Marvels and Wonders

“Rare Aerial feats … Phenomenal Riding Acts “

The story of Forth’s Circus in the 1940’s



This is a series of paintings by Judith Lanigan based on research in The Wirths’ Collection at the Powerhouse Museum. Curated by Peter Cox, the Wirth’s Collection is an extensive and detailed cornucopia of the miscellania of the daily life of Australia’s greatest circus from the 1880’s to the mid 20th century.


The four Wirth brothers started their circus in the 1880’s, after a childhood playing brass in their father’s band. Self taught acrobats and excellent horsemen they trained (‘with love”) 6 wild white brumbies to perform as Liberty Horses (unharnessed in the ring).

In 1893 they embarked on world tour that took them through a revolution in South America, a war in South Africa, a major fire ina  tehatre in Montevideo in which they lost everything but their horses and survived plagues of yellow fever and small pox. In Africa during the Boer war the circus train was the last train to make it across the Modder River before the bridge was blown up.


 In the early 1900's Wirths built the ‘Hippodrome’ in Sydney, now known as the Capitol Theatre, and a permanent base where the Melbourne Arts Centre is now located, for their annual circus shows in Melbourne which usually co-incided with the Melbourne Cup. Renowned for their horsemanship Wirth’s presented a gold mounted whip to the winner of the Melbourne Cup each year at a Gala dinner and show.


Forth’s Circus is a fictional circus based heavily on Wirth’s, created by Lanigan for her novel ‘1942’, set at the start of WW2 on the circus train heading for the Melbourne Cup, and follows the fate of a company of sideshow artists stranded in Newcastle by the war, and the Japanese acrobats under investigation by Military Intelligence trying  find the Japanese cypher machine and spies.



The Forths Series Limited Edition prints  are on a water resistant polyethelene  ‘canvas’ which does not require being framed behind glass. It is ph neutral, which is the ‘archival standard’ (acids in papers cause yellowing and fading.) Standard banner canvas size is 120cm h x 80 cm w

All prints are limited edition from Lanigan’s original paintings. Prints are numbered sequentially no matter what size image is printed.


Prints are available in 2 sizes; ‘reproduction banner’ (83 cm wide x 118 cm length ) and ‘poster’  (60cm x 85cm)

The numbering reads

Print number / edition quantity/ image number of the original painting.




Philip Forth

The portrait of Philip Forth with Fish is based on a snapshot taken of My Philip Wirth in his 60’s with his pet yellow crested cockatoo on his shoulder.

The Wirth Brothers – Philip and George – were enthusiastic catchers of fish- a habit that started in the early days of Wirths when the brothers and their sister Marizles travelled by wagon throughout rural Australia and the circus diet was supplemented by what they caught.

By the time this portrait was taken there was no longer a financial need to go fishing to feed the artists. He is standing on the railway tracks because the circus was travelling by its own private train.

In Ted Hancocks obituary after Philip Wirth’s death Ted hancock wrote “…he was a fine upstanding man. In his early days he was a great acrobat, a fine musician and well able to use his fists. One of his greatest feats was his springboard somersault over a number of horses and men with 36 fixed bayonets… He insisted on greatest kindness being shown to the animals, who all seemed to know him, and woe to any man who maltreated them ”

In 1925 Philip’s brother George wrote “ I would like to make it clear that I am proud of the position I have attained as a circus proprietor together with my brother Philip, for I think there is no better calling under the sun than that of an honest showman. I reckon we have made more people happy than any other men on earth. To my mind there is nothing better worth remembering than the truism “The greatest thing on earth is making others happy” and this has been the motto of both my wife and myself through life.”

During World War 2 the circus personnel were not allowed to enlist as they were considered essential services for the general morale of the Australian people.




The Two Alices ‘The Laughing Elephants’

Wirth’s Circus were renowned not only for the excellent horsemanship, but also for their care and love for the animals they performed with. They started working with elephants in the late 1880’s.

