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JOSEPH ROWE’s AMERICAN CIRCUS in MELBOURNE in the 1850's

This 1855 letter was addressed to a circus but unclaimed by the addressee and it was accompanied by a Post Office List which was advertised in the Melbourne Morning Herald of March 10, 1855. The letter had an orange-yellow 6d ‘woodblock’ stamp of Victoria postmarked with a barred oval ‘2 over V’ of Geelong and alongside there was a red butterfly cancel ‘14 over V’ . It was addressed to Mr. Jones, Rowes Circus, Melbourne and there is a red handstamp ‘ADVERTISEMENT/ AND/ UNCLAIMED, a rating of a manuscript ‘2' as well as a manuscript ‘Gone away’, with ‘M A’ initials. The figure ‘28' refers to the number used in the Post Office List as seen in the next figure, after Figure 1.

The red butterfly '14' is quite rare and was used only as a receipt of letters at the GPO Melbourne Dead Letter Branch.  It was not used for any post office, and is only seen in red.

Joseph Andrew Rowe was born in North Carolina in 1819 and joined a circus company in 1829 as a child performer. In 1837 he became independent, engaging in various circus activities, and touring the east coast of USA and South America. In 1849 he went to San Francisco and gave his first circus entertainment under his own name. In 1852, he went to Australia where he spent 2 years in and around Melbourne, returning a rich man in 1854 to live near Los Angeles for several years. In 1856 he assembled a new company, the Pioneer Circus, however a combination of hard times and stiff competition drove the company into bankruptcy in 1857. A business friend bought the company and resold it to Rowe at a fair price. In 1858, Rowe again toured Australia, this time unsuccessfully. After 1867, he worked at various jobs, dying in obscurity in San Francisco on November 5, 1887.

The American sites gave very limited information concerning the two Australian tours and the dates given are different at different sources. The remainder of the information derives from Australian websites. On June 4, 1854, Sir Charles Hotham, Victoria’s governor-designate was on board the steamer Queen of the South as she steamed into Port Phillip Bay. He was escorted to the pier at Sandridge (Port Melbourne) to his swearing-in by a grand procession of dignitaries, freemasons, school children and the fire brigade, and in the procession was Rowe’s American Circus, in performance. This performance was highlighted by the following self-serving letter from Mrs Eliza Rowe, Joseph’s wife and a performing member of the circus (she rode a trick pony, named ‘Adonis’), and the letter was addressed to Sir Charles (Figure 2).

Another Australian site dates the arrival of Mr and Mrs Rowe and seven other passengers identified as connected with the circus on their second tour, when they arrived in Sydney on the ‘Leveret’ on 27 April 1858 from the port of Auckland.

A poster of the Rowe and Company’s Pioneer Circus of California is shown in Figure 3:

and a drawing of Joseph A. Rowe with a performing horse is shown in Figure 4:

 I am indebted to Les Molnar who provided me with Figures 1 and 2.

 


 
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