The Tom O'Beirne Collection

A collection of material relating to Hengler’s Circus in Glasgow.

About Tom O'Beirne

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Rutherglen Reformer, 16 August 1973

Tom O’Beirne (1910-1975) was born in Govan to Alexander O’Beirne and Eliza Aitchison. He married Alexina Weir, an analytical chemist, in 1942. In the Evening Citizen on 22 January 1972 he is described as “Scotland’s only circus historian”. By profession, he was an engineer, but spent most of his leisure time attending the theatre in Glasgow. His 1939 – 1945 diaries record his visits to plays, musicals, and other performances, as well as personal circumstances, like his wedding in 1942. It also contains many references to war matters and paints a picture of life in wartime Glasgow and Rutherglen. “I’ve had this passion for circus since I first saw Hengler’s Grand Cirque in 1915 at the age of five,” Mr O’Beirne recalls. “I was an only child, brought up in Dennistoun and indulged by my father who was mad about vaudeville. He took me to everything going, music hall and circus.” (Scottish Daily Express Monday April 3 1972).

He retired in the early 1970s and spent the rest of his life researching and writing a book about Hengler’s Circus in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. The manuscript of this book, along with correspondence with a publisher, is part of the collection. He died in Rutherglen in 1975.

About Hengler's Circus

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Hengler's Circus programme from 1892

Hengler's Circus was established by Charles Hengler and carried on by his son Albert. It opened in Glasgow in 1867 on the site of the former Prince's Theatre in West Nile Street.

In 1885 the circus moved to new premises in Wellington Street. As can be seen from this 1892 programme there was a strong emphasis on equestrian acts. In 1904 the circus moved to Sauchiehall Street where it enjoyed further success. But its productions were expensive and when audiences dwindled in the face of competition from cinemas and other forms of entertainment, Hengler's was forced to close in 1924.

About the collection

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Poster for the water spectacle at Hengler's Circus. A "sinking stage" allowed a lake to be formed in the ring, filled to a depth of 10 feet by 23,000 gallons of water, which poured into the ring in just 35 seconds.

The collection of 80 bundles contains manuscripts, newspaper clippings and research notes relating to Hengler’s Circus in Glasgow. The material dates from 1880 to 1975. It includes Tom O’Beirne’s manuscript for his book on Hengler’s Circus as well as his diaries from 1939-1945.

Finding aid

Tom O'Beirne Collection listing (PDF 158KB)

Further reading

McCarthy Sean. (1981). Hengler's Circus. Glasgow: Third Eye Centre.

McMillan, Stuart. (2019). Hengler's Grand Cirque: the premier equestrian circus company in Victorian Britain. Glasgow: Smiddy Press

University of Sheffield, National Fairground and Circus Archive, O’Beirne Collection

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