In the Wirth family photographs, it is consistently noticeable that the elephants seem to be smiling and laughing. I did wonder if perhaps elephants always look like they are laughing but research in google images showed me that elephants have very expressive faces, and Wirth’s elephants were actually just consistently happy.

Wirths had two elephants named Alice.

Princess Alice is reported to have been born in 1789 in Northern India. She lived for a while in Regents Park Zoo where according to legend , Queen Victoria let her son the Prince of Wales regularly ride her. She came to Australia with an English circus which disbanded in Melbourne in 1906. She went through a few different hands until in 1908 she was acquired by the Wirth Brothers. She died in 1941 at ‘Olympia’ the Melbourne home of Wirths (now the Arts Centre).

According to curator Peter Cox Alice was even more legendary than Princess Alice. Alice was a ‘working’ elephant, helping load the train and put up the tent. She was ‘boss of the elephants’ and joined Wirths in 1904 from a circus in India.

Peter Cox writes “One night Alice and Molly slipped their chains and broke into a plaster factoru. By morning the factory was a shambles. Alice and Molly would have been suspected but they they were locked in their trucks. When they emerged for breakfast they were both white with plaster….”

In 1946 Alice saved Eileen Wirth from attack by a rogue elephant, though Eileeen was subsequently out of the show for six years recovering.

Philip Worth was standing outside the Esplanade Hotel in Perth  talking, when Alice passed, pulling  a string of small “trucks” (wagons), and Philip her. “She ambled over much to the consternation of the proprietress of the establishment, and would only leave after a couple of buckets of beer.”

“In 1953 the Wirths family thought the annual New Zealand tour might be too much for her so she was left behind to rest at the Melbourne Zoo. She fretted and became ill, refusing to eat and standing alone, but recovered when she was returned to the circus.’ (Peter Cox)



While Taronga Park zoo claims the first elephant born in captivity in Australia in 1970s – the first elephant born in Australia was in 1905 with Wirths. Wirths would not use the word captivity... as there elephants were domesticated and performing stars in their own right.





The Wirths brothers were excellent horsemen.

May Wirth , the adopted daughter of Marizles Wirth was the most famous female equestrienne in the world after her tours with Ringling Barnum and Bailey.

Their Liberty Horses were “wild brumbies trained with love to dance unharnessed in the ring’

Pre WW2 circus programs included ‘the horses prayer’ and an explanation of the training methods used to teach and communicate with performing animals in which George Wirth likened working with the Liberty Brumbies to being a teacher with a classroom of sometimes unruly students.


The Horse’s Prayer to his Master

from Wirths programme


To Thee, My Master, I offer my prayer-

Feed me, water and care for me, and when day is done, provide me with shelter.

Always be kind to me. Your voice often means as much to me as the reins. Pet me sometimes that I may serve you more gladly, and learn to love you. Watch me, and if I fail to do your bidding, see if something is not wrong wih my harness or feet.

Do not overload me, or fix my head in an unnatural position, or take away my best defense against flies and mosquitos by cutting off my tail.

I cannot tell you when I am thirsty, so give me cool clean water often. I cannot tell you in words when I am sick. So watch me, and by signs you may know my condition.

And finally, O My Master, when my useful strength is gone, do not turn me out to starve, or freeze…..




You can view further images from the exhibition here.




Visual Artist

painting Judith Lanigan
 The Two Alices ‘The Laughing Elephants’ Wirth’s Circus were renowned not only for the excellent horsemanship, but also for their care and love for the animals they performed with. They started working with elephants in the late 1880’s. In the Wirth family
handstand, Judith Lanigan, Forths Circus
Judith Lanigan Forth's Circus reproduction print of original painting by Judith Lanigan

Judith Lanigan's current paintings are available via an online gallery called Bluethumb  at

Above is panel 1 from the painting 'Clouds gather at Thirteenth Beach' which is oils painted on 5 stretched canvases full painting , info and video here

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