Philip Astley (1742-1814)
Philip Astley is widely recognised as the founder of modern circus. Although other showmen were actively engaged in the same practices at the time, it was Astley who first built a 42 feet diameter circus ring in 1768 to perform equestrian shows.
Philip was born 8th January 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme. The son of a cabinet maker, he was destined to become an apprentice to his father and continue the family business. However, Philip loathed carpentry and had considerably more ambitious plans for his future. Philip possessed a natural ability with horses and developed a fascination with them from an early age, which led him to become one of the greatest British showmen of all times.
Philip’s refusal to follow his father’s footsteps created a bitter wedge between the two men, which culminated in Philip leaving home at age 17 for the Horse Fair at Coventry. The trip to Coventry to deliver a horse for the market, was his ticket out of an unhappy life as a cabinet maker under his father’s repressive rule, it was also a one off arrangement with no prospects.
While at Coventry and without a place to call home or a penny in his pocket, Philip stumbled into a cavalry recruiting officer who used the fair to attract the crowds of young men who were looking to make an honourable career fighting for King and country. Philip was seduced by a romanticised idea of heroism, the glamourous, shining uniforms and the opportunity to work with horses, and immediately joined General Elliott’s 15th Light Dragoons as a groom.
Philip completed his military tuition on horse training and trick riding at Lord Pembroke’s estate in Salisbury under the watchful eye of Lord Pembroke’s personal trainer, Dominic Angelo. He developed an intimate knowledge of horses, their nature and behaviours and the best techniques to tame them and control them, which were essential skills in the battle field.
Philip was eventually deployed to fight in the Seven Years War (1756-1763), a global conflict that expanded five continents and split Europe in two. During this time, he proved his bravery on several occasions, such as during the Battle of Emsdorf, when he rescued the Duke of Brunswick from the French and seized the enemy’s standard. This gained Philip the grade of Sergeant Major. Upon his return to London at the end of the war, Philip was presented to King George III. He was released of his military duties and given a white horse called Gibraltar in recognition of his accomplishments.
By this point, Philip had developed a remarkable skill in horse training and was one of the most talented riders in the country. He also had a streak of showmanship in him aided by a naturally booming voice and Herculean build and stature, standing at over six feet tall. He started his career as an equestrian trick rider and horse trainer in various locations around London, where he was engaged to perform. Trick riding was one of the most fashionable types of popular entertainment at the time and good riding schools were very sought after by the upper classes, as horses were the only method of transportation and mastering nature was regarded as highly glamourous. It wasn’t long before Philip’s reputation spread and he was able to pursue his ambition to open his own riding school and show.
Philip’s first venture on his own was in an open field in the Lambeth area of London, just across Westminster Bridge, with his wife Patty, who was also a trick rider. What started as a two rider show soon grew in size and complexity as the paying crowds demanded increasingly innovative spectacles of horsemanship and drama. Rudimentary buildings developed into amphitheatres and trick riding into complex theatrical productions and feats of military prowess. Other popular forms of performance were brought into the ring from the fairground and theatre such as acrobatics, clowning, pantomime and juggling, to provide exciting programmes of entertainment worthy of the public demand.
Philip divided his time between his riding school, the performances at Astley’s Amphitheatre and travelling his show around the country and abroad, venturing not only into the cities and town of England but also France, Brussels and Belgrade. True to his ambition to make a name for himself, Philip became a successful impresario owning nineteen amphitheatres at one time. Most of them were based in England but he also built some of the first circus buildings in Paris and other European capitals. His reputation and fame as an expert rider led him to write books on the subject, including; The Modern Riding Master in 1775 and Astley’s System of Equestrian Education in 1801. Philip was favoured by the courts of England and France and developed close links with the court of Louis XVI and Maria Antoinette until the French revolution.
Philip Astley died of gout in the stomach, at the age of 72 in Paris on 20 October 1814 and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery. His various amphitheatres were acquired by some of the most notable British showmen of all time including William Batty and Lord George Sanger, who retained the name of Astley as a testament to his fame, reputation and indelible imprint in the history of circus.