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The Circus Comes to Town

Bonython Park / Tulya Wardli (Park 27)

Circuses have always had a colourful history in the City of Adelaide.

photo-icon Circus elephants arriving by ship, State Library of South Australia, PRG 280/1/37/346, circa 1923
photo-icon Wirth's Circus arriving in Adelaide with animals and equipment, State Library of South Australia, B 58892/76, circa 1952
photo-icon Wirth Circus elephants being transported by rail, State Library of South Australia, B 52557, circa 1920
photo-icon Wirth's Circus lions cage, State Library of South Australia, B 50173, circa 1930
photo-icon Wirth's Circus train at Adelaide Station, State Library of South Australia, B 58892/448, circa 1951
photo-icon Overhead view of a carriage transporting elephants from Wirth's Circus, State Library of South Australia, B 58892/447, circa 1951
photo-icon Circus elephants bathing in the Torrens River, City of Adelaide Archives, CC002908/1, date unknown
photo-icon Circus elephants bathing in the Torrens River, City of Adelaide Archives, CC002908/2, date unknown

While visiting circuses have camped at the area now know as Bonython Park / Tulya Wardli (Park 27) since 1953, traditionally, circuses had camped off city streets and other locations.

By the late 1870s, many of city’s vacant lots had been developed. As such, complaints began to arise from city residents who found themselves in close proximity to the nuisances created by circuses. In May 1880, a residents’ delegation was sent to Lord Mayor to address this, with particular problems highlighted including the stench of animal urine and manure, and the noise created by animals, such as roaring lions and trumpeting elephants.

Thus, it was agreed that the time had come for circuses to be banished to the Park Lands. However, the matter was not immediately resolved, and circuses continued to camp on vacant land in the city, in an area now part of the Central Market. After Wirth’s Circus camped south of the Adelaide Oval during the Christmas holidays of 1908 and early 1909, circuses were permanently banned from that vicinity when it was determined that they had an ‘injurious effect’ on the Park Lands.

After several decades of compromises and decision reversals on appropriate locations, eventually, this area was settled on. Bullen’s Circus, then described as Australia’s largest, was the first circus to camp on the site. As the circus made its way to the west Park Lands site, it caused what was described as the biggest traffic jam ever experienced to that date, while 10,000 people turned up to watch the raising of the big top. Less than a year later, Ashton’s Circus arrived at the site, in what was described as the “biggest civil road convoy ever seen in South Australia”, with 42 vehicles.

A provision for a permanent site to host visiting circuses was included in Town Clerk WCD Veale’s recommendations for this park as part of his 1958 report. After the 1960s, advancements in freight such as the jumbo jet and containerisation, allowed for much more large-scale productions, accompanied by hundreds of tons of equipment. This period saw the park host visits from the Moscow State Circus, Disney on Parade, International Ice Follies, Lloyd Webber productions and the Cirque de Soleil.

The Kaurna name for Bonython Park, “Tulya Wardli”, means “soldier house”. There are no “s” sounds in Aboriginal languages. When the Kaurna people tried to say the word “soldier” they substituted “s” with a “t”, made with the tongue between the teeth, for the “s”. Thus “soldier” became “tulya”. The Kaurna people are the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the Adelaide Plains.

City of Adelaide acknowledges the traditional Country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and pays respect to Elders past and present. We recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land. We acknowledge that they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today. We also extend that respect to other Aboriginal Language Groups and other First Nations.

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