'Happy Birthday' to the circus - birthplace commemorations

Easter Monday 2018, Cornwall Rd and Roupell St London SE1 8TW

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The commemorative plaque in Cornwall Rd SE1 8TW, funded and erected by the Lambeth Estate Residents' Association, unveiled by Chris Barltrop on Easter Monday 2018.

Actor Chris Barltrop became a circus ringmaster in 1976.  Now, as part of this year’s celebrations of the 250th birthday of the world’s first modern circus back in 1768, he's donned the guise of the 'father' of the modern circus, Serjeant-Major Philip Astley, to assist in a long-overdue celebration on the very spot and the very anniversary of those initial performances.

‘Like many important pieces of history, the true story of that first show and the early years of the circus  arts has got blurred into myth’, said Barltrop.  ‘Astley didn’t invent the circus, but he was an instinctive and larger-than-life showman who fostered its birth and its evolution from the displays of trick-riding he gave with his wife in Lambeth into an international art-form incorporating comedy, acrobatics, and feats of strength and physical skill.  

‘Since I joined my first circus all that time ago’ explains the actor and writer ‘I’ve spent a lot of my spare time researching Astley’s story – how he performed to passers-by in a roped-off circular arena on an open field in Lambeth; how he began to include other performers and then took his new show to Ireland, to Vienna and Brussels, and also to France where his troupe performed for Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. 

‘There are circuses now in almost every country across the world.  In terms of global popular culture, Astley’s initiative is as significant as Shakespeare’s’  claims Barltrop.  

On Easter Monday 2018, 250 years to the day since Astley's first performances at a field in Lambeth known as Ha'penny (= Halfpenny) Hatch,  Barltrop unveiled a commemorative plaque funded and erected by the area's  #Lambeth Estate Residents' Association.  That afternoon at the nearby @WaterlooEast Theatre, he premiered a carefully-researched one-man play telling the story.  To impersonate Philip Astley, he was dressed in an authentic replica of the military costume worn by the founding father of circus.  And points out Chris,  'Astley was the initiator, but he wasn't the sole contributor.  Astley’s wife rode with him, beat a drum to draw the crowds, and took the entrance money.  She was Patty Jones, and I'm keen to highlight her important role as a very active and hard-working partner'. 

And also the role of a third participant.  Gibraltar was the horse given to Astley by his former commander in the Light Horse when Colonel Eliott was made Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar after  a distinguished and heroic career.  Horse and man were working partners for decades; his trusted equine companion was part of Astley’s success, and almost as famous as the man himself. 

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION,

please contact Chris Barltrop on 07836 573600 / answers@centreforcircusculture.eu 

Mr Astley with the Khadikov Riders in Roupell St 2nd April 2018 #02.jpg

Mr Astley speaks at the Victoria & Albert Museum

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28th April 2018 'From Waterloo to the World - 250 Years of Circus'

In the guise of Philip Astley. CCC director Chris Barltrop performed at London's famous V & A to an audience attending the final weekend's events of the Museum's month-long exhibition and conference focussing on the circus past, present and future.  A further feather in the Serjeant-Major's cap!  as extracts were performed from Audacious Mr Astley, and as Chris Barltrop was questioned by V & A Curator of Popular Entertainment Cathy Haill on his research and writing towards bringing Astley to renewed life.  The half-hour interview was titled Staging a Legend, and investigated the research done by the writer and actor into the history and character of the 'father of modern circus'.  Many thanks to Ms Haill and her colleagues for this kind invitation, and thanks also to an enthusiastic audience.   

The Amphitheatre commemorated at last!

14th September 2018 St Thomas’s Hospital London SE1 7EH

 Mr Astley joins artistes and horse from Zippo’s Circus to inaugurate a commemorative flagstone at the Garden of St Thomas’s Hospital, Lambeth, London SE1 7EW.  The flagstone was proposed and funded by Martin Burton, founder and director of Zippo’s.

