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The History of Fire Eaters

Fire eating dates back as far as the third century B.C., when jugglers entertained in Royal Courts in ancient Greece. However, 'the great day of the fire eater, or day of the great fire eater', as Houdini put it, did not truly begin until much later. From Richardson, who in 1672 '...melted a beere glass and ate it quite up', to Tagora the Human Volcano who performed in the world of circus and variety between the 1940s and 1970s, fire eaters have continued to ply their trade; in streets and docksides to the top-of-the-bill in theatres and circuses.

Grainger Smith Brixham
Detail from an engraving by Grainger Smith (1892 - 1961) showing a fire-eater at
Brixham harbour. Scenes like this have been written about since the early 17th century.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Leona Young
American fire eater Leona Young resists the heat of a blowtorch in the 1940s. These
dangerous stunts bridged the gap between classical fire eaters such as Richardson and
the new breed of circus and music hall performers.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Stromboli and Silvia
Postcard of mid - late 20th century British fire eater and sword swallower Stromboli
who performed his variety act
around the world with assistant Silvia.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Jon Gresham
Publicity artwork of Jon Gresham, who performed in the 1950s on the music-hall stage as 'Europe's
Youngest Fire Eater'. The act has recently been recreated using the original props and music.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Billy Russel's Circus
Programme for Billy Russell's Circus, 1973, featuring Austrian fire-eater Charles Tagora.
A version of this artwork was first used on posters for Billy Smart's Circus in the 1950s,
then one of the largest circuses in the UK.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Barnello's Red Demons
Front cover of Barnello's 'Red Demons', from around the turn of the 20th century. This is
probably the first
publication dedicated solely to exposing the techniques of fire eating.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Fire Eater Novelty
Early 20th century novelty allowing anyone to 'eject thousands of brilliant sparks from his mouth to the
horror of all beholders'. The technique, also known as Chinese Fire Eating, was sold in similar kit form  
until the age of unhealthy obsession with 'health and safety' in the late 20th century.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Fire Eater Postcard
Postcard by Barry Appleby, mid 20th Ccentury.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

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