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  • 17.06.2016

    Tommy Chipperfield - Interview with a Tiger Trainer

    • Description

      The name Chipperfield is synonymous with the circus. Tommy Chipperfieldwas born into the family show in the middle of the last century, when Chipperfield’s Circus was the largest in Europe with a huge menagerie of animals from chimps to giraffes. Following in his father’s footsteps, Tommy grew up to be a big cat trainer. As well as the UK, he has worked in Spain, Africa and Australia, where he met his wife, Marilyn. For 23 years, the couple appeared with Duffy’s Circus in Ireland before returning to England in 2013, with their son, Thomas Chipperfield, who is carrying on the family tradition as a lion and tiger trainer.

      What are your earliest memories of the circus?

      There’s a picture in one of the old programmes of the first time I got on a horse - a big spotted horse - with my father when I was 3-years-old.

      But after that, I can always remember being asleep and in the middle of the night and being woken up by a little bear cub being pushed into bed with us. You never know what’s going to happen on a circus when you’re little.

      I can remember looking out the caravan window and the ground would be overrun with public. There’d be thousands and thousands of people. We weren’t allowed to go out in case we’d get lost amongst all the people. We were too small. The parades on the Sunday at 3 o’clock, after the show was built up... the animals would come from the railway station. The elephants would walk through the town with the horses and the other animals. The public would follow and the circus site would just be full of people.

      What was it like inside the big top?

      There would have been about 17 rows of tiered seating with a gangway around the back, because in those days you’d walk up steps to get into the seats at from the back, on the top row. In front of the tiered seating there’d be a gap with the boxes in front of that - about two rows, sometimes three rows of chairs. In front of that there’d be a track for all the animal parades and such like.
      Around 1953, they actually had chariot racing inside the tent. It was an 8-pole tent and the track went right around all the king poles.

      When we were really young, we were allowed to see the performance once in the beginning of the year and that was it. It was very strict. The circus kids weren’t allowed to just run amok inside the tent. We had to behave ourselves, of course, and sit in the back of the seats.

      The earliest I can remember going into the ring... in those days they used to have Popeye and Mickey Mouse... big  heads you used to put on and walk around waving to the people. We were allowed to do that sometimes, in between the acts. I would have probably been 5 or 6-years-old.

      Did you always want to work with the animals?

      I always wanted to work with the animals. My father made all of us kids learn hand balancing and tumbling, somersaults and things like that, just in case we needed it later on in life. You can always put something like that in an animal act as well. But I wasn’t brilliant at that, so it was the animals really, for me.

      Was your father the animal manager?

      Old Dickie Chipperfield used to run the show. He was the main one. There was Jimmy Chipperfield at the time, who opened the safari parks. He was organising a lot of the away stuff - looking for acts, things like that; a lot of the business side of it. My aunty Majorie used to take over all the costumes and decoration for the shows. And my father was the main animal trainer on the show. He loved horses. But he worked very good with the wild animals and also with the elephants. He was an all-rounder, and a trick rider as well.

      What are your memories of Jimmy Chipperfield?

      I wouldn’t really remember him on the show, because when he left and opened the parks, I was very young. But later on - we were always close; we always got on - what he wanted, he went for. There was no maybes. You just keep going until you get it.

      What are your memories of Dickie Senior? 

      Dickie Senior was more circusy. It was more give and take. My uncle Jim, he’d set his mind on something and he’d do it, whereas in the circus you give and take a lot more. I suppose uncle Dick was a bit like that. He was working with the animals a lot as well. He worked lions mostly. The old fashioned way which you wouldn’t do nowadays. Loud. I don’t mean beating them or anything like that, but a lot of whip-cracking and that sort of thing. Which is just noise, but these days people would get the wrong impression.

      Did you use a calmer presentation?

      I was sort of in between when I started out. Naturally, I was 16 and didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I was taught. But you have to learn from experience. So you have to keep your distance a bit more. Later on in life, I went the calmer route.


      Thomas said you had a more self-effacing style in the ring than he does...

      I’d be happy enough just to train animals and not have to go in the show. It’s the working with the animals that’s the important bit for me. Like I said to Thomas, when you’re taking your compliment, you’re showing the animals off, not yourself.

      What we do in the ring is show off what the animals can do. I mean, you wouldn’t have a tiger balancing on a globe in the bush, but they’ll balance on a branch. Walking on their back legs... a tiger will stand up and fight on its back legs. A lion will sit up in the long grass to see over the top of the grass to see where their prey animals are.

      Are you more of a lion or tiger guy?

      Out of what we call the wild animals - lions, tigers, bears, leopards and such like - I think I like the tigers more. Thomas prefers the lions, but I like the tigers. The tigers to me seem more cat-like than lions. Lions are a bit more doggified. Tigers have got a mind of their own. It’s a bit more of a challenge, because you have to get them to like you. They’re more nervous than a lion would be. So you treat them different. Lions will play very rough together, so because they play like that, you can work them faster. They don’t mind. Tigers will play for about 30 seconds and then get a bad mood with each other. So you work them a lot steadier.

      A lot of people ask which are the more dangerous. I think they’ve all got their own ways. It’s the way you treat them, really. You wouldn’t treat a tiger as you would a lion and vice versa.

      What other animals have you worked with?

