Skip to main content

The Ohmy Sisters (c1910 - 1914)



  • Existence: c1910 - 1914


The Ohmy Sisters were an equestrian circus act formed by three of the Great Ohmy and wife Diana Morris' children; Lily (1891-1941), Ada (1881-1918) and Claude (1879-1942). In this dearing and extremelly physical act, Claude pretended to be a woman, which was not an uncommon practice at the time. The act came to an end during World War One when the three siblings were caught in Germany travelling their show at the outbreak of the war and interned in the infamous Rhuleben prisoner camp.

Ruhleben was a racecourse 10 kilometres to the west of Berlin, hastily converted into a civilian detention camp at the outbreak of the war. Although the camp held citizens from all of the allied powers, the vast majority of the detainees were male British citizens, to such an extent that the camp was dubbed ‘Little Britain’ and called ‘Ruhleben Gefangenen Lager für Engländer’ (Ruhleben prisoners camp for Englishmen) by the Germans.

A great number of prisoners were academic and artists working and studying in Germany. There were famous musicians, doctors and physicists such as James Chadwick, who later received the Nobel Prize for Physics, after discovering the neutron, which perversely led to the development of the Atom Bomb which ended WWII. Other prisoners were part of civilian ships and fishing vessels stranded in German harbours or captured at sea.

The camp held between 4,000 and 5,500 prisoners at one time in 11 ill fitted stables, which were used as barracks. The prisoners endured miserable living conditions in cramped, cold, rat and lice infested accommodation, housing as many as 200 men in each block at one time. Mattresses were made out of sacks filled with straw and some of the floors were covered in horse dung when the first prisoners arrived. Many of the detainees had to sleep in the hayloft due to the lack of beds, there was no heating and very little lighting. No cutlery or cups for drinking were provided, only tin bowls to hold food. Personal hygiene facilities were basic, consisting of military latrines, and stand-pipes and bowls for washing. Drainage across the camp was also poor, turning the ground into quagmire, which affected both hygiene and mobility. A very rudimentary and poorly supplied military hospital outside the camp took care of the sick.

The American Ambassador in Germany, James W. Gerard, visited the camp in 1915. America didn’t join the allied forces until 1917 thus he was welcomed as the representative of a neutral nation. The visit was organised by Joseph Powell, a detainee at the camp. Powell was the manager of a European film company called ‘Éclair’ before the war. Proficient in the German language and highly organised, he was elected as camp captain and liaison officer with the German officials by the other prisoners and managed to persuade Gerard to take an interest in the camp and its prisoners. Gerard, was horrified by the squalor he found at Ruhleben. The prisoners’ diet was for the most part based on meagre rations of cabbage soup, oat meal gruel and bread. Food poisoning wasn’t uncommon and profound boredom and depression was rife with some of the prisoners attempting suicide.

This visit was a turning point for the camp, as the American Embassy provided funds to improve buildings and facilities and negotiated the use of the race course for exercising and playing sports. Living conditions in the camp experienced a remarkable improvement from this point onwards. The German authorities, who vowed to adhered to the Geneva Convention, allowed the camp detainees to administer their own internal affairs.

Entertainment societies were formed including music and drama, which delivered operas, pantomime and playssuch as The Mikado and Cinderella, and productions of Shakespeare amongst other authors.

Shortly after, awareness of the appalling conditions at the camp, came to the attention of various committees and charities in England and food and medical supplies began to be sent by various organisations including the Red Cross, the Central Prisoners of War Committee and The Khaki Prisoners War Fund.

The American embassy also issues emergency passports to Allied country citizens, including Lily and Ada Ohmy family, who were fortunate enough to receiving emergency passports by special dispensation. This enabled them to return to England safely four months after their detention. In spite of their short stay in Ruhleben, Ada died in 1918 in Blackpool, age 37, reputedly due to the trauma this experience caused her. Claude, being identified as a male fit for military service however, was forced to remain interned until the end of the war.

Found in 18 Collections and/or Records:

Birth Certificates, Marriage Certificates and Obituaries, 1891 - 1964

Reference code: 178Q27
Scope and Contents

Personal legal documents related to Lily Ohmy, Herbert Sanger, John Everton Sanger and an order of memorial for Lawrence Wright (Horation Nicholls).

Dates: 1891 - 1964

Business Records, c1876 - 1949

Reference code: 178H13
Scope and Contents

Various business records belonging to John Sanger and his family and the Ohmy family including contracts and financial records.