Mr Astley joins artistes and horse from Zippo’s Circus to inaugurate a commemorative flagstone at the Garden of St Thomas’s Hospital, Lambeth, London SE1 7EW. The flagstone was proposed and funded by Martin Burton, founder and director of Zippo’s.

The Astleys found instant success with their performances in 1768 at Ha’penny Hatch, Lambeth Marsh (see separate article under our Stories menu). From 1769, they performed at a former timber yard on the south side of Westminster Bridge. As time went on, the site was developed to be The Royal Grove, and later under a title which found the most enduring fame - Astley’s Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts.

Described by Dickens, recorded by Austen and Thackeray, rebuilt twice after disastrous fires, the Amphitheatre was a much-loved London resort until its final closure and demolition at the behest of the authorities in 1893.

Despite its central role in entertainment history, and despite also the world-wide cultural significance of the circus arts which Philip Astley originated and promoted, there has been no lasting memento of the famous building, Thanks to the initiative of Martin Burton, founder and director of Zippo’s Circus and Cirque Berserk! , that omission has now been rectified.

A group of artistes from Zippo’s Circus joined their boss and Mr Astley (aka Centre for Circus Culture director Chris Barltrop) to inaugurate an inscribed flagstone, laid in the Hospital garden at a point which is likely to have been the front entrance to Astley’s.

Martin ‘Zippo’ Burton commented ‘We thank St Thomas's Hospital for their enthusiastic cooperation in our plans.  We are delighted to honour the tradition of circus and Philip Astley’s legacy. Circus has evolved but its core skills and ability to delight audiences of all ages haven’t changed. I believe circus will still be hugely popular in another 250 years”

 Astley’s Amphitheatre commemorative flagstone at St Thomas’s Hospital Garden, Lambeth, London SE1 7EW (at the southern end of Westminster Bridge) PICTURE CREDIT: Cathy Cooper Photography

Astley’s Amphitheatre commemorative flagstone at St Thomas’s Hospital Garden, Lambeth, London SE1 7EW (at the southern end of Westminster Bridge) PICTURE CREDIT: Cathy Cooper Photography

The Serjeant-Major at the Edinburgh Fringe

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Chris Barltrop has followed the lead of the real Philip Astley and taken his show to Edinburgh.

The Serjeant-Major braved rocky, muddy roads on his long long journey to introduce Scotland to circus entertainment in 1772.  In his modern incarnation, Mr Astley took the M6 high road to reach the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in good time and comparative comfort.  

Thanks to the help of Martin Burton, founder and director of Cirque Berserk! and Zippo's Circus, Audacious Mr Astley was performed at the Pleasance Courtyard through the whole Fringe from 1st to 27th August. 

The show attracted enthusiastic comments and a five-star review!  The respected British Theatre Guide awarded the 5-star accolade and said: '...a fascinating story told in an engaging style...A delightful hour in the company of a fascinating man'.  

Professional reviewer Liz Arratoon, aka The Widow Stanton, said: ''Entertaining, informative, classy!'  And Dea Birkett of @Circus250 praised 'Warmth, knowledge, expertise'.

Mr Astley is up there with the best of 'em - as he's been for the past 250 years!

NEXT PERFORMANCES:

Friday 11th January 2019: as part of a circus day to initiate a full term’s projects at St Mark’s School, Peckham, Kent

Saturday 12th January 2019: St Mary’s Church, Burham, Kent (Burham Old Church)


It all began when a horseman threw his hat into the ring...

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Philip Astley didn’t invent the circus ring, nor did he initially set its size at 13 metres as some histories claim.  But as a daring performer, touring organiser, self-promoter, publicist and as a huge personality, he was truly the ‘father of the modern circus’, establishing a cultural heritage which he and others have spread around the globe.  Say ‘circus’ anywhere in the world and eyes light up as colourful images are invoked.   

On the very day 17-year-old Philip walked out of his father’s joinery workshop after a major argument, recruiting officers were on the streets in London offering young men the King’s Shilling to join a new regiment, Britain’s first-ever light cavalry, initially Eliott’s 1st Light Horse but soon to be renamed the 15th Light Dragoons.

