Travelling Fred and 'the smallest show on Earth'

Meet Fred Abel, ringmaster and proprietor of what he proudly boasted to be "the smallest show on Earth."

Impresario Fred prepares his breakfast near Penkridge.
Impresario Fred prepares his breakfast near Penkridge.

One of our reporters from yesteryear caught up with his travelling show back in August 1962 when he was preparing his breakfast near Penkridge, surrounded by the principal "actors" – the donkey, the border terrier, and the star of the show, Towser The Wonder Dog.

As he reclined on his bed the impresario thrust a tatty leaflet through the open doorway of his tent.

"You can 'ave this," he said.

The leaflet announced that the circus performed daily at 7pm. But as this was 9am, Fred was still in bed, his two donkeys were cropping the grass nearby, Towser The Wonder Dog was having a scratch, and the performing rats and dancing mice were nowhere to be seen.

"Come back in 'alf an hour," Fred told our reporter. "I'll be ready for you then."

Missing from the programme was Willie, the dog.

"He was a wanderer. Used to go off on his own."

A new addition to the act was a young border terrier which he had been given and was training.

The impresario, whose age was given as 54, said it had been a shocking season, one of the worst since he went "on tour" 13 years previously.

When it rained there were no customers, his belongings got wet, and the dogs had to come inside.

And with that the bearded Fred said to our reporter "Good morning" and retired completely into his canvas caravan which bore such slogans as: "The smallest show on Earth" and the ominous notice "Beware of the dogs."

It turns out that Fred was quite a well known and much-loved character and even featured on television – consequently he daubed "As Seen on BBC TV" on his "big top".

The television clip showed his mice performing to the strains of There'll Always Be An England played on an old gramophone, and the act by the rats involved them riding on the back of the dog.

The donkeys were not part of the act, and merely gave children rides, and Fred was known to many as The Donkey Man.

He hailed originally from Norfolk, where he had been born in 1909, and his home territory seems to have been on roads and lanes in the areas of Banbury and Southam, which is near Royal Leamington Spa.

He was a popular gentleman of the road, but surrounded by an air of mystery about how and why he had chosen that life.

He eventually gave up his brand of showbusiness and lived in a converted chicken shed. He died in February 1982.

Of course, if you were ever in his audience, we'd love to hear your memories.

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