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Dick Bills, Monda Lodge Healesville

Dick Bills didn’t just dream of running away from home and joining a circus; he ran away multiple times and bought his own circus.

A circus tent with the text - circus, Australian Imperial Force, WW2, prize winning racehorse, lion tamer, pony stud farm, never give up.

Dick Bills didn’t just dream of running away from home and joining a circus; he ran away multiple times and bought his own circus. Over the action-packed course of his 99 years, Dick has tamed lions, horses and monkeys, served his country, negotiated land deals, trained prize-winning racehorses and established a prize-winning pony stud.

Dick hated school and didn’t get on with his father. He repeatedly ran away and stayed with a mate’s family in South Belgrave. The McKenzies eventually became his surrogate parents and Pat McKenzie taught Dick how to break in horses and hone his horsemanship.

‘That was the happiest time of my life up there,’ Dick says.

World War II

When World War II broke out, Dick was determined to fight overseas in the Australian Imperial Force, like his brothers. As he was only 18, he needed parental permission to join the AIF, which his mother refused to give. In defiance, he joined the Australian Military Force (AMF) instead. ‘The AMF could only serve in Australia or the surrounding islands, so I went AWOL (Absent With Out Leave) and I said I wouldn't go back until my mother signed me up for the AIF.’

His mother relented and he was able to join the AIF, where his horsemanship was put to good use. He served in the Australian Pack Horse Transport, breaking in horses that were needed to carry soldiers and equipment. He never did get to serve overseas. ‘I dodged a bullet,’ he says. ‘My unit all got pretty well wiped out over there, but I broke my foot the week before they went and I was left behind.’

Land deal

Dick had helped out with a pony ride business from the age of 12. When the owner of the business learned he was joining up, she offered to sell him some purebred mares so he could start a stud before he left. His dad also gave him £1,000 — the same amount his brothers had received when they turned 21 — in case he didn’t reach his majority. Dick used £800 of it to buy 20 acres in Templestowe and the rest was used to put a 30-day holding deposit on the adjoining 40 acres, which had river frontage.

‘In that 30 days, I traced up a buyer to buy enough of it to leave me 12 acres for nothing. So that gave me 32 acres, which I had up until 1966.’

After he was discharged from the army, Dick ran a milk dairy whilst b building up his stud, which grew to become one of the top Shetland Pony stud farms in Australia.

Circus owner

‘Circuses used to come to buy ponies from me and I got to know a lot of the circus people very well. In 1947, I decided to buy out a rundown circus.’

Dick’s wife, Peggy, had worked with horses and became a trapeze artist in his circus.

‘I was an all-rounder with the animals and their acts; I could fill in if anyone was sick or anything. My specialty was a slack wire act and working animals.’

Lion tamer

Bullens Circus taught Dick the basics of lion taming and he worked a lion act in Japan for a few months at a travelling zoo.

‘The lions used to do all sorts of tricks, I'd hold a hula hoop that was on fire over my head and they jumped through the hoop.’

Back in Australia, Dick joined up with Perry Circus for a year. ‘They had an old lion act that hadn't been worked for some years and one of the lionesses called Pansy had a bad reputation for mauling people, but she and I got on pretty well. I respected her. She respected me.’

Adrenaline junkie

It was the adrenaline of working with wild animals that Dick loved.

‘Some nights when I was cleaning my boots I'd think, “Well, might be the last time”.’

One night, it almost was. The exhaustion of performing late into the night before packing up the tents and moving on to the next venue early the next day was taking its toll. Dick had lost 10 kilos in a year, and he passed out from fatigue during a performance — luckily near the cage door. Peggy pulled him out and later told him that one of the lions had been licking his foot.

His next adventure was becoming a racehorse trainer and his mare, Miracle Belle, became a prize-winning sprinter. After training horses for several years, Dick moved to Bass, near Phillip Island, and started a beef cattle stud.

His advice to younger people is simple: ‘Never give up — anything I've been told I couldn't do, I’ve made sure I've done it.’

Reviewed 29 January 2024