From Kelshall to The Sole Bros Circus
by Linda Butler
with a Footnote from Margery Smith
and Message from Paul McGregor
This article was originally published in the December 1992 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society,
and reprinted with updates and the Footnote in the July 2000 edition. Photographs can be found in our Gallery.
On 27 June 1856 two brothers from Kelshall arrived in Sydney on board the "Sultana". They were Daniel and Edward Sole. The records on assisted immigrants listed Daniel (age 24) and Edward (age 18) as farm labourers from Kelshall, with no relatives in Australia, of good health, Church of England, and with no complaints about their treatment on the ship. It was stated that Daniel could neither read nor write, but that Edward could read.
Daniel and Edward were two of the sons of Goodman Sole and Ann Wilmot of Kelshall, the town where they were christened - Daniel on 4 November 1832 and Edward on 29 October 1837. There was some talk of their younger brother, Thomas (christened on 27 December 1840), also having come to Australia. It is difficult to ascertain this from shipping records as, being only 15, he might well have been lumped into the left-overs category of "minors". I think in all probability though that he remained in England as there was a Thomas Sole who married a Julia Ann Jones in Kelshall in 1861.
Daniel was 32 when he married Mary Ann Fensom at Araluen on 25 September 1865. They were married by Rev. Adam Likely according to the rites of the Church of England. Daniel was described on the marriage certificate as a gold miner. He died at "Waterview", Gyra, on 12 March 1908 and details of his life and descendants can be found in "A Fensom Family History" by Kay Boyce.
Edward was married to Margaret Breen on 8 October 1860 in St Andrew's Church, Braidwood by Charles H. Rich. Margaret was only 17, and the consent of her mother was given on the certificate. There were 8 children from the marriage of Edward and Margaret, all surviving to adulthood:
James b.29 March 1862
Edward Goodman b.21 August 1865
William Alfred b.1869
Amy Elizabeth b.1872
Walter Henry b.1874
Josephine Gertrude b.1877
Maude Ethel b.1883 (or 4)
Edward was described as a "gold miner" on his marriage certificate (1860) and the birth certificates of his 2 oldest children (1862 and 1865). In 1866 he tried his hand at being a publican - he was the licensee of "Happy Vale Inn" in the Braidwood district. However this does not appear to have been a successful venture for in the following year the licence had passed on to someone else.
It is unclear when the family moved to Queensland, but by 1892 their names start appearing in the Queensland B,D & M Registers. It was the move to Queensland to the gold mining district of Eidsvold/Monto/Mount Perry that led directly to their involvement in circus life.
On 1 May 1891, Margaret and Edward's third son, William, married Eliza Jane Perry in Thargomindah. Eliza was the daughter of William Perry who, legend has it, swapped his pub for a small circus in the 1870's. The Sole family band, consisting of the four Sole brothers joined the circus in 1892 from Eidsvold. By 1893 this branch of the Perry family had adopted the pseudonym of 'Eroni' to avoid confusion with Perry's Jubilee Circus, run by William's brother Charlie.
Bill and Eliza Sole had 6 children:
Mary m Bert Lindsay (1 daughter - Jean Marie)
William - died of pneumonia at 41
Maggie - married, but no children
Jack -died when his son (only child) was 1 or 2.
Andy - married with 1 son
Ethel - m Stan Walker, children Bill, Stan Jr & Patsy
The Sole family remained with Eroni's Circus until 1914 when they went to work for the St Leon Circus. They were engaged on a salary not as partners - the entire family worked in the show for 12 pounds a week. Late in 1915 Mrs Sole took her family away from the St Leon Circus to start an exhibition of animals on the show circuit, then in 1916 became partners in Ashton's Circus. On some occasions when the inter-related circuses - Eroni's, Perry's and Sole's - reached the same town at the same time they would unite for performances.
