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The Ballad Of Mary Ann Bones.mp3

The Ballad of Mary Ann Bones

Inspired by a local newspaper article on the subject of the Circus coming to Cambridge way back in the 1950's.

Here's the link ~

And here's the text of the article below - the black and white photograph that was in the paper is not online but it was magnificent, it showed a trail of elephants walking through the city of Cambridge with crowds of people looking on and the odd old fashioned car, seemed the shopping centre had come to a stand still. And apart from that the song is pure fiction of course!

Goodbye to the circus?

'WHEN did you last see an elephant in Cambridge?

A new Animal Welfare Bill, due to have its final reading in Parliament this week, will probably outlaw such animals in travelling circuses and, for better or worse, another tradition will be lost.

John Carter of Cambridge has lent me a photograph he took in March 1952 which shows a grand procession of elephants from Chipperfield's circus as they made their way from the Cambridge railway station to Midsummer Common. There is just so much detail; there are the faces in the crowds, thronging Regent Street on that cold, damp day. Then what of the cars - who owned 'GER 302', one of those trapped in the traffic queue? And what was being conveyed in that back van, registration number VG 292? Then dominating the background is Herbert Robinson's garage. But the elephants are the stars. There seem to be 14 of them, walking trunk-to-tail and attracting all the attention.

Such shows captivated people for generations. Back in August 1898 the Newsreported how Cambridgeshire folk in their thousands watched a similar procession of the "greatest show on earth" when Barnum and Bailey brought their circus to town.

"Before dawn Barnum's truck people could be found waiting for the arrival of the monsters and wonders of the world. And then for hours there was a steady traffic of all manner of men and beasts and creeping things. Huge elephants, endless teams of horses, lions, bears, wolves and hyenas in their cages, the keeper, calmly sitting on his stool, cynically surveying the wonder-struck lines of the town's and country's curious. Everyone is going to see the show. For hours the box office has been a Klondike."

In April 1947 there was another name topping the billboards:

"Bertram Mills' tenting-circus is a circus-de-luxe. And as the animals are the backbone of the circus let us take a look at the Bertram Mills collection. First the horses - horses clever, horses dignified, horses graceful and all beautiful. Less graceful, but with their own beauty of their quiet grey colour were the six performing elephants, everyone a lady - but not lady-like enough to stifle the yawn with which they sat up after lying down to 'sleep' to the strains of dreamy music."

In 1950 they were back again the News' reporter described the spectacle: "Have you ever seen dogs play football? Or a lion walk a double tightrope? Or elephants that do the elephantine equivalent of a handstand. It is surprising how graceful even an elephant can be when well-trained, though I hope that when they come again and see me sitting in the half-crowns they will shift me by trunk to the 12-and-a-tanners." In April 2000 Mrs Pam Barlow of Impington shared her memories of the era when she wrote: "My husband was a police officer and always had complimentary tickets for his family. We always sat on the very first row. The elephants used to circle around, put one foot on the ring and raise the other front foot in the air. All of them had beautiful girl riders who used to be picked up by the elephant's trunk and placed on their backs."

But on one occasion an elephant decided to pack its trunk, and say goodbye to the circus. In November 1901 while Lord John Sanger's great show and menagerie were at Saffron Walden a keeper found that Miss Ada, one of the performing elephants had stolen away in the night. Several men were quickly in search of the missing 'lady'. They found her battering a barn at the rear of Castle Hill where she had done a considerable amount of mischief. She dragged the gate off by the hinges and battered the doors down. She then attacked the brickwork, forcing it inwards. A great portion of the roof collapsed.

But were elephants ever welcomed back there - and where did you see them?

In the early 1820s shows were performed in Cambridge on what was called Hog Hill, now disappearing under the building works for the new Grand Arcade.

Posters in the Cambridgeshire Collection advertise Mr Drake and his miracles of nature. As well as 10ft high elephants, there were onagra-like the zebra but larger, aurochos with two large horns growing from their forehead, polar sea-monsters, anaconda and panthers. But not everybody was happy to see them. Mary Ann Bones lived in a house nearby and was upset to hear the animals roaring all night. In April 1839 she signed a petition to the Vice Chancellor and Mayor trying to prohibit the 'wild beasts' from coming to the area. But it was not until the first Corn Exchange was built in 1842 that the animals moved to Midsummer Common.

Now it seems they have gone forever'

The Ballad of Mary Ann Bones

There were fifteen elephants tied by string,

Lions in cages growlin' at things

A one-eyed dancer with a glittery frown

To bring the circus into town

With polished people out in a line

This their festival divine

A once a year, an exotic dream

Once in a lifetime, never been seen


Well they came to rest on Parkers Piece

Come yea gentlefolk, a feast!

Apple bobbin, finger robbin'

Horses, dogs n' children noddin'

All except for one in robes

She the one that lived too close

Hollerin' with fire n' stones

Angry widow, Mary Ann Bones


Well never in her life before

Had she heard an elephant roar the door!

She closed the curtains, wore a hat

And locked away her gingery cat

Nothin' save the wind on wood

Would knock her from this neighbourhood

Nothin' 'ceptin' God himself

Would keep her from her glowin' health

Nights the roarin' came n' went

And nothin' but her time was spent

She mithered up, n' she mithered down

She bellowed at the work of clowns

She drew a face upon the floor

And stamped n' kicked it like a horse ~

No wonder when the big top raised

The ringmaster was all a' daze

His shoulders prickled, he was doomed

Damned and set upon by gloom

His tamers and trapezers fell

Down with somethin' ill as hell

Nobody could work it out

As skilled repairmen fell about

Why girls in fancy sequinned skirts

Were grey as mourners behind a hearse

'It's a curse' they cried 'A Curse! A Curse!'

This illness here is gettin' worse

The women all grew beards n' whiskers

Roustabouts were froze with blisters

Nothin' worked n' nothin' stayed

The big top stung like a barbers shave

Children cried n' candy soured

Lions slept away the hours

Dogs went lame n' horses neighed

The thunder broke this sad parade...


And Cambridge rattled to the sound

Of one last circus leavin' town

Until the end of captured creatures

Bony Mary Ann was speechless

In the window, candles lit

She spelled the demon of her fits

She willed it so, she wished it done

A hymn that bothered on her tongue

Not one livin' thing should die

Caged by wire, n' ropes n' ties

Let 'em loose she chanted high

And blazed her orders to the sky

Nothin' in this dusty town

Had seen the like of a big top down

They packed it up and they set 'em free

And fifteen elephants roared in key!

No make no bones this is the truth

She told me, for she had the proof

A tale of ivory kept so long

She died before she wrote this song

Oh, oh the circus is gone...


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