Friedrich Wilhlem August Pagel was born in Plathe, Pomerania, Germany on 5 February 1878 Friedrich, the ‘strong man’ and circus proprietor, was the 2nd of eight children born to Antonia Fraudnich and August Pagel, a huge strong man.
Friedrich inherited his father’s great size and strength which he enhanced by working at a smithy in his home town. He qualified as a blacksmith when he was seventeen, but became a ship’s stoker and travelled widely and adventurously, finally deserting his ship at Sydney, Australia, where after miscellaneous menial occupations he developed a ‘strong man’ act and became an unsuccessful side-show. At age nineteen he was a solid 230 pounds and he got himself a job in a licensed restaurant where he became indispensable to the owner by peeling potatoes, washing dishes and, most important of all, being a most effective bouncer and dealing quietly with any drunken or unruly customers.
In Tasmania in 1899 he met and married Mary Dinsdale (*1865 – 24 December 1939), a Yorkshire woman from Leeds with a keen monetary sense. She repaired and improved their joint fortunes, while Pagel, in circuses in Australia like Worth Brothers, gained increasing renowned for his act, which now included a lion called Hopetown. In 1904 they visited Europe with the lion, and in England assembled material for a circus, travelling via the East Coast to Durban where they landed in February 1905. The circus toured Natal and continued to Johannesburg where Pagel extended it with trapeze and other acts.
A successful season enabled him to begin a tour of South Africa, followed by one to Rhodesia, which ultimately established his circus as a national institution. With his phenomenal feats of strength and his command of ferocious carnivores, Pagel became a popular and respected figure, particularly in the dorps. During the post-war depression when the theatre languished and the cinema existed only in the hands of touring showmen, with disreputable films, the circus was the most popular form of public entertainment, but hazardous financially.
Pagel and his wife (who supervised the box-office) went to India and Burma early in 1906 to purchase tigers, elephants and other animals for a new circus. This was enlarged by numerous turns, including Madame Pagel herself in an act with lions, tigers and leopards. Opening in Durban Pagel’s greatly extended circus toured the country successfully until the First World War (1914-1918) when, as an enemy alien, he encountered insuperable difficulties; feelings ran high despite the fact that Madame hung her marriage certificate above the box-office to dissuade hostile mobs. Early in 1918 Pagel was interned for a brief period at Pietermaritzburg.
He became a South African citizen after the war and again went to the East to collect animals for a new circus whose attractions proved acceptable during increasingly depressed times. Profits were safeguarded by the avarice and violent language of Madame at the till and elsewhere. She also secured unprecedented publicity by driving in an open car accompanied by a large-maned lion which went with her on foot on a leash.
Since depression now deprived him of audiences in South Africa, Pagel ventured on a tour of East Africa in 1933; this, beginning disastrously, continued unsuccessfully and as he lacked permission to import his animals into the Union he took his circus to the Far East, where it was equally unsuccessful. Pagel bought a few animals in Java, returned with the circus to Lourenco Marques, and finally brought it to Pretoria whence he resumed his tours of the Union and Rhodesia. By then, Madame was seventy years of age and ill, she became a chronic invalid in 1938 and died on 24 December 1939 on the farm for training animals which Pagel had established at Pretoria North. Her nurse, Miss Cecil Schulz (died on 26 May 1976), daughter of Dr Aurel Schulz, remained on the farm to manage Pagel’s business interests. In 1940 they were married and toured together with the circus.
With a greatly extended and varied programme, Pagel operated widely and successfully during the Second World War (1939-45), much money being raised for war funds. Entertainment in general was now highly sophisticated, but the circus held its own, even playing for two weeks at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg, until hampered on tour by the poliomyelitis epidemic of 1947-48. While performing in the Free State in May 1948 Pagel suffered a cerebral haemorrhage from which he only partially recovered, his speech being affected; but the show went on.
In July 1948 he insisted that the circus should celebrate his 50th anniversary in the ring at ‘jubilee’ performances in Pretoria; but he himself was ill on his farm in Pretoria North and although he later accompanied his circus on tour and suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, “the Old Lion,” as he was called died peacefully in his sleep at 5:30 PM in Knysna, 13 October 1948.
He was buried on his farm while, in the tradition he had established, his circus continued its itinerary before it was ultimately disbanded.
Pagel was a quiet, softly-spoken man of temperate habits and an original philosophy. He suffered severe injury on several occasions from attacks by animals without losing confidence in handling them. His training methods were not cruel, and long after his death circus-goers testified that his lions lovingly licked his face and showed no fear. Pagel re-created the prestige of the circus originated by Frank Fillis and provided the public at all levels with relatively cheap entertainment when and where it was most needed.
There is a portrait in oils of him by Dorothy Kaye in the Africana Museum, Johannesburg. A bust of Pagel done by Coert Steynberg is to be found among the latter’s private collection in Pretoria North.
Profile– Height: 5’11.25”; Weight: 238 lbs. (later 332 lbs.); Chest expanded: 48”; Neck: 17”; Biceps: 18”; Calf: 18”; Thigh: 27”.