Birth Of The Circus

24 Oct

During the Victorian era and well into the swinging 20s the circus became a major phenomenon of mass entertainment. Lions, tigers, acrobats, clowns, ringmasters…. (we’re just going to side step the animal cruelty issue here.)  It began with one man, Philip Astley and two horses.

 Born in 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, he enlisted in the British military and served in the 15th Light Dragoons, a cavalry company. It was here he learned the finer details of taming and riding horses.

After leaving the service he set up a riding school in the south of London, on a little plot between Blackfriars and Westminster bridges. During the mornings he would teach horsemanship. In the summer afternoons he would perform some feats of horsemanship.

He would demonstrate his riding tricks in a circular space, a circle/discus as you will (nudge nudge) on his horse Gibraltor. He also had a small military pony who he taught to do numerous tricks such as “count”, adding and subtracting numbers (you do know how that’s accomplished, right? The horse counts with it’s hoof and stops at the right number. In reality it takes the cue to stop from some subtle body language on the trickmaster’s part). The pony could also feign death, fire a pistol, and perform “mind-reading” tricks.

Philip did not invent the circle/discus nor the riding or pony tricks. He just did his thing and it went well. Well enough that he bought a new place at the foot of Westminster Bridge. The open roofed structure became Astley’s Riding House and it offered much better seating and protection from crappy London weather.

Mr. Astley realized that to make a decent living doing this sort of thing he had to attract a good sized crowd. He went to various theaters, both “legit” and secondary houses and saw that the popular venues all had various visual performances interspersed throughout the shows. Jugglers, ropedancers, “posturers,” (as acrobats were then called) and most importantly pantomimes.

I did a blog on commedia dell’arte and indeed could do more, but pantomimes were a descendant of this. Commedia dell’arte, from whom we get the mischievous Harlequin, was a form of medieval and renaissance theater involving stock characters performing numerous, comedic storylines involving LOTS of physical humor. Slapstick. Lots of slapstick. From these grew the pantomimes, where all dialogue was removed and only physical humor remained. The faces were all lavishly painted to represent the archetypal characters. If you can see where i’m going with this: these pantomimes were the precursor to the Clown.

So Astley saw that all this “in between the main show” ruckus was a big hit, so he hired jugglers and acrobatics and pantomimes to perform in between his horse riding bits. Naturally, all the action took place in the circle… discus…. CIRCUS! Ah there we go.

He became huge. Thus, another guy, John Hughes decided to cash in on the action and built himself an almost exact replica of Astley’s Riding House not far from where Astley performed. He called it Hughes’ Riding House and not only was it a carbon copy, but it did well too. In fact, Hughes got himself some backers and built an arena made of BRICK (Astley and Hughes had previously had wooden buildings) and called it Hughes’ Royal Circus, therebye inventing the name Circus.

However, fear not, Astely did just fine. Although forever after he had to contend with real competition, his fortunes soared and as it turned out. in the long run Hughes and his partner were quite bad managing money and over time the Royal Circus faded away.

Last note: in 1793, when Britain went to war with revolutionary France, Astely, at age 51 reenlisted in the 15th Light Dragoons, primarily i assume because he was clearly one patriotic badass. While he was away fighting his circus building burnt to the ground. Thus he built a bigger and better place, Astley’s New Amphitheatre of the Arts. (it’s the picture at the top of page) Although interestingly, it and future ampitheaters he build were modeled after Hughes’ Royal Circus design, which did in fact become the archetype for all circuses forever afterwards. The reason is that Hughes devised the entire stage and ring setup. You know, a 3 ring circus where different bits of action happen on different rings instead of just one central area? Yeah, that was Hughes and Astley and all subsequent circuses incorporated it.

Thus my friends, we have the origin of the circus.

1 Comment

Posted by on October 24, 2011 in Uncategorized


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One response to “Birth Of The Circus

  1. Katharine Kavanagh

    October 21, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Aw, was really enjoying this until the claim that Hughes invented the three-ring circus! That innovation came much later, in America, following the expansion of the US railroad system after their civil war (two rings in 1872, three in 1881 – going up to seven rings and stages at one point!). European circuses almost exclusively maintained the single ring tradition.


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