|The First Circus|
by Anthony Waldstock
By 1777, it is known that he had a strong man, Signor Colpi, working for him and by 1780 he had made substantial additions to his troupe. These included the two clowns Fortunelly and Burt, a number of acrobats who performed rope-vaulting tricks “in different attitudes” and, a favourite with the crowd, “The Little Military Horse”. The focus, however, remained on equestrianism and Astley employed three noted equestrians named Miller, Griffin and Jones. Their performances were devised and directed by Astley who soon became known as the greatest horseman of is age.
He also created the first circus clown act called Billy Buttons, or the Tailor’s Ride To Brentford. The topical act was based on a popular tale of a tailor, an inept equestrian, trying to ride a horse to Brentford to vote in an election. Astley impersonated the tailor attempting to ride the horse. First he had tremendous difficulty mounting correctly, and then when he finally succeeded the horse started off so fast that he fell off. As the circus grew and Astley hired other clowns, he required them to learn Billy Buttons. It soon became a traditional part of every circus for 100 years. Variations of the routine with somebody coming out of the audience to attempt to ride a horse are still being performed in modern circuses.
The horses were the real stars of the show and few other animals were displayed. There is a mention of a military monkey named General Jackoo in 1768 but there is no record of larger animals in any of the 18th century performances. Instead, the military aspect prevailed with the development of two melodramatic forms – the Military and the Nautical. These had as their inspiration the great battles which the British Army and Navy fought against the French and the Spanish. They were hugely spectacular melodramas with clearly defined categories of Good (British) and Evil (anyone else). The Military shows were dominated by horses and the Nautical by vast amounts of water.
One of the first inspirations for this type of spectacle was the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Barely three weeks after the event itself it was re-created on stage with huge success and acclaim. This type of entertainment was hugely popular and probably was the only source of information about great events for a still largely illiterate population. The Military melodrama probably reached the zenith of its achievement during the Crimean war. On September 20th 1854 The British and French forces won a decisive victory over the Russians at the Battle of the Alma. This entire battle was recreated at Astley’s on the following October 23rd with a cast that included four hundred extras.
There was also plenty of source material for the Nautical melodrama. The Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world during the latter 18th and early 19th centuries. They had many notable successes and the Napoleonic Wars provided plenty of fodder for huge patriotic displays. In 1794, the Drury Lane Theatre constructed a huge lake onstage and had a boat sail in it. In 1803, Sadler’s Wells produced its most spectacular nautical effects. A massive water tank was installed and filled with 50,000 gallons of water. On the roof they installed a smaller water tank which held 7,000 gallons and which was used to create an onstage waterfall. The spectacular finale included scale models of real ships in famous sea-battles.
The first European equivalent was opened in Vienna in 1780 by the Spaniard Juan Porte. Astley himself was responsible for as many as nineteen venues in various European cities, opening in Paris in 1782. In that same year, Astley was much put out when a former member of his company, Charles Hughes, opened a rival establishment which he called the “The Royal Circus” the first use of the word in this context. The first American circus was presented in Philadelphia by the Englishman John Bill Ricketts in 1792 and the first Russian circus opened in 1793.