A Risky Business – horizontal bar performers

Will Onda often told reporters, friends and family that his first appearance outside Lancashire was at the Royal Aquarium in London.  This, I can now confirm, was a very long engagement for the Brothers Onda starting in October 1894. The Brothers Onda were acrobats who thrilled the crowds with their Triple Horizontal Bar act. This part of Onda’s career has led me on a journey into the precarious world of horizontal bar performers in Victorian theatres.

Today we know the horizontal bar as a piece of apparatus used for artistic gymnastics in professional tournaments, such as the Olympic Games. The video below is of American gymnast, Paul Hamm’s, amazing horizontal bar routine in 2004.

140 years ago this kind of gymnastics was a form of entertainment which thrilled Victorian audiences. However, instead of a single or double bar, Victorian gymnasts like Will Onda used triple horizontal bars. This enabled gymnasts to move from bar to bar while performing their routines. The Royal Aquarium in London developed a reputation for daring and dangerous circus and acrobatic acts. This reputation was not unfounded and Onda himself not only performed there but was quickly introduced to the risks of the horizontal bars. The article below was published in the Era newspaper on the 8th December 1894.

Accident to an Acrobat

Arthur Barrett was a 24 year old acrobat who was part of the Volar troupe of horizontal bar performers who were appearing at the Royal Aquarium.  The Brothers Onda attended his funeral. The description of the accident gives us an insight into the risks associated with the horizontal bar. Onda performed his triple bar act for ten years, without accident or injury, who knows?

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About Emma Heslewood

I am a historian and museum curator with broad interests including early topical films, social and industrial history, numismatics, archaeology and WW1. I am an expert on the life and work of the Victorian acrobat and topical film maker - Will Onda.
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