The establishment of an Australian circus tradition took place with the opening of the Royal Circus in Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, on the evening of 29 December 1847, under the direction of Robert Avis Radford. Talk of Radford's company visiting Melbourne during 1848 failed to materialise. Early the following year, Thomas Henry Hayes opened his canvas 'partition' on a site near the Horse & Jockey Inn in Little Bourke Street. Hayes' place of amusement soon degenerated into 'the most malignant ulcer of Melbourne back slumtown'.
No other sign of circus activity in Melbourne is apparent until the arrival from Sydney early in 1852 of the American circus man John Sullivan Noble, his wife and 'their equestrian establishment'. In Bourke Street three weeks later, on 23 February 1852, Noble's Olympic Circus opened. Noble was widely credited as the originator of circus entertainments in Victoria. After a period on the goldfields, Noble reopened at the corner of Bourke and Spring streets on 29 September 1852. John Jones' equestrian troupe from Sydney augmented Noble's company. The London-born Jones (c. 1826-1903) would later play a major role in the development of Australian circus.
Joseph Andrew Rowe (1819-87), who brought the first circus to San Francisco in the midst of the Californian gold rushes, arrived in Port Phillip with his company on 1 May 1852. Six weeks later, surmounting mayoral objections with the help of Melbourne's citizenry, Rowe opened his own circus building at the corner of Lonsdale and Exhibition streets. Rowe left Melbourne in 1854 to return to San Francisco, reputedly taking with him £40 000 in cash and treasure.
In the wake of Rowe's departure, a London-born gymnast, George B.W. Lewis (c. 1818-1906) and a hotelkeeper, Thomas Mooney, built and opened a large timber structure, named Astley's Amphitheatre after its famous London namesake, situated in Spring Street. Several troupes of performers were engaged from London but the Melbourne Astley's proved too ambitious an undertaking and closed 'for want of support'. By April 1857, the building had been transformed into the first Princess Theatre.
Opening in 'their celebrated drawing-room entertainment' at Melbourne's Theatre Royal on 27 January 1865, John Jones and his sons were billed as 'The Wonderful St Leon Family' engaged 'from the Gymnase Imperial, Paris'. Forming their own circus in 1875, the St Leon family travelled the eastern colonies, often far beyond the reach of the railways. The first visit of St Leon's Circus to Melbourne occurred early in 1880.
In the latter half of the 19th century, major local tented circus companies such as Burton's National Circus, Bird & Taylor's Great American, St Leon's, and FitzGerald Brothers, regularly visited Melbourne. FitzGerald Brothers' Great Palace Circus opened a 14-week season in Swanston Street on 16 April 1892, probably the longest and most successful season by any circus in the city. In 1901, Rowe's original Melbourne site was occupied by Eroni Bros, an outback Australian circus conducted by the Perry family. Eroni Bros played to big audiences, and then closed the season suddenly. 'Too much noise here', said old Bill Perry, its proprietor.
There were also frequent visits by large American companies such as Chiarini (the first in 1873), Cooper, Bailey & Co. (the first in 1877), W.W. Cole's Concorporated Shows (1881) and Sells Bros (1892). Cooper, Bailey & Co. took possession of the western side of the swampy flat between St Kilda Road and South Melbourne, where 'an amphitheatre' was erected for it. The visits of these large American circuses were remembered for many years, especially for their lavish street processions.
From the early 1900s until the early 1960s, the dominant Australian circus, Wirth Brothers Circus, visited Melbourne almost every year, its visit coinciding with the Melbourne Cup carnival. Other local companies such as Bullen Bros, Sole Bros and Ashton's frequently visited Melbourne or its suburbs in the postwar period. Large foreign circus companies, such as the Great Moscow Circus and the Canadian Cirque du Soleil, have been seen in Melbourne in recent years. Melbourne is today acknowledged as the hub of contemporary Australian circus activity, the city being the home of the renowned Circus Oz and the National Institute of Circus Arts. The Arts Centre was the setting for the 1990 Circus Summit, Australia's first national conference of circus people.