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.