      Oh god, I’ve lost count, really. It started in 1970, I think, with the elephants, then horses. Then in 71 it was the lions. Then I had a good break. I went to Roberts brothers Circus for a couple of years. Then I trained my first tigers. I then went to Australia and took over an act of an English fella out there. His contract ran out, so I took over his two acts and put a few more animals in and trained a few horses out there as well. And some pigeons. You lose count of the animals, really. Zebras, all sorts.

      How many animal acts were in the circus in the heyday?

      It was nearly all animals. Of course there were the speciality acts: the high wire, the flying trapeze. But we were known for the animals. When I was a kid, I can remember three wild animal acts that opened the show: The polar bears, the black bears, the tigers or leopards and the lions. The you’d have about three horse acts. probably high school or riding acts. Sea lions, chimps, alligators, dogs, exotics - camels, zebras - everything you can imagine.


      It must have been a huge job moving the circus?

      What they used to do, before my time, was the advance crew would take through a set of king poles and one of the crane lorries, the big Macks. They’d put the king poles up ready, and the stakes in the ground, so when the circus arrived all they had to was roll out the canvas and put up the tent. So a lot of the work was already done.

      Where did you go to school?

      Boarding school. Marsh Court in Stockbridge, Hampshire.
      I used to hate it. I mean, when you’re brought up on the circus with all the animals, who would want to leave? I remember crying and hanging onto one of the baby elephants once, when it was time to go to school.

      What was the attitude to circus people, at school?

      It wasn’t negative at all. You were somebody different, I suppose. In those days, circus was a big thing. You were somebody if you were circus. Now, it’s turning a bit the other way. I think in the old days it was because people put a bit of effort into schooling. You weren’t like what we call travellers. You were somebody. You had a good education.

      Thomas did correspondence schooling. He did more schooling than I did at boarding school. My wife Marilyn taught Thomas and she said the correspondence course was a lot more than she ever did, actually going to school.

      Is discipline and hard work instilled at an early age on the circus?

      I think you have to be hard-working or otherwise you wouldn’t be able to make it work. One day you might have a full load of staff, the next day half of them could be gone - because to a lot of people it’s still just a job. So whoever’s gone, you have to take over and do it yourself. You can’t just stop because that person’s not there, or that light doesn’t get put up or that horse doesn’t get groomed. It has to be done.

      When we came back from South Africa with the show, we were basically starting again over here. I said I’d do the grooming rather than hire staff in for that. So my father and myself did all the horses.

      What did your brothers and sisters do on the show?

      Charles was very mechanical minded. He liked the vehicles more than the animals. My brother John, he liked the animals and used to work the animals a lot, but he liked the business side of it more. He was very clever with the books. He was very good with office work. My little sister (Sophie) was very small then, so she was at school. And my other sister (Doris), when she came back from school, would help out with the horses as well. Sophie, when she grew up, was very into everything. Whatever was going, she’d have a go at.


      How did Marilyn join the circus?

      Marilyn actually ran away to join the circus. She went to Ashtons, in Australia, when she was 16. I think she might have been 15 but told them she was 16. She used to work in a shoe shop in Perth. So a bit different. I think the circus came to town and from then that was all she wanted to do. She’s done that many different acts. She’s done the high wire, the trapeze, the high perch where you balance it on someone’s shoulder and climb up. She’s done trick riding, bare-back riding, high school horses, ridden elephants. And of course since she’s been with me, she’s done the wild animals as well. So basically the lot.

      In the old days they called people who came into the circus jossers, but there’s a josser and there’s someone who has been in it all their life and you would think of as an actual circus person, and that’s what she is. She’s a circus person.

      Did Thomas show an early determination to follow in your footsteps?

      Thomas always loved it. He was always out with me, helping me put the tent up. He was born in Winchester, but he was brought up in Ireland. He was always helping me with the animals.

      I’d show him the tigers. Naturally not right up close. But I’d lift him up when he was very little and show him the tigers. They’d be roaring and carrying on and he’d just be laughing.


      His first animals were the alligators. He was helping getting them in and out of the tank. The whole lorry was the tank for them. He’d be in there with his cousin Ben (Sophie’s son, Ben Coles) feeling about in the water for these little alligators. Well, six or seven-foot-long... little, you know! They get very quiet. They can bite, naturally. They’re alligators. But it’s the same with any animals. it’s how you handle them. They used to come and take food out of your hand in the end.

      Thomas used to put his head in the alligator’s mouth. Once, being young, he got the wrong one out of the tank. My wife tried to tell him in the ring he had the wrong one, you can’t put your head in its mouth. He being young and a bit big headed didn’t take any notice, until he realised he had the wrong one and he had to put his head in the wrong alligator’s mouth - the one that wasn’t trained for it. He still did it!

      How did you come to join Duffy’s circus?

      They were very small at the time. We went over with more vehicles than they had at the time. We took the monkeys, the bears, the dogs. We had lions and tigers. I trained the horse act there for them. We had the alligators there. We were there about 23 years. Then we came back to fight the cause over here.

      When did you hand reins to Thomas?

      For one thing, people don’t want to see old, bald people in the ring. They want to see young fellas. So when it’s time to get out, you get out.

      Thomas wasn’t just chucked in. He had to learn first. He did a long time looking after the animals, and a long time learning about the animals when they’re working. And when he was capable, I was actually in there with him, just in case he needed a bit of advice now and then. Then he took over himself. The lions he has now he trained completely himself, from the beginning. He thinks the world of the animals.

      For more stories from the big top, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.