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Bullen, Alfred Percival (Perce) (1896–1974)

by Mark Valentine St Leon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

This is a shared entry with Lilian Ethel Bullen

Alfred Percival Bullen (1896-1974) and Lilian Ethel Bullen (1894-1965), circus proprietors, were husband and wife. Perce was born on 8 February 1896 at Kiama, New South Wales, son of Alfred Weston Bullen, a native-born newspaper proprietor, and his wife Alice, née Thomas, from New Zealand. Ambitious to drive a Rolls-Royce motorcar and to own a first-class circus, Perce soon tired of working as a cub reporter on the Kiama Independent. With his savings, he bought a pony to give rides to local children, and a few pairs of roller-skates for hire. He began a vagabond life, travelling around country shows with a performing sheep and pony.

On 7 August 1917 at Holy Trinity Church, Dawes Point, Sydney, Bullen married a vaudeville dancer Lilian Ethel Croan with Anglican rites. She had been born on 8 May 1894 at Botany—daughter of George Croan, labourer, and his wife Emily Eleanor, née Wythes—and went on the stage as a child. Beginning with a merry-go-round, Perce, Lil and his brother Albert improvised a travelling circus-carnival. They soon bought an elephant, then added a shooting gallery, performing horses, monkeys and dogs, and a small sideshow where Perce, billed as 'Captain Alfredo', introduced his lone, performing lion.

By 1922 the Bullens had made enough money to organize their own circus. They travelled over dirt roads from one country town to the next in bumpy, horse-drawn wagons. Perce acquired an Alpha electric-lighting plant and sometimes 'amalgamated' with another small circus, such as Lloyd's. Their three sons Stafford, Kenneth and Gregory were born between 1925 and 1930; following the custom of travelling circus people, Perce and Lil adopted children (Mavis and Jules) to complete their family.

In the early 1930s Bullen Bros Circus travelled mostly in Queensland with a show that included its own brass band and a menagerie. Perce, the ringmaster, also juggled and trained the 'big cats'. Lilian played the cornet, juggled, worked monkeys, dogs and horses, and, with three young girls, appeared in a dancing troupe, 'The Four Marzellas'. When she retired from the ring she took over the administration and worked hard to ensure her family's success. A 'colourful and forceful' personality, if somewhat temperamental, she proudly flaunted her diamond rings and was known as 'Tiger Lil'. In the mid-1930s the show drifted to Western Australia where the Bullens settled for a time before returning to Queensland. With the introduction of fuel-rationing during World War II, they laid up their circus at Yeppoon, outside Rockhampton, only to find thousands of American servicemen camped nearby. In canvas sidewalls only, Bullen and his young family entertained the troops, several times a day. Stafford walked the tightwire. Business became so profitable that Mrs Bullen had more girls working for her than she had with the circus on the road.

The family built one of Australia's most exciting circuses of the postwar era. Its extensive menagerie included thirteen elephants. In the late 1940s Perce worked four lions, two tigers, two leopards, two Himalayan bears and a collie dog—'all in the same cage'. He treated the animals well and was never attacked by any. His white Rolls-Royce led the procession of long, brightly-decorated caravans from town to town. When he presented—as a special attraction—a Bentley used by Queen Elizabeth II during the 1954 royal visit, his publicity stunt occasioned a public outcry. By 1955 the two-ringed circus had twenty-six acts of international class, its own mobile power plant, three diesel lighting plants, a schoolteacher, fifty-six vehicles and caravans, and eighty permanent staff who called Bullen 'Pop'. Bullen's Circus was a family affair: the boys and their wives took leading parts, and conducted their wild-animal and trapeze acts with zest and polish.

Since 1933 new assets had been acquired from the profits and put in Lilian's name. Her personality permeated the organization, whether she charmed local officials, or volubly reprimanded errant circus-hands. In 1957 Bullen's Circus Pty Ltd was registered in Queensland, with Lilian as governing director. Although the circus was a joint enterprise, differences of opinion between its members occasionally reached the courts and made headlines. 'Tiger Lil' died of cancer on 4 January 1965 in King George V hospital, Camperdown, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery; she left over $170,000 to the Cancer Council of New South Wales.

Perce rose early each morning to paint or decorate several caravans by mid-afternoon, all the while impeccably attired in his suit and tie. He wore a diamond tie-pin and a diamond ring that never left his hand, and had gold-capped teeth. Loving nothing more than to lead a parade of his circus, he sat in top-hat and tails astride his favourite horse. At St Nicholas of Myra's Catholic Church, Penrith, on 3 January 1969 Bullen married a widow Daisy Ruth Wood, née Usher. Faced with the increasing popularity of television, Bullen's Circus gave its final performance on 25 May that year at Parramatta. His sons established lion safari-parks; Perce happily retired to the family estate at Wallacia. Survived by his wife and by the children of his first marriage, he died on 11 August 1974 at Penrith and was buried in Eastern Creek cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Greaves, The Circus Comes to Town (Syd, 1980)
  • Outdoor Showman, Dec 1955
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 5 Apr 1961, 11 May, 24 July, 19 Nov 1963, 16 June 1966
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10, 11 Apr 1963, 12 Aug 1974
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 18 Aug 1974
  • private information.

Citation details

Mark Valentine St Leon, 'Bullen, Alfred Percival (Perce) (1896–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bullen-alfred-percival-perce-9621/text16965, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 April 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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