The great circus raid of 1916
Circuses are somewhat infra dig these days but you can imagine in earlier and less politically correct times the frisson of excitement that would pass through a community when it was announced that a travelling show would visit the area. So it was when it was announced that a circus would pitch up on some land owned By George Doman along the Frimley Road one Monday in September 1916. Some three or four thousand were drawn to the attraction, drawn from the neighbouring villages of Frimley, Frimley Green and Camberley.
But the circus that evening would feature another attraction, not advertised on the bill board which for some would have a life-changing effect. The local army recruiting officer, Colonel Ponsonby Watts, figured that the allure of the circus would be irresistible for the youth of the area and a magnet for “eligible men who had not yet reported themselves for service”. The redoubtable Colonel put plans in foot to carry out a raid of the circus with the assistance of the local police, the special constabulary and a platoon of the Volunteer Training Corps.
The performance began at 8 o’clock and the raiding party waited in nearby Woodlands Road whilst the Colonel and Sergeant Kenward notified the proprietors of the circus of what they intended to do. The raiding party was moved into position, securing all exits from the big top and Ponsonby Watts and Kenward marched into the ring, announced to all assembled that in the name of the King they were going to examine the papers and documents of all men present of military age. They were invited to enter the ring where the inspection took place.
For some the game was up but one or two who were “shy” in the words of contemporary reports either stayed in their seats or tried to escape. One fled under the tent but was captured by three Volunteers while a female performer dressed as a man enquired whether they needed her to sign up.
The tent was lit by acetylene jets supplied by a generator at the foot of the centre tent pole. The lights suddenly went out – it was thought that someone anxious to evade detection had shut the gas supply off – and many of the women and children in the audience started to shriek and cry. A match was then thrown on the generator which started a fire, although this was quickly extinguished. Order was restored, although the gas jets could not be re-ignited and the light was so gloomy that the inspection had to be abandoned.
Sergeant Kenward then thanked the crowd for their forbearance and the coolness with which they had behaved, reminding them that what had taken place was in the national interest. To round the proceedings off, as you do, he conducted the audience in a rousing rendition of the National Anthem. The crowd then dispersed, robbed of their evening’s entertainment but given something to talk about for months to come. The newly formed B Group had the names of some 60 or so lads under the age of 18 who would soon swell their ranks.
A novel way of recruiting, for sure, and another reason for giving the circus a swerve.