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Philip Astley (1742-1814)
| The origins of the modern circus can be
dated quite accurately. In 1769 Philip Astley bought a piece of property
near Westminster bridge, London, England, and constructed upon it the very
first circus building called The New British School or Amphitheater Riding
Ring. He presented the first performance in 1770 (see "A
Bone of Contention" at the end of this page). It was so successful
that by 1779 he had a roof constructed over the performing area; the modern
circus was born, albeit not called as such. That came later, in 1782.
The Circus Maximus in Rome - built about 600 B.C., seated 200,000
At this time more permanent facilities became available for the performer. Many of these were adjacent to established enterprises such as Sadler's Wells - named for a Mr.Sadler who, in 1683, discovered a "medical" spring in his garden outside of London by the New River. Performers were encouraged to entertain his patrons in the garden and it is recorded that a well known rider, William Stokes, introduced performing horses to Sadler's Wells in the late 17th century. Today, of course, Sadler's Wells is a world famous Opera House. There were others but the first accredited circus building, and organized circus, had to wait until 1769.
Astley was not born into a performing family. His father was a cabinet maker from Newcastle-Under-Lyme, England, and, from the time Philip was born, on January 8th, 1742, his future seemed to be assured - master cabinet maker and carpenter. However, he was not particularly interested in wood but was in love with horses. At the age of seventeen he borrowed a horse and joined the Fifteenth Dragoons as a rough rider and horse breaker. Two years later his regiment was sent overseas to serve under the King of Prussia where he proved his daring and bravery. At Hamburg he saved a horse that had fallen overboard from their ship; at Emsdorf he captured the enemy standard; at Warburg he saved the life of the wounded Duke of Brunswick. By 1766 he was Sergeant Major Astley, stood over 6 feet tall with a huge frame and booming voice that, along with his extrovert nature and daredevil reputation, made him a celebrity.
About this time he decided that he wanted to start a riding school to teach the nobility art d'equitation. Unfortunately he lacked the funding but heard of an innkeeper who had financed the purchase of his business with the proceeds of trick riding exhibitions. A perfect solution for a perfect equestrian. Thus, accompanied by his regimental commanders white charger, Gibraltar, which he had been presented with upon his discharge, he sort out an appropriate location to begin plying his vocation.
Islington, on the north side of London, was a large area dedicated to recreation and many riding masters, down on their luck, entertained there, demonstrating their skills to attract clients for their riding schools. When Astley arrived there he discovered he needed to learn the art of presenting a show, so he hired on as a horse breaker. During this period he purchased two more horses and got married to a horsewoman named "Petsy". In 1768 he moved to the south side of the Thames and set up his riding school - opening it with a demonstration of both his and his wife's riding skills. Shortly after he was charging 6 pence admission. With the profits made from this simple beginning he was able to purchase some land near Westminster bridge, and built the first circus building. Originally it was more an open field surrounded by a kind of covered grandstand. Later he covered the whole area with a roof.
Astley's greatest contribution to the modern circus was not so much combining his riding act with other performers (clowns, for example) but for the circus ring itself. Prior to Astley most riding exhibitions were presented in a linear fashion - the performer riding past his aud- ience as he performed a trick, then having to turn around, or ride back around the other side, before presenting the next trick. When Astley decided that a covered grandstand was needed he realized it would be more advantageous to both performer and audience if the rider worked in a circle. The rider could move from trick to trick without interruption and the people could see everything going on and a larger audience could attend as they sat all around the perform- ance arena. Also, as Astley discovered, by riding in a circle he could use the centrifugal force to aid his performance. With experimentation he discovered the optimum size of the ring to be 42 feet.
Charles Hughes, a former rider at Astleys, opened a competing company in 1782 - not too far from Astley's booming enterprise - much to the chagrin of Astley. Hughes needed a name for his company. Why he chose the name he did is open to debate - perhaps he was a scholar of ancient history, or, more likely, after the large circular track used for exercising horses in Hyde Park. Whatever the case, he called his company (drum roll!), "The Royal Circus".
Astley was responsible for introducing the circus into many European countries, and several cities established permanent circus buildings. The first circus in Russia was presented in 1793 at the royal palace in Saint Petersburg.
