The First Circus
After a spell in the army, six foot tall ex-cavalry man Philip Astley opened a riding school in Lambeth where he taught in the morning and performed equestrian tricks in the afternoon. Musical accompaniment was provided by Astley's wife Patty who beat a big drum. They established Astley’s Riding School at the southern end of Westminster Bridge in 1768 and Patty joined Philip in executing tricks on horseback.
One of Patty's best tricks involved circling the ring on horseback with swarms of bees covering her hands and arms like a muff. Philip's most famous act was The Tailor of Brentford in which he was the first to combine comedy with equestrian expertise.
Astley quickly began to incorporate other acts from the fairs and pleasure gardens of London and the boulevards of Paris. These were acrobats, jugglers, rope-dancers, clowns and strong men. By 1780 he had built a roof over the entire arena so that his audiences could enjoy winter evening amusements.
Philip Astley is credited with discovering that the ideal size for a circus ring is 42 feet in diameter. This was the optimum size that enabled him to use centrifugal force to help balance on a horse’s back. As he rode at speed around the ring he used gravity to push himself into the horse’s back and thus prevent a nasty tumble onto the sawdust floor.
Unfortunately, Astley's rival Mr Charles Dibdin opened The Royal Circus a short distance along the river in 1782. Using Astley's formula he presented dramatic equestrian entertainment and coined the name circus.
Philip Astley's Royal Amphitheatre opened in 1795 after the previous building had burnt to the ground. The Amphitheatre had a stage with a proscenium arch in addition to the circus ring and the two were interlinked by ramps so that the horses could run on to the stage from the ring. This was an ingenious design, which heightened the possibilities for tricks and dramatic effect.
The audience could sit close to the ring with horses swishing past their faces as they cantered up a ramp just a few inches away.
Unfortunately the wooden building was lit by candles , which was a terrible fire hazard. The circus burnt down again in 1803.
The fire started in the lamp room where some fireworks from the previous evening’s performance had been carelessly discarded.
In 1804 Astley’s was rebuilt for a third time. Each time the theatre was rebuilt the interior became more ornate. Astley also ensured that the stages were strengthened to take the weight of more horses and increase the dramatic potential of his acts.
He continued to collect new acts from home and abroad. Clowns, ropewalkers and tumblers complemented the equestrian entertainment.
Despite the privilege of their royal title the press were not always flattering about the entertainment at Astley’s.
Andrew Ducrow at Astley’s Amphitheatre
In 1824 the management of Philip Astley’s Amphitheatre was taken over by Andrew Ducrow. Equestrian dramas such as 'Mazeppa', 'The Courier of St Petersburg' and 'Ivanhoe' became very popular. These were huge spectacles involving horses, scenery, beautiful costumes and dramatic theatrical effects such as thunder.
Andrew Ducrow was an excellent trick rider but was also proficient as a tumbler, ropedancer and later a theatre actor. Born into a circus family in Southwark, London in 1793, Ducrow was trained in circus skills from a very young age. His father was an acrobat and strongman who could reputedly carry four or five children on a table with no more than his teeth.
At the age of 19 Ducrow appeared at Astley’s with an act called 'The Flying Wardrobe'. In this act Ducrow would speed around the ring on horseback dressed as a drunkard in rags. After many false falls and the removal of several waistcoats he would reveal himself as the star rider of the show. This act is still performed in many circuses as a comic ‘entrée’ or opening.
In addition to equestrian dramas the audiences at Astley’s were kept up to date about topical events. News from the Napoleonic Wars was presented in dramatic form using exciting horse displays. A trip to the circus could also include seeing a pantomime or harlequinade.
Recreations or dramatic representations of battles were amongst the most popular acts in an equestrian circus. They might be somewhat exotic, like the very popular 1852 presentation of Amakosa! Or, Scenes of Kaffir Warfare, or they might come a little closer to home.
A year later, in 1853, Astley’s presented 'The Battle of Waterloo', which the English had fought less than 40 years earlier. 'The Battle of the Alma' brought things even more up to date. The Crimean War, from which the events were taken, was still in its first year when the show was produced in the autumn of 1854.
The show was produced by William Cooke, but suffered an unfortunate first night. The British Army, represented by a hundred men from the Guards, had orders to capture the heights manned by the ‘Russians’.
However they fired at such close range that, even without live ammunition, there were many injuries. Cooke had to pay out almost as much in compensation as he could hope to take in profits.
Mazeppa was a major hit in the mid 19th century and played to sell-out audiences in the US and UK.
Originally a folk tale, it was made famous by the poem of the same name written by Lord Byron and adapted for the stage in 1831 by H.M.Milner as ‘Mazeppa; or the Wild Horse of Tartary’.
Andrew Ducrow’s version of the tale, ‘Mazeppa and the Wild Horse’ opened at Astley’s in 1831. The play featured elaborate scenery, exotic costumes and a cascade of horses. Ducrow used the drama to display his trick riding skills dashing around the stage on two wild horses.
But it was an American actress, Adah Isaac Menken, who became most famous in the role. She caused a sensation by being tied to a real horse that galloped around the theatre and wearing only a short tunic and tights which made her legs look naked.
Advertisements claimed that Menken’s legs ‘would have made St Anthony lift his eyes from his prayer book’ and a song of the period says of Menken that ‘the classical style of her dress does not much trouble the sewing machine’.
Menken was also renowned for her famous admirers whom it is said included Blondin, Charles Dickens and the poet Swinburne.
Menken appeared as Mazeppa at Astley’s from October 1864 for a ten-week season. Such was the success of the show that she returned again in the summer of 1865.
This song sheet cover is from a cantata by Michael William Balfe telling the story of Mazeppa, the Polish nobleman, who is tied to the back of a wild horse by his enemies.
A cantata is a drama set to music, but not, as with an opera, intended to be acted. In 1861, the actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused a sensation in the role, playing a man, and appearing on the horse wearing little more than a flesh-coloured body stocking.
She became so synonymous with the part that the cover to this 1865 edition of Michael Balfe's music features a picture of her in the part. The first performance of Balfe's Mazeppa was sung at Exeter Hall in June 1862. The episode with the horse was represented instrumentally, accompanied by the 'suffering accents' of Mazeppa. All the music was mysteriously stolen after that performance, never to be recovered.
Menken as Mazeppa. Click images for larger version