The stockbroker's son who ran away to the circus!

The stockbroker’s son who ran away to the circus! How Gerry Cottle, who died of Covid-19 at 75, left ‘boring suburbia’ to become king of the Big Top with a VERY colourful love life – and beat bankruptcy, drugs and sex addiction

  • Circus impresario Gerry Cottle, from Surrey, has died of Covid-19 aged 75 
  • Born to a stockbroker father, he ran away to join the circus at the age of 15
  • He found success and in his heyday was the operator of Britain’s biggest circus
  • But there was also bankruptcy, a cocaine habit and a sex addiction 

Circus impresario Gerry Cottle, who has died of Covid-19 aged 75, led a life that was as colourful as the travelling Big Top that made him famous.

Born in 1945 to stockbroker Reg Cottle and his wife Joan, Gerry was just eight years old when his parents took him to see Jack Hilton’s Circus at Earl’s Court. Unbeknownst to his parents, the family day out sparked a passion for performance, spectacle and wonder that determined the course of Gerry’s life. 

While his peers at Rutlish Grammar School in Merton Park, on the outskirts of London, were learning Latin primers and geometric tables, Gerry was dedicating himself to learning the ‘arts of juggling, clowning and walking the tightrope’, he later wrote.

Then at the age of 15, Gary followed through on a threat that many teenagers have made: he ran away to join the circus. 

Circus impresario: Gerry Cottle, who has died of Covid-19 aged 75, led a life that was as colourful as the travelling Big Top that made him famous. Pictured, in 2017

On top of the world: Gerry Cottle is pictured on stilts with his artistes at the peak of his fame. At one point he ran Britain’s biggest circus and needed 150 trucks to transport the acts

Determined to make a break from the ‘dull, boring world of British suburbia’, he left the family home in Carshalton, Surrey, with the parting words: ‘Please do not under any circumstances try to find me. I have gone for ever… I do not need O-levels where I am going.’

The teenager who would one day run Britain’s biggest circus started as an apprentice at the Roberts Brothers’ Circus, where he trained as a juggler, alongside carrying out menial tasks like shoveling the elephants’ poo.  

One year later, in 1962, he learned more of the business side of the operation with Joe Gandey’s Circus. There, he also honed his skills in tenting, clowning and animal grooming.

Billed as Gerry Melville the Teenage Juggler, he starred in a number of shows over the next eight years – and in 1968, he married Betty Fossett, the youngest daughter of circus showman Jim Fossett. 

Flying high: Gerry Cottle at his funfare in 1993. Alongside success, Cottle also weathered two bankruptcies, a sex addiction, cocaine habit and the breakdown of his marriage 

Living his dream: Cottle, pictured, fell in love with the circus at just eight years old

The pair went on to have a son, Gerry Jr, and three daughters, Sarah, April and Juliette-Anne, known as Polly, who followed their father into the family business.

By 1970, circuses had fallen out of fashion – major touring shows by Smart and Mills, for example, were no longer a popular attraction.

In spite of this, Mr Cottle made the decision that was to set him on the path to success and, four years later, Gerry Cottle’s Circus was born.

With years of experience, an eye for stunts, canny marketing and a gift for showmanship, his Big Top was a huge success.

By 1976, he was running two shows, which gave rise to several permutations: Gerry Cottle’s Circus, Cottle and Austen’s Circus on Ice, Cottle and Austen’s ‘London Festival’ Circus and Gerry Cottle’s New Circus.

At its peak, his arenas seated 1,500 and required 150 trucks to transport the show.

The success of the circus allowed Cottle to splash out on extravagant purchases, including the ‘world’s longest car’ – a 75ft Cadillac with full-size Jacuzzi – and ‘the world’s biggest caravan, which was 55ft long and had seven rooms.   

Building an empire: Gerry Cottle with his circus in Toulouse, France, in November 1983

However despite Cottle’s ingenuity, the circus became crippled by debts. In 1979 a failed tour to Iran during the revolution drove him to bankruptcy. 

‘We’d been booked by the general of the Iranian army and were not paid the promised deposit,’ he later said, recalling the move as the worst financial decision he had ever made. ‘We’d already booked the acts, including ice-skating chimps from Italy, and loaded our equipment on the boats when I realised. 

‘There was a 6pm curfew which meant no one was allowed to leave their homes. We never got paid, ran out of money and had to do a midnight flit from our hotel. The debts bankrupted me.’

Problems continued into the 1980s when there was a growing public backlash against the use of animals in circus acts. 

Although he won a case against Edinburgh Council regarding the use of wild animals in his shows, he sold his last elephant by 1993 and toured with a non-animal circus.  

There was also plenty of action away from the circus. In 1983 Mr Cottle, who garnered a reputation as a womanizer, was introduced to cocaine by a a prostitute he met in London and quickly became hooked. 

He later went to rehab where he was diagnosed with a sex addiction, with the therapists explaining his cocaine habit was a symptom of that issue. However it took a 1991 run-in with the police for Cottle to give up drugs for good. 

He was pulled over on the M25 and found with 14g of cocaine stashed under his seat. He was taken to court and fined £500.  

Cottle’s most radical professional departure came in 1995 when he launched the Circus of Horrors at Glastonbury, inspired by French circus Archaos.

Acts included a man with a wooden leg that was ‘sawed’ off in front of the audience and a human cannonball who later quit because he became too fat for the cannon.

He went bankrupt again, and his private life also hit the rocks. 

Betty, tired of his serial adultery, left, although they never divorced. Cottle later moved in with Anna Carter, of Carters Steam Fair.

Las hurrah: Gerry Cottle waves a top hat while displaying some of the circus fancy dress costumes which were auctioned at Bonhams, in London during 1994

In 2003, Cottle decided to retire from the travelling entertainment world and bought Wookey Hole in Somerset, transforming it into a mixed entertainment complex including a circus museum, daily circus shows and other attractions.

Cottle, who had also battled prostate cancer, died on January 13 after being admitted to hospital with Covid-19, just days before he was due to get the vaccine. 

His friend John Haze said: ‘I spoke to him last week and he didn’t sound good and then he rang me on Monday and he seemed miles better. Then he just died.

‘It was a complete shock. It’s so fresh. He was going for the vaccine next week I believe. How tragic is that? Just two weeks away and you get all these idiots saying don’t get the vaccine and ignore Covid, it’s driving me mad.’

 Cottle leaves four children, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. 

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