|Astley’soriginal Amphitheater with the seating area covered circa 1772.|
One of the ongoing interests of this little blog is the cultural history of popular entertainment. How ordinary folks spent what was often their very limited free time and money helped shape their hopes and dreams and how they viewed the world around them.
On this date in 1768 an ex-cavalryman named Philip Astley opened in London, England what would become the first true modern circus.
Astley was born in 1742 on January 8, almost 26 years to the day of his new venture in the quaintly named Newcastle-under-Lyme, is a market town in Staffordshire. His father, a cabinet maker belonged to the class of highly skilled craftsman so the family enjoyed relative comfort. Naturally the father hoped his son would follow him in the trade, but the lad was gob smacked over horses. Apprenticed to his father from age 9, at 17 he left home to be around horses in the only way open to an urban lad of his circumstances.
He enlisted in Elliot’s Light Horse, the first regiment of Light Dragoons in the Army and soon a legendary a decorated unit re-named the 15th Dragoons. Astley quickly proved himself an excellent horseman and a natural leader. He served with distinction in the Seven Years War on the Continent. By the time he left the service he had risen to regimental sergeant major and mastered trick riding for the amusement of the officers and men.
Astley took his mustering out pay, and likely some money loaned either by his father or former regimental officers and opened a riding school in London. To supplement his income, he decided to showcase his trick riding at afternoon exhibitions in an open field by his school.
At the time trick riding was a popular amusement. At least a half dozen could be found around the city. But Astley made a big innovation. Rider had traditionally performed their stunts running in a straight line. That required a fair amount of ground and also quickly took the riders out of easy viewing by the audience standing in the field. Astley constructed a slightly raised ring and ran his horses in a circle immediately in front of an audience who could view equally well on all sides. He also discovered that the centrifugal force of moving in a circle allowed him to perform even more daring feats of horsemanship.
The shows he began that January day were a success. In two years he was able to move his school and performance area to a better location on the Lambeth side of the Westminster Bridge. That year he added clowns to keep the audience amused between tricks and changes of horses. Over the next two years he added additional equestrian acts, jugglers, acrobats, and musicians to the show. Astley was the first to put them all together in one show.
All of these entertainers had long histories and had their own guilds going back to at least Tudor times. They performed separately in traveling wagon shows, in inn courts, at fairs, and for the private entertainment of nobles and gentlefolk.
By 1772 his fame had spread so far that he was invited to France to perform before Louis XV at Versailles, thus introducing the new kind of show to the Continent.
Back in London the next year he erected seating and put up walls and a roof so that shows could go on in any weather. Astley’s Amphitheatre burned to the ground in 1794 but was rebuilt more elaborately, as it would be after two more fires before becoming the grand and elegant Royal Astley’s Amphitheater.
Flushed with success, Astley became an international impresario. In 1782 he built the Amphithéâtre Anglais in Paris, the first permanent home of this kind of entertainment in France. He went on to build amphitheaters and establish troops in 18 other cities across Europe.
But he didn’t call any of them circuses. That name came from an upstart London competitor, Charles Hughes opened up what he called the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy. Circus, of course refereed to the circular ring of Astley’s invention and appealed to the classical tastes of the elite by echoing the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome.
Astley presided over his shows until he died in January of 1814 at the age of 72. His Amphitheater and show survived him. The show endured under various owners until 1860 after which the building was converted to other uses before being razed in 1894.
Modern animal rights activists critical of the circus will be pleased to note that Astley never employed exotic animals or exhibited a menagerie. That innovation occurred in France after his death.
The central role of Astley’s Amphitheater in the life of London in the 19th Century is attested to by references by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Makepeace Thackeray. At least three fiddle tunes and dances were also named for Astley.