Young Philip didn’t think twice before joining up; decisiveness and quick thinking were to typify his career. Described as having ‘the proportions of a Hercules and the voice of a stentor’, his physique and his personality stood out. The house he later built in Lambeth was Hercules Hall; it’s long gone, but Hercules Road is named after it.

As part of their equestrian training, the new recruits were taught trick-riding; ‘the best horseman will always win against the best swordsman’, they were told. Astley was the star pupil; his instructor called him ‘the devil in disguise’ for his daring. 

Over the following two years, that daring and courage saw him capture an enemy standard in battle and rescue the wounded Duke of Brunswick, brother-in-law to King George III of Great Britain.  His heroism was to stand him in good stead with Royal patronage.

Requesting his discharge in 1766, Astley’s service was rewarded with the gift of his charger - a working partner and the tool of his new trade. Later, when Colonel Eliott was made 1st Baron Heathfield, he presented Astley with his most famous mount, the ‘Spanish Horse’ Gibraltar, named to commemorate Eliott’s successful command of the Rock during the Seven Years’ War .

Astley had watched trick-riders at work, including Johnson ‘the Irish Tartar’ whose style was based on ‘cossack’ riding.  He set up in a field known as Ha’penny (= Halfpenny) Hatch, near the present site of Waterloo Station, marked out a 19-metre circle on the grass, and with his wife Patty performed for people using the busy footpath. Location mattered then as now!

Astley’s family had moved to London, probably to Soho, from their native Newcastle-under-Lyme when the lad was 15.  In spite of his rejection of his father’s trade, the wood-working skills he’d learned as a boy were hugely useful when he came to build a succession of wooden circus arenas.  The most famous was Astley’s Amphitheatre at the southern end of Westminster Bridge, rebuilt twice after disastrous fires; but Philip also set up portable wooden circus buildings for his provincial and foreign tours, earning the nickname of ‘Amphi-Philip’.

Taking his performers around England and into Scotland, to Dublin, to Paris for the French Royal family, and on to the Royal Courts of Belgium and Vienna, Astley extended the popularity of his new entertainment.  Although his Paris performances were called a ‘cirque’, he never used the title ‘circus’, which was invented by one of his many imitators and became the generic name.  

His Amphitheatre is described by Charles Dickens in Master Humphrey’s Clock, and also features in the works of Jane Austen, W M Thackeray, and others. It was a London landmark long after his death, finally demolished in 1893; but Astley’s legacy lives on as ‘father of the modern circus’, a world-wide art-form and entertainment at the very heart of popular culture across the globe.  

250 years after Astley’s first open-air performances on Easter Monday 4th April 1768 at Ha’penny Hatch, his equestrian achievements also live on in modern-day circus performance. Audiences at today’s Classical circuses can see riders hang from the saddle by one leg, pick up objects from the ground at the gallop, stand across two cantering mounts and – as Astley’s own advertising confirms he did – ‘sweep the ground with their hands and elbows at full speed’. 

His successors built on his achievements.  Andrew Ducrow was the son of a Flemish strong-man who performed in Philip Astley’s troupe.  The young Ducrow came to fame after Astley’s death, inventing the ‘Post’ or ‘Courier of St Petersburg’; the rider straddles two horses, picking up the traces of others as they pass below until he’s driving a whole ‘team’. 

As well as his performing skills, the keys to Astley’s success were his personality and his promotion of his shows. Thanks to his audacious initiatives of 250 years ago, we can continue to marvel at the daring and accomplishments of modern circus artistes; to relish the sights and sounds and savours of the Big Top; to share the vigorous living cultural heritage of the world’s most universal and best-loved performing art, the circus!

CHRIS BARLTROP October 2017

LISTEN to Chris Barltrop's interview with Liz Mullen of BFBS Forces Radio about the influence of Philip Astley's military career on circus history.