William ‘Billy’ Smart was born in 1894, one of 23 children born into a fairground family from London. He worked with his family at the fairgrounds of London and the South East from an early age up until his marriage to Dolly in 1925, after which he branched out with his brothers to set up his own fair.
In 1946, Smart came across Cody’s Circus and bought the big top. By the time he opened his New World Circus in 1946, he was 52.
‘Billy Smart’s New World Circus’ made its debut at Southall Park in Middlesex on 5 April 1946. Three years later, the two-pole big top was replaced by a giant 6,000 seat, four-pole round big top with a hippodrome track around the ring, and a vast entrance tent, enabling the staging of spectacular parades, which became a Billy Smart’s Circus trademark.
His greatest innovation was his relationship with the newly established television networks when he agreed for ‘Billy Smart’s Circus’ to be broadcast live by the BBC in 1947.
Over the years, a Billy Smart’s Christmas Spectacular became a BBC holiday tradition, which ITV took over in 1979 and carried on until 1982. So while other circus proprietors were threatened by the rise in popularity of television and shunned the cameras, Billy Smart embraced them.
Billy Smart’s Circus grew to be one of the largest in the world, touring every part of the British Isles, and with permanent quarters and an associated zoo at Winkfield, Berkshire, not far from where Smart began his fairground career.
His success took the circus through twenty-six tenting tours, winter seasons, frequent TV appearances and the provision of animal acts to other circuses.
Smart died in his caravan on 25 September 1966, shortly after conducting the Romford Boys’ Band in front of his mammoth circus tent at Ipswich, which had been set up that morning for a two-week stand.
His son, Billy Smart Jr. (born Stanley Smart) took over management of the circus with his brothers Ronald and David, although they ceased touring in 1971. Televised performances continued until 1983, drawing audiences of up to 22 million.
TRIVIA: Billy Smart’s Circus was used in the film Circus of Horrors (1960) directed by Sydney Hayers (in the movie it was called the ‘Schuler circus’) and in the 1967 movie Berserk! starring Joan Crawford and Diana Dors. In that film, the circus was called the ‘Great Rivers Circus’.