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.
from Emma, by Jane Austen, Chapter 54.
Long-faded in popular memory, “Astley’s” in its day occupied a huge space in the public imagination, among Londoners in particular. Combining for the first time the then-disparate entertainments of trick-riding, acrobatics, clowns and pantomime, it was the world’s first modern circus. Mentioned in the popular fiction of Dickens, Austen and Thackeray among others, it was oft-lampooned in the pages of Punch. But Dickens himself loved the place. It was based just south of Westminster Bridge in part of the site of today’s St Thomas’ Hospital. Astley’s Amphitheatre, as it was most commonly known, existed under various names and proprietors from the 1770s until 1893, nearly 80 years after the death of its founder, the remarkable Philip Astley (1742 – 1814).
Philip Astley was an amazing character. The son of a cabinet maker from Newcastle under Lyme, he became a master of horsemanship and swordcraft in the 15th Light Dragoons, rising through the ranks to sergeant-major. He saw plenty of action during the Seven Years War, distinguishing himself by capturing an enemy standard. But his métier was horsemanship and he completed his service breaking and training horses. Such was his esteem, on discharge in 1766 he was given a white charger called Gibraltar by General Elliot.
Six feet tall with a hot temper and a booming voice, Astley was a man who stood out in a crowd. But for all his bluff outward appearances, Astley was a shrewd operator and businessman: he did his homework, what we would call market research. Visiting London’s leading theatres, he noticed that audiences loved the supplementary entertainments: jugglers, clowns, acrobats. At the same time, dramatic theatre in the age of David Garrick (1717 – 79) was taking itself more seriously, and these novelty acts were increasingly being dropped from the bill. Astley identified an opportunity to make these acts the focus of the entertainment combined with highly popular equestrian troupe performances which typically took place in parks or fields outside the city centre. Setting up shop with an open air stage on land south of Westminster Bridge, he met with immediate and resounding success.
Rather than stop there, the energetic impressario almost immediately opened a similar show in Paris (the Manège Anglais, later the Amphithéâtre Anglais which was thereafter mostly run by his son John, also a highly-talented equestrian) and soon afterwards, in Dublin. And when the London season finished in the spring, he took his company on tour around Britain.
But Astley’s progress was not all plain sailing. Competition soon sprang up in the form of the “Royal Circus”, established by his protegé and now rival, Charles Hughes. Although successful for a while, Hughes and his partners lacked Astley’s business acumen and their operation struggled for years mired in debt and constant feuding, eventually disappearing altogether at the turn of the century. Astley’s second problem was the loss of his Paris operation after the revolution, something he bore patiently until it was restored after the Peace of Amiens in 1802. And third, the scourge of all theatres in an age of wood, canvas, spirits and flame-based illumination: fire. Astley’s Amphitheatre burned down in 1794 while Astley was away on active service with his old regiment (aged 51, what a trouper!), and again in 1803. Fortunately, his business had more than enough bottom to allow immediate rebuilds.
War and revolution notwithstanding, Astley spent much time in Paris, where he and the locals clearly appreciated one another. He died there in 1814 from stomach gout and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Son John continued the business until his own death from alcohol-related problems seven years later. Thereafter, Astley’s continued more or less successfully and popularly though almost the entire 19C under various managers and owners, notably Andrew Ducrow, Dion Boucicault, the Sanger brothers and William Batty. The building was demolished in 1893.
Hercules Road in Lambeth, where Astley had his mansion, is named after one of his popular acts, the human pyramid, or Force d’Hercule. In his time, he was celebrated in song and fêted by kings, queens, princes and people alike. Today, unlike the likes of PT Barnum and Billy Smart, this titan of popular entertainment is all but forgotten. One can only wonder what the Millennium Dome project would have become with Philip Astley in charge.
On our recent visit to Kensal Green Cemetery, one of the guides showed us this advertisement for circus performer Andrew Ducrow, whose tomb is in the cemetery. It shows Astley’s still going strong nearly 20 years after the death of its eponymous founding proprietor.
Of the sources listed below, the best is Circopedia, while AVictorian.com (a delightful discovery today) gives interesting contemporary reports.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The London Encyclopaedia by Weinreb, Hibbert et al.
Brewer’s London Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by Russ Willey.