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Douglas Joseph (Doug) Ashton (1918–2011)

Doug Ashton, by Gypsy Pennefeather, 1995

Doug Ashton, by Gypsy Pennefeather, 1995

National Library of Australia, 26216273

The life of Doug Ashton would really have to start with the way his parents met. His father, Joseph, great-grandson of the founder of Ashton's Circus, James Henry Ashton, told the audience one day he had a horse who could find the prettiest girl in the audience. Joseph secretly commanded the horse to stop at the girl he thought was the prettiest and that happened to be a local Inverell girl, Ivy Fulford.

Joseph married her and she became a circus performer in her own right. The couple had two sons, Douglas and Cecil. Douglas Joseph Ashton, born in the Crown Street Women's Hospital, Sydney, on November 19, 1918, was on the road with the circus at six days of age.

Ashton did not have much of a formal education. He spent his childhood, and indeed most of his life, in a caravan. The best his family could do was send him and his brother to whichever local school there was when the circus came to town.

In the early years of his life, the family had no motor vehicles. The circus was horse-drawn and the performing horses and elephants walked. Often, the young Doug rode the elephants between towns. Sadly, Cecil died of leukaemia while in his teens.

In March 1937, Ashton married his childhood sweetheart, Phyllis Yeomans, whose stage name was Kelroy, and whose family had performed circus acts and vaudeville at the Tivoli Theatre and other venues. A daughter, Lorraine, was born that year, followed by Mervyn in 1938.

Ashton perfected his circus skills. He became the catcher for the trapeze team, the Flying Ashtons. Phyllis herself became a performer. The circus went to the remotest locations. Doug's granddaughter Bekki was to say, seeing an old photo of the circus at the border of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, that the circus had to traverse routes that motor vehicles would struggle to negotiate today.

There were hard times during World War II when the circus's two Ford trucks were requisitioned to supply gravel to the Williamtown air base. Ashton worked at the Newcastle steelworks and as a painter and docker. The family performed to raise money for the war effort and the family home at Merewether became a focal point for show and circus people.

After the war, the circus tent disintegrated and the family broke up. Doug and Phyllis performed for other circuses. Ashton performed at Tex Morton's Circus and Rodeo. In 1948, Ashton's Circus was reformed, on a block of land in Rocky Point Road, Rockdale. Apart from the break of a few years, the circus had existed since 1847. The circus grew in strength and vitality, travelling Australia and touring New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Doug and Phyllis Ashton became the backbone of the circus, performing together standing on the backs of cantering horses, riding elephants, clowning, performing on rings and the trapeze. One of Ashton's feats was jumping from a springboard and somersaulting over the back of an elephant, or over seven or eight horses. Another was standing on a cantering horse with Phyllis on his shoulders.

The children were brought into the act and Doug performed the horse act with his son, Mervyn. Another daughter, Jan, was born in 1953.

The circus had an entourage of elephants, tigers, lions, monkeys, parrots, a giraffe, bear and a hyena. At its peak there were more than 120 people working for the circus and it had 80 animals. At one point, 38 Ashton family members were working for it.

Doug, whose recreation activities were hunting and fishing, stopped performing in his early 40s because other members of the family were available. He started Australia's first lion parks, in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Loganlea, Queensland and Raymond Terrace. They bred lions and tigers for export.

Ashton was not particularly impressed by the stand taken by animal liberationists because he knew, according to Bekki, that the animals were always treated with love and affection. Otherwise, Ashton busied himself with the mechanics of keeping the show on the road, acting as a mechanic, electrician and plumber. Phyllis busied herself with marketing and promotion and the way was paved for their nine grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren to keep the tradition going.

At the Festival of the World's Greatest Circuses in Monte Carlo, Ashton's daughter Lorraine and her family performed their whipcracking act. In 1996, he and Phyllis were awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the entertainment industry and charity.

Ashton saw his offspring form their own circuses under the family name, including Lorraine Ashton's Classic Circus, Circus Joseph Ashton and Ashton Entertainment, founded by Jan Ashton. With age creeping up, he stayed with Circus Joseph Ashton and lived in his caravan. He died peacefully on Thursday morning last week, just short of his 93rd birthday. He is survived by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Original publication

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Citation details

'Ashton, Douglas Joseph (Doug) (1918–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

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