Philip Astley: Equestrian, Showman and Entrepreneur
Philip Astley: Early Life
Philip Astley was born in Staffordshire (about 150 miles from London) on January 8, 1742. When he was around eleven years old, his family moved to London, where his father had a carpentry shop near Westminster Bridge. In 1759, he went to be trained in horsemanship in Wilton at Lord Pembroke’s estate, where he showed extraordinary promise. Soon after, in search of excitement, he left his family and joined a regiment of light dragoons called Eliot’s Light Horse, later the 15th Light Hussars.
Astley’s Military Service
Astley was assigned to care for and train the horses to be “bomb-proof”, i.e., not to take off in fear at the sound of gunshot. His unit was soon shipped off to Hamburg, Germany to assist the Prussians in fighting the French in the Seven Years’ War. The 15th distinguished itself by being instrumental in capturing sixteen colors (flags) from the French, and one of them was taken by Philip Astley. Losing one such flag would be considered a disaster, so losing sixteen of them was humiliating for the French. The tactics and riding skills of the 15th were too much for the French to overcome. The 15th was awarded the country’s first ever Battle Honor and nicknamed “The Fighting Fifteenth.”
That same year, Astley earned the lifelong gratitude of royalty when he single-handedly rode through enemy lines to rescue Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick. A prince of the Holy Roman Empire, the duke was married to George II’s daughter and was the father of Princess Caroline, who would become the wife of George IV.
Astley continued to prove himself throughout the remainder of the Seven Years’ War. In 1766, he was discharged from the army and given a white charger called Gibraltar as a token of appreciation from his commander. Having married and become the father of John Philip Conway Astley, he took a job at a nearby riding school that demonstrated tricks as well as teaching riding skills. After a year, Astley obtained some property and started his own establishment.
Astley’s Amphitheatre: The Beginning
It was around 1768 when people would come around to watch Astley and his pupils perform equestrian tricks. A collection bucket was sent around, money started to pour in, and Astley began to hire musicians. He’d stand on his head on the back of a horse, straddle two cantering and jumping horses, and often be joined by his wife Patty, also a talented performer. Even at this early stage, Astley knew that variety was the best way to keep his audience happy, and he was never satisfied to keep performing the same tricks over and over again.
Mr. Astley, Sergeant-Major in His Majesty’s Royal Regiment of Light Dragoons. Nearly twenty different attitudes will be performed on one, two, and three horses, every evening during the summer, at his riding school. Doors to be open at four, and he will mount at five. Seats, one shilling; standing places, sixpence.
It wasn’t long before Astley mysteriously found a diamond ring on Westminster Bridge and was able to lease (and then acquire) a piece of property south of the bridge. He cut down the timber and constructed the first Astley’s Amphitheatre, although it was first called The British Riding School. The fenced-in compound was in open-air, but had a covered standing area for visitors and a central viewing platform. Eventually, a dome-shaped roof covered the entire ring, and there was a room above the horses’ stables where wealthy visitors could sit.
The Licensing Act of 1737
Censorship was alive and well in England for more than two centuries due to this law that gave the Lord Chamberlain the power to approve or ban public performances. The only two theaters authorized to perform plays were Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Any other performances could get raided and their employees thrown into prison. Astley fought public officials trying to shut him down for many years, often using his upstanding military background and royal connections to keep his business going. At one point, George III himself came to his defense, perhaps because a dozen years earlier Astley had saved him from injury on Westminster Bridge when a horse pulling his carriage became uncontrollable. It didn’t hurt that Astley celebrated the King’s birthday on June 4th every year with a fireworks demonstration over the Thames either.
Astley’s Goes on Tour
As other performers—jugglers, rope-walkers, tumblers, clowns, etc.—were added, Astley’s role became more producer, artistic director, marketer, and business manager.
In the autumn, Astley used his army training to take his show on tour, where he would perform at fairs and gardens, in fields, and borrowed theaters, with staging and fencing loaded on wagons, as far away as Edinburgh.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that he would conquer the French with his extraordinary show. He charmed Marie-Antoinette, who called him “le plus bel homme d’Europe”, and in 1802, during a brief period of peace with the French, he achieved an audience with Napoleon and was granted reparations for the theater that was appropriated by the republican army during the revolution. Brussels, Vienna, and Belgrade were among the European capitals he captivated prior to the French Revolution
Astley’s After Astley
- Rendell, Mike. Astley’s Circus: The Story of an English Hussar. 2014. Amazon
Following Philip Astley’s death in 1814, his son John managed the circus. After he died in 1821, Andrew Ducrow, son of the “Flemish Hercules” took over management of the Amphitheatre. Ducrow was the first performer to ride six horses at once. After Ducrow died (following a devastating fire—the third in its history—the property was rebuilt by William Batty. After Batty came a long a long line of new owners, but by the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign, Astley’s was long-since its prime. It was closed in 1893 and demolished two years later.
- The first ringmaster. Astley went around in military costume announcing the acts in his booming voice, cracking the whip, and generally serving as Master of Ceremonies.
- Pioneered the idea of the circus parade to create enthusiasm for his performances
- Astley propagated the idea of a ring with a diameter of 42 feet as the optimal for circus acts.
- Although he is often called the “Father of the Modern Circus,” he never called his venue a circus.
“…everything was delightful, splendid, and surprising!”
Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock
For a detailed list of some of the “attitudes” offered in Astley’s performances, click here.