This new form of entertainment finally crossed the Atlantic when, on April 3rd, 1793, the first complete circus program was presented in a building on the southwest corner of 12th and Market streets, Philadelphia, by John Bill Ricketts. Ricketts, a British equestrian, went on to present circuses in New York and Boston, and the show continued, under varying names, through the first decade of the 19th century. George Washington saw a Ricketts show in 1797 and sold them a horse.
The early traveling shows were very simple - in contrast to the flashy city shows. Usually a simple musical accompaniment of a violin, or two, with a juggler, a rope dancer, and a few acrobats - possibly some display of horsemanship.. The show set up in a field and took up collections. Later they worked in an enclosed space and charged admission. The advent of improved tent technology (in the 1820's) and the railways (in America) changed everything.
While other acts were added to the show, the riding act was still the main attraction and this led to another standard feature of the modern circus - the ring- master. Though today the ringmaster tends to be the announcer, occasional foil of the clowns, and generally keeping the show flowing, originally his job was to keep the horses running correctly around the ring as the rider worked his tricks - hence his traditional riding costume.
With the increased cost of production came an increased awareness for the need to publicize the show more effectively. An advance crew would show up way ahead of the show to post bills and placards to advertise the upcoming event. When the show arrived in the area the performers would parade through the town with the horses and elephants all decked out in their finery. Vendors would ply the crowd with circus programs and confections as clowns cavorted about and helped create the carnival atmosphere of fun and anticipation. In fact the parade became as much a part of the circus as the actual show itself. Special decorated wagons were built for the occasion and the steam calliope was introduced.
By the end of the century the circus was an established, and much sort
after, form of family entertainment. Many entrepreneurs appeared, such
as P.T.Barnum, who turned what was originally an incidental form of entertainment
into a grand production. In 1871 he teamed up with circus producer W.C.Coup
and produced a huge show in Brooklyn, N.Y., advertised as "The Greatest
Show On Earth". Ten years later he went into partnership with the best
organizer in the business, James Bailey. Their show was so huge it needed
three rings. Barnum cashed in on the popularity of circus animals and exhibited
unusual and unique creatures such as the world's largest elephant, Jumbo,
which he reputedly paid $30,000 for (see cartoon).
The act that defined the flying trapeze, however, was the Clarkonians. Charles Clarke was a circus owner who had three sons and three daughters. All were superb riders but the show needed something else. He decided that two of his sons, Charles and Ernie, should learn a flying trapeze act. Though he knew the basic design of the rigging he had no clue as to the distances and dimensions of the two trapeze bars. Charles experimented and designed a rig that allowed the flyer, Ernie, to return to the platform without the aid of a third person. After several years of practice they created an act unique in circus history. They first performed some of the most difficult tricks, including the double somersault with a pirouette. They first worked with Barnum and Bailey's Circus in 1901, and continued with the Barnum show, and other Ringling owned shows, through till 1926. Ernie married Lizzie Hanneford in 1920. For more details about Lizzie and Ernie, plus the full size blow up of the picture, go to the FAMILY HISTORY section.
During my research of the early history of the circus most sources state that the circus was first staged by Philip Astley in 1768. They then go on to talk about his first building constructed with a ring in 1769 and opening for its first show in 1770. The facts are, according to the same sources, that Astley first performed his riding act in Islington in 1768 ALONE and later added his wife and then, upon opening his first building, other acts. Now, I realize that some clever actors have made movies in which they have played all the leading roles, but it would be hard for Astley, or anyone, to perform as rider, clown, juggler, ringmaster, rope dancer, etc., all at the same time. In other words - one man alone doth not maketh a circus. Therefore, in my humble opinion, the birth of the circus, starting with the first such show - however primitive - had to be in 1770, NOT 1768 as many would contend. Else, you could say that the first circus started somewhere around 1500 B.C. with the Greeks, or, indeed, some 10,000 years ago, or so, when early modern man learned to juggle hunting, fire making, chipping flints, keeping his wife and kids happy, and literally keeping the wolf from the door! (Does that make my life a circus too?)
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