From the Archdiocesan archives: Oh what a circus!

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

How popular is your priest? Popular enough to have a circus in his honour? Well, that's what happened to a certain Father Byrne of St Helens in 1887, as a document in the Archdiocesan archives reveals.

The church of St Joseph in Peasley Cross, St Helens was barely two years old when Father Patrick Byrne arrived as rector in 1880. Born in Ireland, Father Byrne was still a relatively young man when he moved from Everton to the developing industrial district of Peasley Cross. Whatever impact he had on the local miners and glassworkers and their families must have been positive, because when he was transferred back to Liverpool in 1887, the community wanted to thank him for his service. Not for them a box of chocolates or bake sale. Rather they put on a variety show, intending as a 'mark of esteem and appreciation' that a 'clear half of the proceeds' would help Fr Byrne in his new parish of All Souls.

The surviving poster in the Archdiocesan archives shows that a troupe of variety acts was assembled by Wallace Revill to perform at the town's Grand Circus variety theatre. The list of performers represents a parade of variety, including the well-known Lupino family fresh from an engagement in Liverpool, and clog dancing from sisters Nelly and Rose Coleman. Frederick Kelmar's ventriloquism act would probably be readily recognised today, likewise Miss Maude who seems to have been some kind of spirit medium. Oscar Dubourg, 'The celebrated Man-Fish', presumably performed with a tank of water; meanwhile, Lisburn and O'Marr may well have been comedians in the 'Negro element' but were most likely blacked-up white men doing extracts from the minstrelsy shows popular at the time. As for Professor R Wezner, according to the poster his was a 'Goblinual séance act' that made 'pigs laugh'. He may have been a magician in the Tommy Cooper mould. In fact, the whole thing sounds a bit like 1970s Saturday-night TV!

Fr Byrne, incidentally, died aged 68 in 1918. It isn't known how far the proceeds of the Grand Circus helped in his ministry.