 150 years ago

Appearing with the Wainratta brothers – whose surname suggests they came from somewhere exotic like a South Sea island, but really their name was Wainwright and they came from London – was Mr Fred Grey, “the star London comic vocalist and mimic”.

“In addition to the above attractions, Mr F Allen will introduce his beautiful and highly-trained mare, Victoria!”

The following week, the D&S was bubbling with enthusiasm over the performers who had been brought in to replace the Wainrattas.

The Northern Echo:

"The feats of Sillo and Elspa, the skilful little gymnasts, form the most striking part of the programme; their marvellous flying leaps and evolutions on the high trapeze and great dexterity prove their claim to be entitled 'the Infant Aereolites',” it said. "Last night, they went through some remarkable performances including ceiling walking.

"The attractive lady jester, Miss Ada Isaacs, appears to be a favourite in Darlington and her jests, songs and dances are much appreciated. Mons Fabian is a successful and wonderful contortionist…”

The Northern Echo: The original Mazeppa, Adah Isaacs Menken, in flesh coloured clothing so she appeared to be naked - an act reprised in Darlington by Miss Ada Isaacs in 1874The original Mazeppa, Adah Isaacs Menken, in flesh coloured clothing so she appeared to be naked - an act reprised in Darlington by Miss Ada Isaacs in 1874

Miss Ada Isaacs seems to have been a tribute act to Adah Isaacs Menken, a world-renowned equestrian performer who had sensationalised and scandalised audiences with her role as Mazeppa, a fast-riding Ukrainian heroine who every night got herself strapped (nearly) naked to a horse that galloped fruitily around the big top. The real Adah Isaacs had died in Paris in 1868, and then Miss Ada Isaacs (real name Mary Ann Maskell from Brighton) had taken on the mantle.

In Darlington, she was accompanied by Monsieur Fabian, whose real name was James Fegan. He was Irish, not French, and, when they cavorted on horseback off Duke Street, they were bigamously married to one another – Miss Ada’s real husband, a tightrope walker called Herr Christoff, was performing elsewhere in the country.


But despite all these high octane showbiz carryings on, 150 years ago, profound sadness filled Allen’s Excelsior Amphitheatre and Temple of Varieties.

On February 19, 1874, Mary Jane Allen, 32, and mother of four young equestrian acrobats, died of bronchitis, having been ill for four days.

The Northern Echo: How The Northern Echo reported Mary Jane Allen's death on February 20, 1874How The Northern Echo reported Mary Jane Allen's death on February 20, 1874

"Much sympathy is expressed for Mr Allen who during his stay in Darlington has conducted his establishment most respectably," said the D&ST (the Echo noted Mary Jane's passing in just a couple of sentences).

The circus shut – for one day only.

The show must go on, and Miss Ada Isaacs and Sillo and Elspa were soon back in the big top off Duke Street to complete their week in Darlington before the trains whisked them off to amaze other provincial audiences.

Allen’s Excelsior Amphitheatre and Temple of Varieties seems to have stayed in Darlington only another month or so until the Easter audiences had come and gone, and then Frederick, the children and Victoria the mare moved on.

The Northern Echo: Mary Jane Allen's headstoneMary Jane Allen's monument in West Cemetery when it was new: note the monkey puzzle sapling behind it

But they left Mary Jane behind. She was buried in West Cemetery and they raised over her resting place, an extravagant yet tender equestrian monument, featuring a large stone figure of a horse with its head bowed.

The Northern Echo: THE GRAVE OF MARY JANE ALLEN AT WEST CEMETARY..COPY CHRIS LLOYD..The monument today, with the monkey puzzle sapling now a tree

Times has not been kind to the horse, and has taken its toll on its limbs so that it now, legless, it appears to be floating.

It is, however, still clearly a stallion – so it cannot have been modelled on Victoria, the handsome mare which, according to the D&S, “won continuous applause for its accomplished and obedient performances”.

Frederick remained restlessly in showbiz, touring continually with his circus, and at least a couple of the children spent their whole lives as equestrian performers.

The Northern Echo: Mary Jane Allen's monument, by Colin BainbridgeMary Jane's horse today. Picture: Colin Bainbridge, whose help has been invaluable with this article

But someone never forgot her. Until at least 1956, which was 72 years after her untimely demise, someone travelled to Darlington from wherever they were in the country to place flowers on the stone horse on February 19 each year, the anniversary of her death.