Dates: c1876 - 1949

Correspondence, c1900 - 2008

Reference code: 178F20
Scope and Contents

Items of personal correspondence and correspondence related to the Sanger and Ohmy families.

Dates: c1900 - 2008

Correspondence Related to the Ohmy Circus Family, 1905 - 1929

Reference code: 178F20.12
Scope and Contents

Postcard correspondence related to the Ohmy Circus family, including a postcard from Lillie Reeve to Mr Claude Smith while he was a prisoner of war in Germany.

Dates: 1905 - 1929

Cyril Critchlow Collection

Reference code: NFA0089
Scope and Contents The Cyril Critchlow collection contains programmes, posters, handbills, books and magic journals, many of which relate to shows in Blackpool where Cyril resided and includes material on entertainment venues such as Blackpool’s North Pier, Central Pier, South Pier, Tower Circus and a small collection of programmes from other national venues. Additionally, it contains circus photographs and postcards mainly of the Ohmy Circus and Sanger Circus including individual circus troupes and performers...
Dates: c1837 - 2008

Emergency Passport, October 1914

Reference code: 178Z26.3
Scope and Contents

Emergency passport issued to Lily Smith (Ohmy) in Berlin, Germany during the First World War by the American Embassy to enable her liberation from Ruhleben prisoner camp and her return to England. Typescript.

Dates: October 1914

Legal Documents Related to The Great Ohmy, 20 August 1942

Reference code: 178Z26.15
Scope and Contents

Legal Documents Related to The Great Ohmy including solicitor’s account detailing the administration of the Will of the late Claude Smith (Ohmy). Typescript.

Dates: 20 August 1942

Letter from Douglas Bickerstaffe, 18 October 1938

Reference code: 178F20.17
Scope and Contents

Letter to Miss Ohmy from Douglas Bickerstaffe. Typescript.

Dates: 18 October 1938

Letter from the General Manager of Crystal Palace, 26 November 1930

Reference code: 178F20.14
Scope and Contents

Letter to Lily Sanger Ohmy from General Manager of Crystal Palace. Typescript.

Dates: 26 November 1930

Letter Headed Envelope, c1900 - 1949

Reference code: 178Z26.19
Scope and Contents

Lord John Sanger & Sons headed envelope addressed to Claude Ohmy. Typescript and manuscript.

Dates: c1900 - 1949

Lily Ohmy and Herbert Sanger's Marriage Certificate, 6 March 1916

Reference code: 178Q27.4
Scope and Contents

Certificate of the marriage of Lily Ohmy and herbert Sanger.

Dates: 6 March 1916

Lily Ohmy's Birth Certificate, 2 February 1891

Reference code: 178Q27.2
Scope and Contents

Lily Ohmy's birth certificate dated 13 March 1914.

Dates: 2 February 1891

Lily Ohmy's Business Card, c1910 - 1940

Reference code: 178H13.6
Scope and Contents

Business card with black type on off white card.

Dates: c1910 - 1940

Newspaper Cuttings and Scrapbooks, c1832 - 1999

Reference code: 178G25
Scope and Contents

Various newspaper cuttings and scrapbooks about variety and circus performers including the Ohmy and Sanger families.

Dates: c1832 - 1999

Ohmy's Funeral Paperwork, 28 February 1942

Reference code: 178Z26.6
Scope and Contents

Ohmy’s Funeral Paperwork. Administrative paperwork including a bill and receipt of payment from funeral directors for Claude Smith (Ohmy) funeral. Typescript and manuscript.

Dates: 28 February 1942

Photographs and Postcards, 1908 - 1975

Reference code: 178C110
Scope and Contents

Black and white photographs and postcards of the Ohmy, the Smart and the Sanger circuses and family members, including John Sanger in sailor’s uniform. Also a variety of circus performers including Mme. Morelli from the Bostock menagerie. Many of the postcards have been used for correspondence.

Dates: 1908 - 1975

Research Material, c1930 - 1999

Reference code: 178B20.2
Scope and Contents

Various items including colour photographs of the Ohmy family grave and copies of photographs with notes on reverse as well as photocopies of various documents and some notes.

Dates: c1930 - 1999

Various Items Related to the Ohmy and Sanger Families, c1880 - 1980

Reference code: 178Z26
Scope and Contents

Various items related to the Ohmy and Sanger families, including World War Two related material and other personal items.

Dates: c1880 - 1980