Philip Astley (8 January 1742 – 27 January 1814) is regarded as the "father of the modern circus". The circus industry, as a presenter of an integrated entertainment experience that includes music, domesticated animals, acrobats, and clowns, traces its heritage to Astley's Amphitheatre, a riding school that Astley founded in London following the success of his invention of the circus ring in 1768.
He was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in England and his father was a cabinetmaker. At the age of nine, he apprenticed to work with his father, but Astley's dream was to work with horses, so he joined Colonel Eliott's Fifteenth Light Dragoon Regiment when he was 17, later becoming a Sergeant Major. He also served in the Seven Years War, and his army service brought him into contact with professional trainers and horse riders. Astley himself was a brilliant rider.
Astley had a genius for trick riding. He saw that trick riders received more attention from the crowds in Islington. He had an idea for opening a riding school in London, where he could also conduct shows of acrobatic riding skill. In 1768, Astley performed in an open field at what is now the Waterloo area of London, behind the present site of St John's Church. He rode in a circle rather than a straight line as his rivals did, and thus chanced on the format which was later named a 'circus'. This format was so successful that Astley added a clown to his shows to amuse the spectators between equestrian sequences, and later moved to fenced premises just south of Westminster Bridge, where he opened his riding school from 1770 onwards and expanded the content of his shows (see below). He taught riding in the mornings and performed his “feats of horsemanship” in the afternoons.
Astley began to make a good reputation and to grow wealthier. After two seasons in London he had to bring some novelty to his performances, so he hired other equestrians, musicians, a clown, jugglers, tumblers, tightrope walkers, and dancing dogs — the modern circus was created. Guilds and lineages of acrobats and clowns had lived and performed throughout Europe for centuries before this, but as members of independent professions, not as part of an integrated entertainment experience for which an all-inclusive ticket was sold.
Astley did not invent trick-riding, which was already a popular entertainment of the period. His invention of the circular arena was successful for two reasons. First of all, it was easier for the audience to keep the riders in sight. Secondly, the circular Ring (though Astley called it 'the Ride') helped riders through the generation of centrifugal force, which allowed them to keep their balance whilst standing on the backs of their galloping horses. Astley never called his arena a circus, though that title was shortly invented by others because of its shape. The title Astley used for his premises was 'Astley's Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts'. After a few years, he added a platform, seats, and a roof to his ring; later, Astley's (self-titled) Royal Amphitheatre was justly famous throughout the nineteenth century, being mentioned by Dickens and Jane Austen among others. It was closed in 1893 and was demolished the next year. The nurses' accommodation block of St Thomas's Hospital now stands on the site.
Astley's original circus ring was 62 ft (~19 m) in diameter, and later he settled it at 42 ft (~13 m), which has been an international standard for circuses since then. Not far from the Amphitheatre site is Hercules Rd, named after the house Astley built and named Hercules Hall. The house is long gone, but its name is said to have commemorated Astley's celebrated horseback representation of the Seven Labours of Hercules.
Astley's circus was so popular that he was invited in 1772 to perform before King Louis XV of France in Versailles. Having been established from 1770 as a riding school and for open-air performances, the first Astley's Amphitheatre opened in London in 1773; it burned on 17 September 1794, but with abundant resources available due to the venture's prosperity it was rebuilt and, in course was rebuilt again after successive fires, and eventually grew to become Astley's Royal Amphitheatre. Astley opened the first Parisian circus in 1782, which he called the Amphitheatre Anglais. Soon after that, others opened new circuses, and this led to their worldwide fame.
Astley's first competitor was equestrian Charles Hughes, who had previously worked with Astley. Together with Charles Dibdin, a famous author of pantomimes, Hughes opened a rival amphitheatre in London, which Dibdin called Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy.
Astley established 18 other circuses in other European cities; was patronised by a great number of royals, and was famous, envied, and occasionally rich. He never used wild animals in the circus arena. They began to be displayed 14 years after his death in Paris. He was buried in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery, having expired from gout in the stomach.
Astley's Amphitheatre is referenced in Jane Austen's Emma, in Chapter 54: "He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley's. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley's." It is also a motif of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
Astley's fame is also marked by the existence of three dance tunes which bear his name - Astley's Ride(s), Astley's Flag and more common, Astley's Hornpipe . Astley's Ride appears as the first tune in the music manuscript book of poet John Clare.
Astley's Circus is featured prominently in Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright.
- Dan Rice