It is perhaps not surprising that Mary Sole was the one who eventually took over the circus from her parents. Before she was of school age Mary could ride bare back, walk on the tight-wire and swing on the trapeze. By the time she was in her teens there was not an act she could not dress or support. Adopting the stage name of La Belle Maree, she took her trapeze act to South Africa and then travelled on to England to top the bill at the Holburn Empire, London's number one variety theatre. She did not return to Australia until prompted by the events of 1923. Mary's granddaughter Susan Maree Harrison has carried on the tradition and is regarded as one of the best artistes on the descent rope in the world.
1923 was not a good year for the Soles, with the exception of Bill Sole's purchase of the stock and gear of Eroni's Circus from Eliza's brother Charles. In February of that year Margaret Sole died in Gayndah. In June, in the New South Wales town of Blayney, Bill Sole and Charles Perry were both killed when the petrol-run lighting plant they were checking exploded. At the time Mary Sole was appearing in England, but returned home to help her brothers and sisters and her mother Eliza run the circus. To round off an unhappy 1923, Edward Sole died in Gayndah on 8 November.
In 1927 the circus left Australia and toured South Africa. They played there for 3 seasons and also took time off to prospect for diamonds. On one location when the circus ring was being dug, the tell-tale blue clay was uncovered - an indication that diamonds were in the ground beneath. The Sole's staked out a claim, eighteen foot by eighteen foot, and stopped for 6 months to dig for diamonds - a highly profitable venture. Andy Sole took part in a foot race of several miles organised by the South African authorities to peg out Diamond claims. It was during the tour of South Africa that Jean Lindsay (Mary's daughter) lost her leg. The then five-year-old was playing beneath a railway carriage (the circus was moving about the country by train) when the engine commenced a shunting manoeuvre. Her leg was badly injured, but might have been saved if they had not been in such a remote location - a long way from medical assistance. With many of the traditional circus acts not available to Jean, she developed a world-renowned whip act.
During the winter the circus travelled north to Rhodesia and once to the Belgian Congo where they performed for the visiting King and Queen of Belgium. On returning from Africa the Soles started up a travelling Carnival, but it was too large for its time, proved unsuccessul, and the money they had made from their diamond mining was soon gone. They returned to the traditional circus format and eventually found their feet again.
The circus has continued operation to the present day, without vast changes to its format.
1) Four lions in a cage belonging to Sole Brothers Circus made a break for freedom at Fitzroy Crossing in the far north-west of Western Australia in 1969. The jolting and jarring over many kilometres of dusty outback roads caused the welding on the lion's cage to snap. Unknown to anyone, a lion jumped out as the vehicular column rolled on. The transports halted on a long causeway which crosses the Fitzroy River near town. With a cry from a roustabout, "the lions are out", employees raced to the cage. A lion and 2 lionesses had gone off down the river bank. Twenty circus hands, led by 2 armed policemen spread out over the area in an effort to drive the animals back towards the convoy. After 3 of the animals had been driven back to their cage, trainer Joe Perry saw the fourth animal standing in a clearing. Perry decided to approach the lion on his own. The beast took an unfriendly swipe at Perry, knocked him to the ground and jumped on top of him. Fortunately, the lion made no effort to savage the trainer. Perry was able to coax the remaining escapee back to the trailer containing the animal's three companions. That night after the word had spread about a big crowd attended the circus to see the lions perform.
2) What started out as a publicity stunt for the circus in Perth in 1973 almost turned to tragedy when a tiger badly mauled a fourteen year old boy at a trotting ground. The tiger, weighing about 136 kg, had been placed in racing hobbles and was about to be harnessed to a trotting gig when the animal attacked the boy. The animal's curiosity was aroused by the boy unrolling a bundle of tape. Probably thinking it was a morsel of meat the tiger made a grab for it with a paw. The boy became frightened and tried to run. He was knocked to the ground. For the next few minutes the circus workers wrestled with the enraged tiger before returning it to the cage. The boy escaped the mauling with a broken arm and lacerations.
