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Astley's Royal Amphitheatre: the first circus

Astley's Royal Amphitheatre in London around 1808

“Damn everything but the circus!” e.e.cummings famously exclaimed during a series of “non-lectures” he gave at Harvard in the early 1950s. Few in Regency England would’ve quibbled with that viewpoint if it’d been expressed over a century earlier. Because for visitors to London in the late 18th or early 19th century, a visit to Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre to see the circus was an absolute must.

Philip Astley (1742-1814) was an expert horseman and riding teacher. Six feet tall, he learned how to ride when he was a cavalry officer in the British army. Astley decided to teach riding, and he also wanted the show off the tricks he and his horses could do. So he opened a riding school in Lambeth (located on the southern outskirts of London just across the Westminster Bridge) in 1768. He taught in the morning and did tricks with his horses in the afternoon. His wife Patty provided musical accompaniment for the action on the field by banging on a drum.

Patty was also an expert on horseback, and she joined her husband’s performances. The two Astleys must have been something to see. Her best trick was riding while wearing a “muff” made of live bees on her hands and arms. Astley was famous for combining comedy with horseback riding, which he did in an act he called the Tailor of Brentford. 

Astley added other acts to his shows, additions that included "rope dancers" (acrobats on a tightrope), strong men, and jugglers. By 1780 he’d built a roof over the open field he used so audiences could enjoy the show during rainy weather.

Philip Astley, regarded as
the father of the modern circus

Astley didn’t create the art of trick riding, nor was he the first person to use acrobatic stunts to entertain audiences. But he did combine these two types of performances, and it was a wild success.

And Astley’s amphitheater was also innovative in that the horses and their riders did their tricks in a circle, instead of the straight lines that other trick riders used. Astley’s circus ring, which he debuted in 1768, was 42 feet in diameter, and that’s been the international standard size of a circus ring ever since.  

His idea of using a circle was a good one for two reasons: the audience could see the riders better, and by going round and round in a circle the riders were able to use centrifugal force to stay balanced as they stood on their mounts.

Astley opened his "Royal Amphitheatre" in 1795 after his first building burned down. (Theatres and buildings of this time it were lit by candles, which meant they inevitably caught fire and burned to the ground. Astley's amphitheaters were no exception; they were destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt several times over the years.)  

The original Astley's Amphitheatre in 1777, before the roof
was added (hand-colored etching by Charles John Smith) 

Astley's new building had a proscenium arch over a massive stage, with ramps connecting the stage to the circus ring. That design not only brought the audience closer to the action, but it also increased the possibilities for dramatic acts and stunts, which Astley took full advantage of in his shows. 

Astley himself didn’t use the term “circus;” that word was coined by his rival, Charles Dibdin, who used the circular ring as inspiration for the term. Dibdin created a show almost identical to Astley’s in 1782 and called it “The Royal Circus.”

Astley’s shows became famous throughout Europe. In 1772 he was invited to Versailles to perform for King Louis XV and his court. Astley went on to build amphitheaters in 18 other cities across the Continent, including one in Paris in 1782.

By the early 1800s, his London show was housed in a splendid space. Regency audiences thrilled to see the daring exploits on horseback performed by Astley’s son and daughter-in-law, John and Hannah Astley.

Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre was described by contemporaries as “the handsomest pleasure haunt in London.” Though the exterior wasn’t that impressive, the inside was adorned by hanging chandeliers and three tiers of seats surrounding the sawdust ring. There was an orchestra and a stage that for a time was the biggest in London. 

Pablo Fanque performing at Astley's in 1847. (He's mentioned
in the Beatles' song "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"
on their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.)

Audiences were thrilled by the inventive acts, including melodramas that incorporated magicians, sword fights, tightrope walkers, and clowns. Jugglers kept audiences entertained between acts. And of course, grand feats of horsemanship and were also on the bill of fare, while elaborate “equestrian spectacles” were the big draw.

Astley’s show was so popular that mention of it can be found in the works of 19th-century novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Though it had different owners following Astley’s death in 1814, Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre provided circus entertainment for the public throughout most of the 19th century. It finally closed in 1893 and the building was torn down the next year.

But Astley’s original idea didn’t die; it evolved into countless other circuses around the world, including the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (now defunct) and today’s popular Cirque de Soleil. 

Cirque de Soleil performing Dralion in Vienna in 2004 by photographer
Clemens Pfeiffer, Wikimedia user Jean Gagnon

And currently performing in cities across North America is a touring entertainment company called Cavalia that features horses and riders in what's been described as an "equestrian ballet."  

A Cavalia show can include riders doing acrobatic stunts on horseback like the “Haute Ecole” (a trick where the horse jumps, also known as “airs above the ground”), vaulting (where the rider does gymnastics on horseback) and riding without a bridle. In other words, trick riding.

So, in many ways, Astley’s vision of circus entertainment is still alive and well here in the 21st century!

A Cavalia "mirror" scene; author Lynne Glazer,
 licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sources for this post include:
  • "The First Circus" from the Victoria and Albert Museum website
  • Laudermilk, Sharon H. and Hamlin, Teresa L., The Regency Companion, Graland Publishing, Inc., New York & London, 1989


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