Who Was Philip Astley? The Father of the Modern British Circus

Mike Rendell

5 mins

18 Feb 2020

In the early days of Philip Astley’s Riding School, he would give riding lessons in the morning in a disused field in Lambeth, and in the afternoon he would get his pupils to “put on a bit of a show” by entertaining passers-by with exhibitions of trick-riding and so on.

The founder of the modern circus, Astley would go on to lease premises near Westminster Bridge and gave exhibitions based around his riding skills – riding 5 horses at once, or jumping on and off horseback, or vaulting a coloured ribbon and landing back on the horse.

Bringing in the clowns

The breakthrough came when he had the idea to add street performers to his act.

Jugglers and acrobats had existed for centuries but only as separate performers at fairs and country shows. What really made the transition to all-round family entertainment was when Astley pioneered a “marriage” between equestrianism and clowning.

Clowns had been around for a long while, but Astley was the first to link it with horse riding. In particular he launched an act called ‘The Tailor of Brentford’.

Astley's Amphitheatre

Astley’s Amphitheatre in London c. 1808 (Credit: August Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson / Harvard University).

A gaudily dressed tailor, played by Astley, would announce that he was in a hurry to get home to Brentford to be able to cast his vote in a general election.

He would run over to his horse which, at the last moment, would take two steps forward, leaving Astley sprawled in the sawdust which lined the ring.

The horse would trot off while Astley tried to run after the animal – until the horse picked up speed and soon was the one chasing Astley, to the great merriment of the audience.

After repeated mishaps with the rider getting on the horse the wrong way round, or falling off, the horse and rider would finally get their act together and Astley would reveal his brilliant riding skills.

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One day a member of the audience, apparently a tailor himself, objected to what he saw as a slur on his profession.

He was offered the chance to show the audience that he could ride, but no sooner was he mounted than Astley clicked his fingers – a hidden signal for the horse to drop to its front knees, thereby launching the hapless tailor head first.

The crowd loved it, and this “spontaneous” interruption to the act became a regular feature.

The bellowing horse whisperer

Amphitheatre of Astley's circus

Amphitheatre of Astley’s circus. Engraving by Charles John Smith after William Capon, c. 1838 (Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum).

No wild animals were involved inside Astley’s ring. Elephants, tigers and lions had no part to play in the early circus.

For Astley, it was all about demonstrating the bond between horse and man. He had a unique way of training the horses with repetition followed by reward, followed by repetition and reward, over and over again.

Any disturbance to the training – for instance if a shot or loud noise was heard, then he would stop the lesson for the whole of the rest of that day. He must have been a striking figure – 6 foot tall, a burly sergeant-major of a man, with a bellowing voice.

Born in 1742 to a furniture maker in Newcastle under Lyme, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps but the young Astley wanted adventure – and he wanted to work with horses. So, he joined the army.

Amphithéâtre Anglais Philip Astley

Announcement of the three last days of the 1784 season at the Amphithéâtre Anglais in Paris (Credit: Gallica Digital Library).

There he learned how to train horses for battle and he served with valour and distinction in the 7 Years War.

Not only did he capture the French colours in one battle, but in another he rescued a member of the British royal family by single-handedly riding through the enemy lines to pick up the royal, who had become surrounded in the melee and needed to be dragged back to safety on board Astley’s horse.

Astley was the “horse whisperer” of his day, but he was also a rough diamond and poorly educated. He was nevertheless extremely popular – not just with the general public, who flocked to see him in their thousands, but also with royalty, who were regulars at his circus performances. He revelled in the fact that he was on speaking terms with the king, George III.

Getting the show on the road

Cirque Olympique

Astley’s Cirque Olympique in Paris, founded in 1782 (Credit: Jacques Alphonse Testard).

In time Astley performed in the open-air arenas and built permanent sites in Dublin, Paris and as far afield as Vienna. 19 permanent circus venues were established in Europe.

This family-friendly form of entertainment was developed by others and quickly spread to America, where they added the big top and introduced wild animals and a separate tent containing freak show exhibits.

But for Astley, it remained a demonstration of equestrian skills. Sadly, nothing really remains of his prowess – largely because he always insisted on building in wood and not stone, and so his amphitheatres kept burning down.

Over and over he would rebuild. He was a carpenter’s son – and wood was what he felt comfortable with. He liked the idea of a structure which could be de-mounted and carted off around the country, taking the show to the people.

If it burned down then, well, he just set to and rebuilt it for the following season.

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Under the stage limelight

Astley died in Paris on 27 January 1814 but his legacy – despite not getting the recognition it deserves – lives on in variety performances to this day.

Astley gave us jugglers, clowning, acrobats and “mind-reading” animals. He gave us brilliant horsemanship; he gave us slack wire dancing and human pyramids, and and all of it could be enjoyed by young and old alike.

Astley plaque

Plaque at Cornwall Rd. Lambeth on the 250th Anniversary of the world’s first circus performance (Credit: Chris Barltrop / CC).

His shows crossed all social boundaries – it was mass entertainment which was available to everyone.

Astley shares the spotlight with a host of people who are often overlooked when we consider who were the Greats of the Georgian era.

We tend to think of the Industrial Revolution – the James Watt’s of the world – but there were an awful lot of people who had just as dramatic an effect on our world. Astley was most certainly one of them.

Mike Rendell has written 11 books, all of them about Georgian England. His interest in the period was inspired by a fascinating cache of papers left by his 18th century ancestors. Trailblazing Georgians: The Unsung Men Who Helped Shape the Modern World is his fifth book for Pen & Sword.