History

#Circus250 is set to be a brilliant celebration of all things circus, a quarter of a millennium after the form began right here in the UK. There are many myths and rumours that surround the history of circus and its continued evolution, so here are a few quick FAQs to explain why we’re raising the anniversary tent in 2018…

250 years since what exactly?

In 1768, Philip Astley began his career as an entertainment impresario and entrepreneur by opening his own riding school at Halfpenny Hatch in London, where he put on displays of trick riding.

What does that have to do with the birth of circus?

Newcastle-Under-Lyme born Philip Astley went on to develop his shows to include a variety of acrobatic and comedic entertainments alongside his original animal displays, presenting the first evolution of the form we have come to know and love over the years. His London amphitheatre used a 42 foot diameter arena, now the standard size of a circus performance ring, and he also went on to create the role of Equestrian Director – or Ringmaster – when he retired from performing horseback acrobatics. All of this can be directly traced back to that first leap into proprietary showbusiness at ‘Ha’penny Hatch’.

Doesn’t the word ‘circus’ go back to Roman times?

Yes, ’circus’ does come from Latin, where it was adapted from the ancient Greek word ‘kirkos’, but in those times it simply meant ‘circular’. Following Astley’s success, competitors Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin set up their own London establishment together in 1782 and named it ‘The Royal Circus, Equestrian and Philharmonic Academy’ (later called just ‘Hughes’ Royal Circus’). The final part of that grand sounding name has stuck, although the entertainment we now associate with the word had already begun beforehand with Astley.

 

Here is a basic circus timeline of events in Philip Astley’s life:

  • 1742: Born in Newcastle Under Lyme on 8th January.
  • 1759: Leaves home aged 17 to join the 15th Light Dragoons cavalry regiment.
  • 1766: Discharged from the army with the rank of Sergeant-Major, receiving a white charger called Gibraltar as a parting gift from his General.
  • 1767: Works as a riding school ostler, and builds the idea for his own business.
  • 1768: Forms Ha’penny Hatch Riding School on a busy pathway between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge, and begins to put on shows for the public.
  • 1769: Expands into a neighbouring lot at the foot of Westminster Bridge.
  • 1770: Creates a full programme of acrobatic acts, pantomime, equestrian feats and spectacle.
  • 1772: Begins to tour shows around the UK and performs in Paris, France for the first time.
  • 1773: Builds his first amphitheatre outside of London in Dublin, Ireland.
  • 1779: Having added a roof to his London venue, relaunches as ‘Astley’s Amphitheatre Riding House’ and takes on the role of Equestrian Director – today’s Ringmaster – at the age of 38.
  • 1783: Opens his first permanent Parisian amphitheatre.
  • – Astley enjoys a long career touring shows and building equestrian amphitheatres.
  • 1814: Dies in his Paris home on 20th October, aged 72, from gout of the stomach, and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery where, sadly, the grave is no longer visible.

 

For more comprehensive details of Philip Astley’s life, times, and circus genesis, check out these links:

http://philipastley1742.wixsite.com/theproject

https://www.centreforcircusculture.eu/act-three-research/

http://www.circopedia.org/Philip_Astley