50 years since final curtain came down on legendary showman Billy Smart’s life

Mr Billy Smart (circus king) and his wife
sept 1966

Mr Billy Smart (circus king) and his wife sept 1966 - Credit: Archant

Fifty years ago this week, circus legend Billy Smart collapsed and died in Ipswich. He was such a huge star that his death made headlines around the world.

Mr Billy Smart (circus king) and his wife
sept 1966

Mr Billy Smart (circus king) and his wife sept 1966 - Credit: Archant

With the help of our unique archive, Terry Hunt has been looking back to that big story in September 1966.

True to form, larger-than-life showman Billy Smart was performing until the very end.

Only minutes before his death, he was conducting the band of the Romford Drums and Trumpet Corps as part of the preparations for his circus show in Ipswich. After handing over the baton, Smart carried on dancing with some of the circus children, before retiring to his luxury caravan. Within minutes, the 72-year-old was dead.

Desperate efforts to save his life by three of his sons, and Ipswich nurse Jean Green and her husband John, were in vain. The legend known throughout the circus world as “The guv’nor’’ was gone.

EADT September 26 1966 – “Billy Smart dies after conducting circus band’’.

EADT September 26 1966 – “Billy Smart dies after conducting circus band’’.

The big top had been set up that morning on waste land off Ranelagh Road in Ipswich – where Glasswells store is now – for a two-week run in the town.

The shows scheduled for that Sunday evening, September 25, the day of Smart’s death, were cancelled as a mark of respect – our photographers took pictures of circus staff hastily writing signs to tell the public. There were also photos of an empty big top.

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But, in the finest showbiz tradition, the rest of the two-week run carried on as planned – just as “The guv’nor’’ would have wanted, presumably.

As news of his death spread, tributes flooded in from the entertainment world. Billy’s lifelong friend, Sir Billy Butlin, described him as the greatest showman of our time.

The regular visits of Billy Smart’s New World Circus were exciting events for the children of Ipswich. The arrival of the circus was promoted by a parade of elephants going through the streets to drum up awareness of the shows.

Of course, these were very different days in terms of the public’s attitude to animals. Billy Smart’s circus involved some 40 horses, 15 elephants and a variety of wild and exotic animals.

The performers – human and animal – weren’t only used during the shows. They were also expected to get “bums on seats.’’ Throughout September 1966, the East Anglian Daily Times and Evening Star reported on a string of stunts aimed at ensuring maximum publicity.

As well as the elephant parade, these included a visit by a clown to Anglesea Road Hospital, where he signed a little girl’s plaster cast, and an elephant visiting a petrol station as part of a promotion. Times change, and much of this would certainly be viewed as animal exploitation now. Back then, it was not given a second thought.

Former EADT and Star photographer Dave Kindred took the photos of the elephant parade. He recalls that the circus and all its performers arrived by train at Ipswich station – presumably in a special train – before making their way to the circus site in Ranelagh Road. Never one to miss a publicity trick, Billy Smart turned the short journey into a performance in its own right, complete with marching bands.

Billy Smart was one of 23 children born into a London fairground family in 1894. He married Dolly in 1925, and became a high-profile member of the fairground community in the London area. He opened his New World Circus in 1946, becoming arguably the UK’s most famous circus showman.