Ugly, beautiful Freo

• CircusWA’s youth troupe are giving a bit of Freo history a fling.

KIDS from Circus WA will be bringing back a colourful, century-old piece of Fremantle’s history for this Easter’s Fremantle Street Arts Festival.

The circus’s youth training arm Level Up Academy is recreating acts from Uglieland, a carnival operated by the charitable Ugly Men’s Association from 1922 to the early ‘30s across the road from the Fremantle train station on what is now Pioneer Park.

The association raised funds for needy causes across Perth, from supporting war widows to purchasing new x-ray machines for Royal Perth Hospital.

It was highly popular and attracted thousands through its circular gates, which were described by Chook predecessor the Weekly Herald in 1923 as “ablaze with myriads of electric lights”.

An enthused Herald continued to be impressed inside: “On entering the grounds one is dazzled by the scene that meets the eye.

“The large dance floor – smooth glassy surface and decorated with hundreds of coloured lights and streamers – at once attracts attention.

“Side shows included swinging boats, hoop-la, fishing ponds, chocolate wheels, skittles, ‘Darto’, ‘Whirligig’, joy wheel, merry-go-round, fortune tellers and numerous other side shows.”

Popular lady

An indication of Uglieland’s popularity was the “popular lady competition” decided by visitors’ votes. In its first year Claremont’s “Nurse Bond” polled in an Instagram-worthy 24,277 votes, with Miss M Gray of West Guildford not too far behind on just over 22,000.

There was also plenty of entertainment, including log-chopping and dancing competitions, boxing bouts, rodeo “buckjumping”, tight-rope walkers, and even snake charmer Rocky Vane, a colourful performer whose wife Annie was fatally bitten during a show despite his administering his own anti-venom. Admittedly Vane did send Ms Vane, who performed as “Cleopatra” 

to hospital, but she checked herself out soon after to return to the stage where her condition deteriorated. 

A new assistant Harry Melrose didn’t last the year before following Cleopatra into the afterlife, and soon after snake shows were banned and Vane is rumoured to have dumped all his reptiles on Carnac Island.

The Perth City Band was a regular performer at the festivals of the 1920s, and will be joining Level Up Academy at the street arts festival as part of its 100th anniversary.

Veteran circus performer Nel Simpson has recently stepped up to directing shows and will be leading the youngsters as they recreate Uglieland’s popular sheep shearing competition, high-flying trapeze acts and unusual characters such as Lizard Man.

The original Uglieland featured Flaro in 1927, a brave soul who dived 15 metres into a tank of water “while encased in a blazing sack”.

“Exploring intriguing characters and quirky side shows of Uglieland productions over the last few years with CircusWA’s youth troupe has been a delight,” Simpson said.

“The roaring ‘20s lends itself so well to daring feats, celebration, young, independent and strong women… and slapstick; all of which we have in spades at CircusWA.

Silent films

“The troupe’s antics have also been captured with our own Chaplinesque silent films which you can view on the day through our miniature cinema.”

The original Uglieland wasn’t without its detractors, and the Herald discovered it has a direct link to one of Western Australia’s most popular fundraisers – Lotto!

Housie Housie, which we’d now call Bingo, was extremely popular at Uglieland, but some like The West Australian’s letter writer CF Argyll-Saxby were outraged that it was flouting a prohibition on gambling as well as attracting no-gooders.

“The amount of good done with the money raised… is infinitesimal compared with the havoc wrought on the morals of the youth in our town,” CF wrote in 1930.

Exhorting Rotary to “purge the city of this Uglieland (aptly named) excrescence” CF says the club must be aware of other dins of iniquity “being rampant in High Street, South Terrace and elsewhere”.

Fremantle’s The Advocate refused an advert from Uglieland’s organisers in protest at the “games of chance”.

Concerns about gambling prompted railways minister John Scaddan to introduce 

the Lotteries (Control) Bill in 1932, creating the Lotteries Commission, which these days we know as Lotterywest. 

The Westralian Worker noted in 1934 the impact of that decision: “With the advent of the Lotteries Commission, which now raises money much more cheaply for the various charities, Uglieland has degenerated and is now idle land enclosed with a huge fence, which is used for advertising purposes by the Railway Department.”

It remained that way for years, upsetting the local council and newspapers who referred to it as a “blot” and “eyesore” and prompting calls for the state government to lease or gift the land to Fremantle council, which had various plans for the land including a park, depot for the Tramway Board or commercial tenancies.

Uglieland petered out by 1934, but the site was used over the next couple of years for things such as displaying a 5.18-metre shark caught off Leighton Beach. 

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