3) Stan Walker's brother Bill was killed by an elephant when he was 32. He was working as a journalist for the Newcastle Sun and had gone down to South Australia to stay with the circus for 2 weeks holiday - he had worked for the circus on a number of occasions. He'd taken his camera with him and was planning to write a children's story about circus life. He went to see the elephant early one morning and it's thought it became excited at seeing him again. It picked Bill up in its trunk and must have knocked his cheek hard (giving him a "welcoming hug"). A piece of fragmented bone pierced his brain. The elephant laid him gently on the ground and that was how Jean found him. There wasn't a mark on him apart from a slight bruise on his cheek.
Memories of Stan Walker of his experiences, and at stories told to him by his father.
"The Circus in Australia" by Mark St Leon, 1983, Greenhouse Publications
"The Silver Road - the Life of Mervyn King, Circus Man" as told to Mark St Leon, Butterfly Books
"The Circus Comes to Town - Nostalgia of Australian Big Tops" by Geoff Graves, 1980, AH & AW Reed.
Footnote from Margery Smith, May 2000
There is reams of information in the Australian National Library Canberra - four limited edition works were collated by historian Mark St. Leon - regarding the history of circus in Australia. Included are numerous interviews with Sole family and information about the circus. I hope one day to write a history of the circus, but it will require a few years' research before it comes together.
I find that research in South Africa is very difficult, but the story of the Soles in South Africa is recorded in the abovementioned books in the Australian National Library. They played before the King and Queen of Belgium, discovered diamonds and worked one of the last private diamond claims before the big companies took over mining in South Africa. I have a couple of very old photos of the Sole boys in the diamond mine. Andy and Jack, who owned the circus together with their sister Mary in 1947 when I travelled with them in New Zealand, always wore huge flashy diamond tiepins.
Jean, Mary's daughter, lost a leg in South Africa. She was a toddler at the time, playing under one of the rail carriages which transported the circus from place to place. The carriages were shunted over her leg. As far as I know, she is still alive and lives in Victoria.
Edward Sole, my great grandfather, came from Kelshall as an uneducated 18 year old. Like many Australians, he developed "gold fever" made a fortune in the early gold fields and took his young family back home. Two years later he returned to Australia, bought a hotel at Araluen in NSW where he was twice held up by Ned Kelly (Australia's famous bushranger). Gold was discovered in Cooma, NSW so he sold the pub and set up a claim, including a large battery for crushing the gold. The seam ran out and he lost everything. Undeterred, he took his wife and family all the way (goodness knows how! I guess it was horse or bullock and wagon) to Central Queensland, still following the gold strikes. He eventually settled in a small country town Gayndah in the Burnett district of Queensland and he and his wife are buried in the Gayndah cemetery.
My grandfather, Walter, was one of the Sole Bros band which joined Perry Bros. circus at the turn of the century. William Alfred b 1869 married Elizabeth (Liza) Perry and that is how Sole Bros circus came about. They used to join up with other circuses until there was a fight, then they would disband and go their own way. All the small circuses in Australia in the 19th century were very close knit friends or relatives.
They have a wonderful history. I just hope that one day it will all be published in a book that can be read by everyone.
Message from Paul McGregor, December 2007
I am the Great Grandson of William Sole who started Sole Brother's Circus and the Great Great Grandson of Edward Sole who came to Australia.
On your website there is some information that is fantasy not fact. "On one location when the circus ring was being dug, the tell-tale blue clay was uncovered - an indication that diamonds were in the ground beneath. The Sole's staked out a claim, eighteen foot by eighteen foot, and stopped for 6 months to dig for diamonds - a highly profitable venture." I don't know where you got this information from, but my grandmother Ethel sole (Maude Ethel, named after her aunt), was there at the time and told me, amongst others, that it was the last run for Diamonds, where you had to race on foot to stake a claim. They all picked Andy Sole, her brother because he was the fastest runner. He managed to claim a spot in this way. If you have doubts you can verify this with my mother or Andy's son Greig Sole.
Note from the Sole Society Webmaster: We welcome all information regarding this very interesting family. It is not unusual to have slightly differing accounts of historical events which have been handed down through family members and we are happy to publish these. If we are able to clarify the events mentioned above, a further note will be added to this page in due course
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