©Trustees of the British Museum.
One day in April 1772 my 4xgreat Grandfather, a man by the name of Richard Hall, left his home at One London Bridgeand rode in his carriage to wooden premises near Westminster Bridge. Here he paid four shillings as the admission price for himself and his wife, enabling them to be seated in the main gallery. He spent three pence on macaroons, and appears to have enjoyed what he saw so much that he took home - and kept - the handbill. I still have it, along with Richard’s diaries, accounts – even his shopping lists. You name it, the family kept it – in chest after chest of unsorted family memorabilia. I came across the handbill and was intrigued: what was it that he saw? I started delving and it wasn’t long before I decided to write the story of a remarkable showman, by the name of Philip Astley.
It transpires that Philip Astley was the guy who made the modern circus possible. He was one of the greatest showmen of his Age - indeed of any Age. His name is now almost forgotten – but why?The bi-centenary of the anniversary of his death is on October 20th 2014 and I thought I would mark the occasion!
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 the English town of Newcastle-under-Lyme. Yet he became a giant of popular entertainment. How? Because of horsemanship.
Equestrian skills were at the heart of his acts - he could get his horse to dance the minuet, or the hornpipe. He could do handstands on the back of a horse, while firing a pistol. He could ride three or four horses at the same time, and jump from the back of a horse over a ribbon held ten feet above ground level, and land again perfectly. He could gallop at full speed, slide off the saddle and pick up a sword from the ground without pausing. These were skills honed when he served in the British Army during the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763). Here was a man who thought nothing of charging through the enemy lines to rescue the injured Duke of Brunswick. He also captured an enemy standard and presented it to the elderly George II. Later, he rubbed shoulders with George III, blew the socks off fanatical crowds, and went on to open no fewer than 19 circus premises throughout England and Europe.
Richard Hall's handbill from when he went to see Astley in 1772.
Astley 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– 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 centripetal 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.
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 in a military-style uniform, 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). He was the one who told the public what to expect “before their very eyes”.
His 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 an acrobatic monkey, and a "Scientific Pig" able to count cards and do mind-reading tricks!
He led a remarkable life, but died of "gout in the stomach" in 1814 in Paris, aged 72. He was succeeded by his son John, another brilliant horseman, but he only outlived his 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, which came out this month on Amazon.The book is called "Philip Astley - the English Hussar” (because that was his original stage name).You can find it here (American version) and here (European version).
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.