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Friday, 10 January 2014

Guest Blog: Astley's Circus, by Mike Rendell

My regulars know I'm a great fan of Mike Rendell, who first brought to us his 'Diary of a Georgian Gentleman' using the two trunks of ephemera left by his 4xGreat Grandfather, Richard Hall; and that ephemera has sent Mike researching in other directions.  I have to confess I rather bullied him into publishing the booklet about Richard's exquisite paper cut-outs; which he followed up with one on Bristol Blue glass.  
Richard Hall also kept a selection of handbills and programmes for entertainments, including Astley's Amphitheatre.  Anyone who has read Georgette Heyer will have some passing knowledge of the Equestrian feats of this famous amusement; but has anyone given a thought to how it began?  In Mike's new book 'Astley's Circus - the story of an English hussar' he explores its origins, its highs and lows [mostly highs] as the origin of Circus as we know it today.  A must-have book for any serious student of, or writer in the period, the only comprehensive work on the subject available.  You can get it at or

enough of me maudering on, over to Mike.

It is funny how a chance opportunity can lead you off at a tangent. If you had suggested to me six months ago that I might write a book about the origins of the circus in the Eighteenth Century – a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing – I would have assumed you were a trifle unbalanced. Yet I got caught up in a challenge to deliver a paper to academics at Bath Spa University on Georgian Entertainment and chose as my topic the life of Philip Astley, the man credited as being “the Father of the modern circus.” Before I knew it I was totally absorbed in his story, and ended up publishing a book about him. The bi-centenary of the anniversary of his death is on October 20th this year and I thought I would mark the occasion!
It is not as if I have ever been particularly fascinated by the circus – here is one person who never dreamed of running away to try my hand on the high wire, or juggling. But having heard about Astley, and after delving into some of the material about him, his life and achievements quickly became an obsession. He was one of the greatest showmen of his Age - indeed of any Age. His name is now almost forgotten – but why?
Forget Barnum, forget Bailey - a hundred years earlier than these giants of the triple-top Philip Astley laid down the basics of the modern circus.  Most circus stars were (and still are) born into a particular branch of the entertainment world - there are generations of the same family who juggle, or walk the tightrope, or whatever. But Astley had no theatrical or street-entertainment background - his father was a cabinet maker from Newcastle under Lyme. Yet he became a giant of popular entertainment. How? Because of horsemanship.

:   ©Trustees of the British Museum

Astley was the horse whisperer of his Age - and a brilliant showman. He brought out a book about how to train and look after horses. He also realized that if you belted up and down a rectangular pitch the audience could not easily follow the action. So he fixed on a circle – he called it a ring – and found that with a diameter of 42 feet the horse could gallop at full speed without changing its gait, and with the added advantage that centrifugal force would then help keep the rider standing upright. All of the action took place right in front of the audience, all the time. It is still the standard size of circus ring in use today.
When Astley married, his wife joined him in his acts, appearing on horseback with a muff. Not your normal everyday muff, but one made up of a swarm of bees encircling her wrists! Everything had the WOW! factor. Astley diversified from horse riding skills to introduce equestrian clowning; he did juggling and magic tricks involving an early form of a mind-reading act; he brought a spectacle involving fireworks, an orchestra, juggling, acrobatics, rope walking,  and so on and gave the public what they wanted - skills and thrills a-plenty. He created the role of ringmaster, standing in the centre of a circus ring, controlling the horses and performers, with his bellowing voice and "statuesque" physique (he was over six feet tall, and had a girth like a tree trunk).
It turns out that my 4x Great Grandfather went to see one of the earliest Astley performances, in the early 1770’s. At that stage Astley was stressing that it was a riding school – he taught equestrian skills in the morning and ‘put on a bit of a show’ in the afternoon. My ancestor kept the handbill from when he went to see the show – and that day he paid out four shillings to cover the cost of admission to the Gallery, for himself and his wife, and forked out another three-pence on macaroons! How do I know? Because the family still have the handbill, and all the accounts and diary entries from the period.

Ancestor Richard Hall’s handbill for “Astley’s  British Riding School”
Astley’s business empire was frequently hit by fire, but each time his premises burned to the ground, he re-built them. Curiously he always re-built in wood, never stone, despite the obvious risks of using candles - literally thousands of them - with sawdust on the floor, wooden seats, and with a wooden roof and walls.
He trained and inspired a legion of skilled entertainers and impresarios, who spread the circus throughout Europe, to America, Asia and Australia. Forget the sad parade of wild animals being dragged from town to town - they were not HIS circus. Wild animals didn’t really come into the circus story until the mid-1800’s. His circus was based on equestrian skills - although admittedly he also used a monkey called General Jackoo who performed acrobatic tricks, and a "Scientific Pig" able to count cards and do mind-reading tricks!
He enjoyed royal patronage both in England and in France, where Philip and his son were particular favourites of Marie Antoinette.
He led a remarkable life, but died of what was diagnosed as "gout in the stomach" in 1814 in Paris, aged 72. He was succeeded by his son John, another brilliant horseman, but the son only outlived the  father by seven years before liver failure killed him. He died in the same house - and indeed the same room, in the same bed - as his father, and both were buried in the same cemetery

And so it is that for the past few months I have been trawling through some of the amazing on-line newspaper records from the Georgian era identifying advertisements and news reports about Astley. The material available about him is vast - he certainly knew how to blow his own trumpet! And because I am a sucker for pictures I have included loads of images in the book. Many of the museums were kind enough to allow me to use their images without charging a copyright fee, albeit on condition that it is not released as an e-book. Amazon agreed to publish it in full colour, but I am aware that this rather pushes the price up so I am also offering it for sale in black-and-white. It is called "Philip Astley - the English Hussar” (because that was his original stage name).
Meanwhile: I salute the old boy - he was a rough diamond if ever there was one. A man with virtually no formal education, he was a Georgian entrepreneur who should be up there with all the other greats of the Age, from Matthew Boulton to Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Chippendale - and yet his success is nowadays totally overlooked. Two centuries after his death, it is time he was recognized for his contribution to what was a brand-new form of public entertainment – the circus!


  1. I must say the blog post is just useful for everyone else reading it because the information and knowledge it contains is very important. I like the post! Excellent job! Keep sharing such valuable information through your blogs.

  2. It's excellent, isn't it? My copy of the book arrived yesterday and I neglected all my other duties to read it...

  3. Thank you from me, too. I have been interested in Astley’s Circus for a while. I would have loved to see his dramatic shows. Thanks also for proving the pictures. I am quite surprised that Philip Astley was rather “conveniently sized”. Somehow, I had always pictured him lean.

  4. Lol, Anna, so had I pictured him as lean! tall and spare... Do buy Mike's book, you won't be disappointed, I was beating off plot bunnies as I read it.... and as you've actually done some work with horses you'll probably appreciate the skill even more...