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The Great Ohmy, c1852 - 1931



  • Existence: c1852 - 1931


Joseph Smith, also known as King Ohmy, because of his daring feasts of acrobatic performance, was the founder of the Ohmy Family Circus. The name Ohmy, came from the terrified ‘Oh my!’ gasps of the public while witnessing Joseph’s performance. His signature act, which catapulted him to fame, consisted of a pretend head down fall to within a few inches of the ground from a tight rope and trapeze contraption suspended 60 feet up in the air, without a safety net.

Ohmy was born at Islington circa 1852 into a circus family, his father was the proprietor of the Sans Pareil Circus and his mother an actress. He claims to have started performing age two, as the youngest performer in the wold, under the watchful eyes of several of the most prominent circus showmen of the time including Lord George and John Sanger and William Wallett, the Queen's jester.

Ohmy was an equestrian as well as a talented gymnast and acrobat and worked with the most prominent British circuses of all times including; Sanger, Hengler, Ginnett, Cook, Batty and Fanque. He was billed ‘The Sensational Flying Gymnast’ and ‘The Human Rocket’ amongst others.

In 1867, still a teenager, Ohmy found himself a circus proprietor upon the death of his father. In these early years, lacking the confidence and experience to run the business by himself, Ohmy took a partner, which was dissolved soon after. It wasn’t until 1880 that Ohmy started to experience success as a circus proprietor, when he opened his first show at Southport. During this time, he also bought a circus in Accrington and erected around 80 circus buildings in cities across England including; Rochdale, Oldham, Preston, Blackpool and Leeds.

Ohmy married Diana Morris (c.1853-1920) in 1875. Diana was a successful equestrienne on her own right. Together they had five children; Lily (1891-1941), Minnie (b.1881), Lizzie (1876-1938), Ada (1881-1918), and Claude (1879-1942).

The Ohmy children followed their parents’ footsteps into circus with Ada, Lily and Claude forming the ‘Ohmy Sisters’, an equestrian act in which Claude performed as a woman. At the beginning of the 20th century, the family were travelling around the British Isles as well as Europe. On 14th July 1914, just days before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the Ohmy Sisters were working in Wismar, Germany. Following from these events, Great Britain declare war on Germany on 4th August and the family were caught behind enemy lines, unable to return to Britain. Overnight the Ohmys became unwelcomed enemy aliens and together with thousands of other allied countries’ citizens, were detained and interned in the infamous Ruhleben prison 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, while his father Joseph served with the Royal Army Service Corps as an Officer.

Other performers imprisoned at Ruhleben included Thora, the Yorkshire acrobat and equestrian turned animal trainer, who was captured in Frankfurt, only to be released 13 months later when deemed too old for war service. Alf Jackson, of the Grecian Maids troupe, The Brothers Stafford, Bert Bernard, Kind and Cray, George Scott, the comic juggler, the Brothers Morris, and Alf Pearson, the horse rider.

Found in 18 Collections and/or Records:

A Central Circus Site Monograph, c1930 - 1999

Reference code: 178B20.1
Scope and Contents

Ohmy by Cyril Critchlow. A Central Circus Site, Chapter 11. Unpublished monograph with research notes. Typescript & Manuscript, 4p.p.

Dates: c1930 - 1999

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

Circus Friends Association Collection

Reference code: NFA0122
Scope and Contents

This collection consists of a large library of books and journals, as well as archival material including posters, programmes, photographs, films, handbills, research material, scrapbooks, original artwork and many other items of ephemera relating to British, Irish and European circuses

Dates: 1795 - 2020

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

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 Thos. V. Woodhouse, 9 October 1905

Reference code: 178F20.19
Scope and Contents

Letter to Ohmy from Thos. V. Woodhouse, Architect, 2p.p.

Dates: 9 October 1905

Monographs and Research Material, c1860 - 1999

Reference code: 178B20
Scope and Contents

Monographs and research material on the Ohmy family.

Dates: c1860 - 1999

Newspaper and Magazine Cuttings on Circus, 1897 - 2005

Reference code: 178G21.95
Scope and Contents Newspaper cuttings and journals containing circus related articles on a range to topics including; animal rights, the death of Gordon Howes lion tamer, the Great Wallenda, George Sanger and Poppy Ginnett's wedding, other articles on Lord George Sanger and the Sanger Circus, The Smart Circus, Carlos Rosaire and Tina Paolo's wedding, King Ohmy's death, the death of Carmer Rosaire, the Paolo family, Circus Krone, Orfei Circus, Koringa, Circus Sarrasani, World War 2, Barbette, Omi, the Fossett...
Dates: 1897 - 2005

Newspaper Cuttings and Scapbooks, 1838 - 2007

Reference code: 178G21
Scope and Contents

A collection of newspaper cuttings on circus, circus proprietors and performers and scrapbooks containing newspaper cuttings, posters, programmes and other items of ephemera, covering mainly British circuses and venues such as Belle Vue and also some international circuses.

Dates: 1838 - 2007

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 Grand Circus Programmes, c1800 - 1899

Reference code: 178K43.659
Scope and Contents

Black type on colour paper with decorative border on most and colour illustration of a woman in a long white dress and green cape and black and white portrait photographs of Ohmy on two programmes, most of them for performances at Bolton, most of them 1 page, some three fold, one 2 pages.

Dates: c1800 - 1899

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

Programmes, c1800 - 2019

Reference code: 178K43
Scope and Contents

A collection of mainly British and international circus programmes and some variety and music hall programmes containing circus acts.

Dates: c1800 - 2019

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

Various Items Related to the Ohmy Family, c1880 - 1890

Reference code: 178Z26.1
Scope and Contents

Various items related to the Ohmy family, including a photograph of presentation of Address to Ohmy certificate.

Dates: c1880 - 1890