It is a dream of children worldwide — running away to join the circus.
- 12-year-old Mary Ellen Atkins ran away to join the Perry Bros Circus in the late 1800s
- Perry Bros would go on to become the first circus to circumnavigate Australia
- A life-size fibreglass elephant named Jumbo has been erected in Blackall in tribute to the troupe
But for a 12-year-old girl in outback Queensland, that snap decision would end up altering the course of history and put her on the way to arguably becoming the brains behind Australia’s circus industry.
It was on the banks of the Barcoo River near Blackall that the Perry Bros Circus started in 1889.
After a decade of life as a publican, William Perry was eager to get back to his family’s roots as variety show entertainers.
He swapped the Northampton Hotel for a bullock team and decided to take the show on the road.
Not long after, 12-year-old Mary Ellen Atkins, who was working in a store in Blackall, went to a Perry Bros performance that would change her life.
“Within 24 hours she decided to run away and join the circus,” said Wendy Just, vice-president of the Blackall Historical Society.
“Six years later she had married the boss’s son. The rest is history.
First to circumnavigate Australia
Perry Bros would become the first circus to circumnavigate Australia and effectively kickstart the nation’s circus industry.
“There was a really interesting article in the paper going way back to 1932 where they said all Australian circuses originated from Blackall,” Ms Just said.
“Because from the Perry [Bros] Circus we got the Soul Circus, Alberto’s Circus, Eroni’s Circus and a lot of smaller circus groups, apparently.”
Andrew Martin, the Mayor of the Blackall-Tambo Regional Council, said it would not have happened if it was not for Atkins joining the troupe.
“[Perry Bros] basically didn’t get much wind under its sails until Mary Ellen Atkins ran away from Blackall — ran away to join the circus,” Cr Martin said.
“She married one of the Perrys and not only did she spawn a whole heap of children, she spawned a whole heap of circuses, and she was the brains.”
Jumbo a permanent reminder of circus roots
Now, more than 130 years later, Blackall has honoured its circus industry roots in the way all regional Australian towns are wont to do — by erecting a big statue.
Jumbo the life-size, fibreglass elephant was donated by Robert Perry, the grandson of Mary Ellen Atkins.
Mr Perry, who performed as a unicyclist in a version of the Perry Bros Circus which toured until 1993, said he was determined his family’s legacy be celebrated in the town where it all began.
“I said, ‘You know? I’ll get an elephant,’ which I did,” Mr Perry said.
“I bought it in Geelong and had it transported here.
“I think it’s going to be a great attraction for the town.
Ms Just said she was hesitant when she first heard the idea, but after conducting some research had no doubt Blackall needed a way to celebrate its connection to the big top.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Australia that’s remembering the history of Australian circus as we are,” she said.
“This is truly something a little bit different, a bit out of left field.”
Hopes for a circus renaissance in outback
Ms Just remembers being “dazzled” by the Perry Bros Circus when it came to Blackall when she was around 10 years old.
“When I looked at the photos that Mr Perry has in his book, I recognised the same people as I can remember seeing back [then].
“The fellow I recognised, I do believe now, when I look at the photos was actually Robert’s father who was on the high wire.”
She and the council hope the elephant will kickstart a second wave of circus performers coming to and from the outback.
“We intend to build on this history, this rich history that we’ve got here,” Cr Martin said.
“We’ll do circus workshops and we might get Hugh Jackman out here in a year or two and he can come to where it all started, then he can go back to LA for [The Greatest Showman].”