by Charlie Holland, former programme director, The Circus Space (National Centre for Circus Arts) and author, Strange Feats and Clever Turns

Circus goes way beyond the Big Top. I took up juggling after seeing vaudevillians The Flying Karamazov Brothers in the interval of a Grateful Dead concert in 1981. In the course of my short career as a juggler, I performed a lot on the alternative comedy circuit and in theme parks; many of the circus artists who influenced me had more of a background in variety than in the ring.

I became interested in Kennington’s “gentleman acrobats” the Craggs – a father and five sons who were the highest paid acrobats of their day – because there is such excitement and incident around their life, and they offered an opportunity to look at the wider world of performance and how it evolved.

The troupe, who lived for 40 years on Kennington Road where the China Walk Estate is now, performed in the finest Victorian and Edwardian age entertainment palaces. They started as gymnasts and toured Britain for three years with Sanger’s Circus, the largest of its time. Then they graduated to being successful trapeze artists and acrobats in London before going on to be a smash hit in Australia, New Zealand, the US and Europe. Their act included standing on each other shoulders’ in two columns, and the man at the top of the column in front somersaulting backwards onto the column behind.

In 1901, they were filmed by the Edison company in the early days of the Cinematograph. They were awarded the Diploma d’Honneur at the Folies Bergère – the only acrobats to be so honoured.

In a talk I gave at the Lambeth Heritage Festival in September, I imagined myself standing in the Cragg family’s Victorian gymnasium, where the head of the dynasty Edward taught acrobatics and trapeze after he retired from performing in his seventies. From my time working at the National Centre for Circus Arts, based in a former Victorian power station, it’s a place I feel very much at home in.

Writing in 1928, a contributor to industry paper The Stage described Edward: “Papa Cragg, the Patriarch of Kennington, the youngest old man in the world, eighty-three, four times married. Papa can still do a flip-flap, and looks like living for ever.”

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