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The New Olympia, 48 New City Road, Glasgow

Later - The Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus

Glasgow Index

A drawing from the Quiz Magazine of 1890 showing the Glasgow Bostock East End Industrial Exhibition - Courtesy Graeme Smith.The Olympia was a hall erected on the Recreation showgrounds of New City Road, near Cowcaddens Cross. It had a floor space of 31,000 square feet, an average height of 35 feet, and was likened to the Waverley Market, Edinburgh, not quite as large but higher. The Hall used one acre of the large grounds normally used by travelling shows, swingboats, novelties and roundabouts.

Right - A drawing from the Quiz Magazine of 1890 showing the Glasgow Bostock East End Industrial Exhibition - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

In 1892 the Glasgow and West of Scotland Horticultural Society held its spring show in the (very) new Olympia Hall, 48 New City Road. Formally opened by Sir John Stirling Maxwell of Pollok, the show was entertained during the day by the band and pipes of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. “The Royal Gypsy Encampment is to be allowed a place in the exhibition, and should prove interesting to visitors.” This travelling group, acknowledged even by Queen Victoria, provided music, catering, dance and fortune-telling in many places in Britain. Their “Queen of the Gypsies” was “Corlinda Lee (Smith)” who passed away at 42 New City Road in 1900 and is buried in the city`s prestigious Necropolis.

The Horticultural Society`s autumn show had to be quickly rearranged in September moving to St Andrew`s Hall in place of the New Olympia “owing to subsidence in New City Road and subsequent disruption of traffic.”

The Olympia became an entertainment resort with sideshows, shooting galleries, a music hall, and a dancing pavilion (1d extra charge). In 1892 and 1893 the lease was taken up by “Colonel” Joe Shelly, making his Wild West base in Glasgow, with Bert Novello as manager. Admittance to a Wild West Show was 6d for a chair, 3d for a seat, and standing was 1d. Novello also had a licence to open on Sundays for sacred concerts. In the Hall variety artistes entertained, and the circus gave turns on stage while Mexican Cowboys enthralled with sharp shooting, and in the Circus dramatic scenes from the Wild West were enacted, as was buck riding; and the Indian Village of Col Joe Shelley was on permanent display. Shelley had arrived in Scotland in 1891, before his competitor Bill Cody.

Shelley, known also as Mexican Joe, was a soldier and rancher, also apparently a scout with the US Government and Mexican Government. He came to Britain around 1887 with his travelling show, in good time for the Queen Victoria Jubilee Exhibitions of 1888, and toured England, Scotland, France and Germany with his scouts, frontiersmen, hunters and Indians (from two tribes) complete with tents, rifles, lassoes and a stage coach used for the mails in Texas and Arizona. Usually the shows ended with a cowboy concert – with cowgirls as the stars. His Wild West Shows were regarded everywhere as skilful, interesting and entertaining, even though his venues were sometimes smaller than those used by Buffalo Bill Cody.

The Era reported in November 1892 on the New Olympia:- “Pantomime frivolity is the principal attraction here, and in it Mr Tom Toy and Mr J Symes do some clever jumping and trap work. Mr Alf Pry is a genuinely funny comedian, Carl Hengler does some expert juggling, and King Hilton proves himself an able ventriloquist. Stanley and Lillian are entertaining duettists, and little Teddy is a smart dancer. Ferguson and Sandford do good work.”

By 1894 Novello became the lessee of the hall which he promoted as a “Veritable Palace for the People.” The Hall had a lofty roof and a mammoth stage and he continued to provide variety shows with clowns, gymnasts, novelties, aerials, acrobats, and wrestling acts. In February The Era reported:- “This popular resort, with its side shows, dancing pavilion, shooting galleries and music hall is being largely patronised. The variety artists at present appearing are: Miss Marie Riviere, a pleasing balladist; Miss Ada Harrington, serio-comic; Miss Lorrie, vocalist; Mr JF Wilson, a capital baritone; Miss Jessie Howarth, dancer etc, and Pete Reynolds, a popular Negroist. Mr Novello has, after several refusals, at last had his dancing licence renewed.”

New City Road Olympia advertisements of February 1894 - From the Glasgow Herald.From time to time the Bostock & Wombwell Menagerie had set up at the recreation ground and early in January 1894 Novello invited E H Bostock to move for a season from the very exposed site he was using near Glasgow Cross and use the Olympia Hall. In three years time it would become Bostock`s headquarters as the Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus.

Left - New City Road Olympia advertisements of February 1894 - From the Glasgow Herald.

In July 1894 The Era reported:- “This place of many forms of entertainment is doing good business. The side shows, the shooting galleries etc are well patronised this week. The variety company includes the Estrellas, Mr Arthur Verne, Mr Tom Esmond, the Continental Troupe of Acrobats, Miss Rosina Rickards, the Waterburys, and the Foys.”

Novello was also in charge of the sideshows for a Glasgow Industrial Exhibition & Scottish Fete in 1895 at Coplawhill off Victoria Road in the city`s South Side. Its Exhibition Pavilion was designed by architect James Chalmers, but there was little money to fill it. Entertainments included musical concerts, illusionists, aquatic displays, fireworks, colonial adventures dramatised, captive balloon ascents and descents, and parachutists in free-range balloons. But the first parachutists` balloons ventured far and out of control on the first evening, with a gentleman landing 15 miles away at Airdrie and a lady landing 60 miles away at Haddington, on the edge of the North Sea! This Exposition Carnival in 1895 was a minor version of the larger and longer running Glasgow East End Industrial Exhibition, in Duke Street, Dennistoun, which first opened in 1890. In 1891 its buildings were substantially remodelled by architect James Chalmers to include a fully fitted proscenium stage and amphitheatre holding 6,000 people. Its entertainments then, and later, included the Wild West Shows of “Colonel” Buffalo Bill Cody.

This article on The New Olympia, Glasgow was written and kindly sent in for inclusion on the site in August 2013 by Graeme Smith.

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