Philip Astley: The Father of Circus

Interior of Astley's Amphitheatre

It is generally accepted that Philip Astley laid the foundations of modern circus, when, in 1768, he brought together highly skilled performers, clowns, acrobats and equestrians inside a circular ring. Astley was born at Newcastle-under-Lyme on 8 January 1742. His father was Edward Astley, a cabinet maker to whom Philip was apprenticed at the age of nine. Their troubled relationship led the young Philip to leave home in 1759 and enlist in the Light Horse, serving H.M. 15th Regiment of Light Dragoons, under Colonel Eliott. Over six feet in height and imposing in stature, Astley distinguished himself in the army, developing remarkable skills in horse training and riding. Discharged in 1766, Astley and his wife Patty travelled to London, setting up at Glover's 'Halfpenny Hatch', between Neptune and Angel Streets, in the mid-summer of 1768. Mrs Astley would perform several of the turns, sometimes covering for her husband when his war wound was troubling him. The hiring of professional clowns and acrobats soon followed and the Astleys fostered a new genre in which the traditional comic interludes of the fairground and theatre were incorporated into an arena of trick-riding, horsemanship and performance skills within a ring.

Astley ultimately settled down at Westminster Bridge Road, where initially he used an open-air circular arena, and then built a partially covered amphitheatre styled 'Astley's British Riding School', which opened in 1770. Astley discovered that exhibitions of trick-riding joined with other entertainments in the ring attracted more patrons than riding lessons. It was this special combination of equestrian and other entertainments held in a special exhibition area which distinguished Astley from his predecessors. Using an arena forty-two feet in diameter, housed within an increasingly elaborate amphitheatre, Astley combined scenes of horsemanship, rope-walking, juggling, acrobatics, and performing dogs, all with musical accompaniment, an exhibition which was the genesis of the circus entertainment we recognise today. Astley visited the provinces, exhibiting in the open air at Bristol in 1772, and embarking on a six-month tour of Ireland where he opened a new riding school in Dublin in 1773 after being forced to close in London. In 1775 he published The Modern Riding Master (afterwards expanded and republished as Astley's System of Equestrian Education in 1801, dedicated to the Duke of York). In 1782 he visited the Continent, appearing in Brussels, Belgrade and Paris (5 July 1782). He set up the 'Amphithéâtre Astley' in Paris in 1783. There is some evidence that he travelled as far as Vienna and Belgrade, building a total of nineteen different 'circuses' in various European capitals.

In 1786, his Westminster Bridge Road amphitheatre was remodelled and decorated as the 'Royal Grove'. Circus was performed here as before until 1787, when Astley decided to diversify and introduced pantomime, burlesque and stage spectacles. At all times Astley's demeanour reflected his military experiences, particularly his emphasis on equestrian training and military spectacles, and he usually appeared in the ring in full military uniform. From the outset Astley had spent his winters strategically touring British towns and continental capitals. His company performed at pleasure gardens, fairs, assizes, and races, and in open fields well into the 1780s, later tending to erect temporary wooden circuses or adapt municipal theatres. Astley played the British and French courts against each other, earning command performances, gifts and favours from both.

Philip Astley died, diagnosed with gout in the stomach, at the age of 72 in Paris on 20 October 1814 and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery. He had spent forty-six years developing his art of equestrian entertainment, which he exploited commercially. It is accepted that he originated little that was new in terms of individual performance pieces, but in combining various acts into one spectacle he founded circus as we know it.