Bertram Mills

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Bertram Wagstaff Mills (August 1873 – 16 April 1938) was a British circus owner who ran the Bertram Mills Circus. Originally from Paddington, London, his circus became famous in the UK for its Christmas shows at Olympia in West London. His troupe were the last to perform with live animals on the Drury Lane Theatre stage.


Born in August 1873, Bertram was the son of Halford Mills of Paddington, London, the enterprising owner of the Reformed Funeral Company, a coach building works and the Undertakers Journal. Halford Mills was described as a 'pioneer of embalming'. Bertram was brought up on two small farms at Chalfont St. Giles (which his father owned for the purpose of sending his horses there to rest), where he developed his passion for riding and horses in general.

He left school aged fifteen and started washing down the coaches for the family business (started by his grandfather who began life as an evangelical preacher). Within a year he was driving a four-in-hand from London to Oxford wearing a cornflower in his morning coat, for which he later became recognised by. He continued working for the family firm until the outbreak of World War One when he joined and served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, rising to the rank of Captain.

On leaving the army he became interested in the 'Wilkins and Young Circus'. He made a wager with a friend that he could form a circus company and within a year be as good as they were. He did just that and thus the 'Bertram Mills International Circus' was formed.

It very quickly became a household name and the annual Christmas event. He made a point of inviting orphans to see the shows for free. By 1930 (its heyday would last for the next thirty years, when it was without exception the best and most famous live show) he had inaugurated a touring circus which became unique amongst British circuses, always appearing at Olympia for the Christmas season.

The guest lists of the time very clearly indicate the renown of his show. The Royal family (who were great supporters) came every year, Winston Churchill and other similar dignitaries from Britain and abroad were also annual guests.

Bertram Mills married his wife, Ethel (d.1960), in 1901. They were parents of a daughter and two sons, Bernard Notley and Cyril Bertram Mills. After their father's death on 16 April 1938, both Bernard and Cyril took over the running of 'Bertram Mills Circus', continuing and growing on its success until the early 1960s (with the advent of television in homes) when it was finally disbanded. Cyril Mills served with MI5 during the Second World War and was the spymaster who controlled Juan Pujol, known as 'Garbo'.

Bertram Mills was aptly cremated (his father had been one of the first three undertakers to offer this service in London) and is buried with his wife at Chalfont St. Giles.

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