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Running Away to join the Circus


My 2nd cousin 4 times removed William Donbavand came from a line of machine makers, but took up an unusual profession. He was born 1864 in Sheffield, where his father had moved for a while, presumably to learn something else about metal working. By 1871 the family were back in Manchester, where the trade in weighing machines was brisk.

William's mother had died when he was 8, and his father had remarried the following year. In 1881, William was 17 and had moved out of the family home. He had the mundane trade of Warehouseman. The next reference to him is in a most unexpected place. He got married, at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1885, to Rose Maud Transfield, who had been born in Notting Hill. The couple were travelling the country, Children were born in Southport, Birmingham and Preston.

And the reason for this becomes clear at the 1891 census. The family are lodging close to Wigan town centre. William's occupation is "Equestrian". Not your average groom or cab driver. A visitor on census night clinches things - John Frisco, a clown. The circus was in town!

Two more children were born in Morecambe and Dudley, but by 1898, the family were in Stockport, where they stayed. Albert was born there on 18th August of that year. William was still with the horses at the 1901 census, but it’s not clear whether the act was still touring. William died in 1906, aged 41.

In the Great War, Albert and his older brothers William and Horace joined up. Both Albert and Horace were awarded the Military Medal on 28th January 1918, but I don’t know yet what the citations said. I’m certain there would have been something in the newspapers. Unfortunately William, who had been a Theatrical Stage Manager in 1911, was killed on 29th July 1918.

Albert married Florence Johnson in 1922 and two girls were born in the Manchester area, The elder girl married in Salford and moved to Canada, where I believe she still lives. The younger girl married and moved to the Preston area

In the mid 1950s Albert and Florence had moved to Blackpool, where they ran a hotel on the prom. They gave the address when they visited the USA in 1958. Florence passed away in 1964, Albert in 1976.

I was recently contacted by a researcher about another of Albert’s claims to fame. He played one match for Stockport County – away to Cardiff City on 4th September 1920. Football does have obsessive supporters, but sometimes they provide surprising nuggets!

William's brother John, born 1865, also joined the circus, though his was not a happy life. In 1891, while his brother was in Wigan, John was in Chesterfield, where he was a Bill Inspector. A judicious internet search brought up, after many mentions of TV police drama "The Bill", an article about the trade of Bill Inspector. John was employed to go round and check that the work done by the Bill Posters had been done correctly. The major entertainment still employing this form of advertising is still the Circus. John was lodging at a pub, in the company of several grooms, a hint that a horse act was involved. The article about Bill Inspectors (click here to read it) is illustrated by advertisements from the trade paper of the day. The final one of these is for Transfield’s Circus in Stockton on Tees.

There are other references to the Transfield enterprise in Coventry, Glasgow and even Limerick. Transfield's Circus gave us some big names. In an interview in 1928, Charlie Chaplin said that his first appearance before a big crowd was at Transfield's Circus in Middlesborough when he was eight years old. That would be 1897. Maybe he and the Donbavands met each other, but it seems unlikely.

John became an acrobat, but by Christmas 1898 he was in Prestwich Asylum, where he died in 1916. I intend to find out whether either he his brother sustained injury in the circus ring.