Philip Astley (8 January 1742 – 27 January 1814) was an English equestrian, circus owner, and inventor, regarded as being the "father of the modern circus". The circus industry, as a presenter of an integrated entertainment experience that includes music, domesticated animals, acrobats, and clowns, traces its heritage to Astley's Amphitheatre, a riding school that Astley founded in London following the success of his invention of the circus ring in 1768.
Philip Astley was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in England the son of a cabinetmaker. At the age of nine, he apprenticed with his father, but Astley's dream was to work with horses, so he joined Colonel Eliott's Fifteenth Light Dragoons when he was 17, later becoming a Sergeant Major. His service in the Seven Years' War brought him into contact with professional trainers and riders. Astley himself was a brilliant rider.
Astley had a genius for trick riding. He saw that trick riders received more attention from the crowds in Islington. He had an idea for opening a riding school in London in which he could also conduct shows of acrobatic riding skill. In 1768, Astley performed in an open field at what is now the Waterloo area of London, behind the present site of St John's Church. He rode in a circle rather than a straight line as his rivals did, and thus chanced on the format which was later named a 'circus'. This format was so successful that Astley added a clown to his shows to amuse the spectators between equestrian sequences, and later moved to fenced premises just south of Westminster Bridge, where he opened his riding school from 1770 onwards and expanded the content of his shows (see below). He taught riding in the mornings and performed his "feats of horsemanship" in the afternoons.
Astley began to make a reputation and to grow wealthier. After two seasons in London he had to bring some novelty to his performances, so he hired other equestrians, musicians, a clown, jugglers, tumblers, tightrope walkers, and dancing dogs — the modern circus was created. Guilds and lineages of acrobats and clowns had performed throughout Europe for centuries before this, but as members of independent professions, not as part of an integrated entertainment experience for which an all-inclusive ticket was sold.
Astley did not invent trick-riding, which was already a popular entertainment of the period. His invention of the circular arena was successful for two reasons. First, it was easier for the audience to keep the riders in sight. Second, the circular ring (though Astley called it 'the Ride') helped riders through the generation of centrifugal force, which allowed them to keep their balance while standing on the backs of their galloping horses. Astley never called his 'Astley's Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts' a circus, as that title was thought up by Charles Dibdin, who in partnership with Astley's rival Charles Hughes, opened the Royal Circus on 4 November 1782, a short distance from Astley's in Lambeth, London. After a few years, Astley added a platform, seats, and a roof to his ring. Even after his death Astley's "Royal Amphitheatre" remained famous throughout the nineteenth century, being mentioned by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. It was closed in 1893 and was demolished the next year. The nurses' accommodation block of St Thomas's Hospital now stands on the site.
Astley's original circus ring was 62 ft (~19 m) in diameter, and later he settled it at 42 ft (~13 m), which has been an international standard for circuses since. Not far from the Amphitheatre site is Hercules Road, named after the house Astley built and named Hercules Hall. The house is long gone, but its name is said to have commemorated Astley's celebrated horseback representation of the Labours of Hercules.
Astley's circus was so popular that he was invited in 1772 to perform before Louis XV of France in Versailles. Having been established from 1770 as a riding school and for open-air performances, the first Astley's Amphitheatre opened in London in 1773; it burned on 17 September 1794, but with abundant resources available due to the venture's prosperity it was rebuilt and, in due course was rebuilt again after successive fires, and eventually grew to become Astley's Royal Amphitheatre. In 1782, Astley established the first purpose-built circus in France, the Amphitheatre Anglais in Paris. Astley then established 18 other permanent circuses in cities throughout Europe.
Astley's first competitor was equestrian Charles Hughes, who had previously worked with Astley. Together with Charles Dibdin, a famous author of pantomimes, Hughes opened a rival amphitheatre in London, which Dibdin called Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy.
During the summers and other times when his London establishment was inactive, Astley established wooden amphitheaters throughout Great Britain; the first of these was erected in 1773 in Dublin, Ireland. He later established eighteen other circuses in European cities, was patronised by a great number of royals, and was famous, envied, and occasionally rich. He never used wild animals in the circus arena. In 1806, with the profits he'd earned from his amphitheatre, Astley opened a new venue, the Olympic Pavilion (also known as the Olympic Theatre) on Wych Street, Westminster, near to the Strand. This tent-like structure, partly built from the remains of a French warship, did not prove a success, and in 1813 he sold it to Robert William Elliston, who renamed it the Little Drury Lane. Astley died a year later in Paris and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, the cause of his death being gout in the stomach.
Astley's Amphitheatre is mentioned in the popular fiction of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray among others. In Jane Austen's Emma, in Chapter 54: "He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley's. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley's." It is also a motif of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
Astley's fame is also marked by the existence of three dance tunes which bear his name - Astley's Ride(s), Astley's Flag and more common, Astley's Hornpipe. Astley's Ride appears as the first tune in the music manuscript book of poet John Clare.
Astley's Circus is featured prominently in Tracy Chevalier's novel Burning Bright.
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- See Folkopedia
|Wikisource has the text of the 1885–1900 Dictionary of National Biography's article about Philip Astley.|
- Astley's Natural Magic, or, Physical Amusements Revealed From the McManus-Young Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress