BARNUM and Bailey have nothing on Caroline Veal…
She stepped in when Sheffield's Greentop Circus was on the verge of bankruptcy and transformed it into the greatest show on earth – or at least, in the north.
Over the last ten years Caroline has raised 444,000 for the community project, helped to establish it as one of only three circus centres in the UK and nurtured a whole new generation of clowns, jugglers and trapeze artists.
This week she bowed out of her voluntary role and handed over responsibility to Craig Gamble Pugh, the new chief executive, whose appointment was Caroline's final achievement for the charity.
She will stay on as a trustee but circus members were anxious to mark her contribution – so they gathered to plant 444 bulbs, one for every 1,000 raised by Caroline over the years.
"We wanted to say thank you and publicly recognise what she has done," said events manager James Harkness. "For the last few years Caroline has been practically running the place and without her we wouldn't be here.
"It's a really big thing for us – we've grown up from being a community voluntary group to being a professional organisation delivering some really good stuff."
Greentop, based at Grimesthorpe, near Meadowhall, runs a range of adult classes and workshops for would-be performers, teaching everything from juggling and stilt-walking to clowning and the flying trapeze. It also runs the popular Sheffield Youth Circus which attracts youngsters from across the area.
"It particularly helps kids from poorer backgrounds, not just to learn new skills but to build their confidence, too," said James.
Older members have gone on to take specialist degree courses and to work all over the world as professional circus artistes. But when Caroline first heard about it ten years ago, it was a very different story.
"My husband was working abroad a lot and I was lonely, so my daughter told me about this place that was about to go bankrupt and was looking for some help," she recalled.
Caroline had no experience but decided that fundraising was the immediate priority. She signed up for a short course, sent off a batch of applications and within weeks had raised more than 6,000.
Over the years that sum grew steadily, with money contributed by the Arts Council and Children in Need as well as smaller organisations. But Caroline had no idea just how much she had raised until she totted up the total before handing over to the new chief executive.
"I'm just staggered," she said. "It has constantly pushed me beyond what I thought I could do.
But it's been brilliant fun; absolutely wonderful."
She is no performer herself ("I have a diablo that I toss up and down in the garden but I'm not very good at it") but also took on responsibility for running team-building courses, managing and supplying performers for a whole range of events and also secured a performing licence for the premises.
Caroline's work was officially recognised when she met then Prime Minister Tony Blair and was honoured with fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts. But her real reward came when the surprise bulb-planting at the circus was revealed.
"I guessed something was afoot but it was a complete surprise – and right up my street. The kids loved it and so did I."
lThere's a chance to see Greentop Circus in action at 8pm tonight and tomorrow when students present their end-of-course show Points of Departure. For tickets, priced 5.50, call the Greentop office on (0114) 244 8828.
Buy the Sheffield Telegraph and the Property Guide every Friday. To subscribe CLICK HERE