Story Of London

The First Circus

The First Circus
by Anthony Waldstock

A seventeen-year old runaway with “the build of a Hercules and the voice of a Stentor” who became a daring and dashing young dragoon. A charger called Gibraltar. A wife called Petsy. A lost diamond ring. King George III and a maddened horse on Westminster Bridge. Centrifugal force. These are the unlikely antecedents of the entertainment that we know today as the Circus. It began life in a field in Lambeth and went on to become one of the sights of London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the long, slow, development of the classic show it brought spectacular Military and Nautical melodramas to the London stage which featured 400 extras and a tank holding 50,000 gallons of water. And we must not forget those fashionable diners at the Alhambra who were stunned as the “Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” flew above their heads whilst they ate their suppers!

The First Circus

Sergeant-Major Philip Astley, at the age of 26, was honourably discharged from the cavalry in 1768 and given the regimental commander’s white charger, Gibraltar, as a leaving present. Born the son of a cabinet maker from Newcastle-Under-Lyme on January 8th 1742, he developed an early fascination 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 and was soon noted for his daring and bravery.
Amongst the legendary tales are the rescue of a horse which had fallen overboard from the regimental ship at Hamburg and the capture of the enemy standard at Emsdorf. He also saved the life of the wounded Duke of Brunswick. By 1766 he had become a celebrity and, at more than six feet in height and a booming voice, was described as a man “with the proportions of a Hercules and the voice of a Stentor”.
On his discharge from the army, his ambition was to start a riding school. Lacking funds he signed on as a horse breaker to an established riding school master in Islington. At this time Islington rivalled Clerkenwell as recreation resort for tea gardens and amusements. Here, many riding masters provided entertainment by demonstrating their skills in order to attract clients to their schools. Astley shortly married an accomplished horsewoman whose name has only come down to us as “Petsy”.
Astley is reputed to have found a diamond ring on Westminster bridge the sale of which realised £60. With these funds he bought another horse and he and his wife began to give unlicensed open-air equestrian displays at Glovers ‘Halfpenny Hatch’ field in Lambeth. There were no admission fees but, as was normal, a collection was taken up after every performance. Astley’s luck came to his aid once again when he helped King George III to subdue a spirited horse near Westminster Bridge. As a reward he was granted a performing licence.
In 1769 he purchased some land close to Westminster Bridge. Here he constructed a roped-off enclosure which was surrounded by stands and later covered by a canvas roof. He called it the “Royal Grove” and charged an entrance fee of one shilling for a seat and sixpence for a standing place. He also hired a drummer-boy to provide musical effects for his equestrian tricks. Up to this time, riding exhibitions were presented in a linear fashion with the performer riding past his audience as he performed a trick, then having to turn around and ride back before presenting the next trick. When he came to construct his covered arena, Astley realised that it would be much more efficient if the performer worked in a cricle. He could then move from trick to trick without interruption and the spectators could see everything. It also allowed for a much larger audience. Once he began to perform in the circle he discovered that he could exploit the resulting centrifugal force to enhance his performance. Experimentation soon demonstrated that the optimum diameter for the performance ring was forty-two feet.

The Royal Grove was destroyed by fire in 1794 and was rebuilt as Astley’s Amphitheatre which over the next century was to become of the sights of London. It was rebuilt after another fire in 1803 and again after a third fire in 1841. In 1862 it was again rebuilt as the New Westminster Theatre Royal which was finally demolished in 1893. Amongst the famous names who performed there was the great theatrical clown Joseph Grimaldi

There is some debate as to the precise date at which Astley’s became a circus in the modern sense. Undoubtedly he invented what we now know as the Circus-ring and the canvas covering at the Royal Grove was a clear pre-cursor to the modern Big Top. However, many will argue that at this stage Astley’s was no more than a trick-riding display.
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.

The circus as we know it began to develop in the early 19th century. The first travelling circuses began to appear and often consisted of no more than with a juggler, a rope dancer, and a few acrobats with simple musical accompaniment provided by one or two violins. Some did include some form of horsemanship. These normally took place in open fields and but the huge improvement in tent technology in the 1820s acted as a large catalyst for development and refinement.
In the permanent circuses in cities, other acts were gradually added to the show but the equestrian act was still the main attraction. This has given us another standard feature of the modern circus – the ringmaster. Today he tends to be the announcer, occasional foil of the clowns, and generally keeps the show flowing. However, his original contribution was to keep the horses running correctly around the ring as the rider worked his tricks – hence his traditional riding costume.

It was not until after Astley’s death in 1814 that large animals made their appearance in the circus. The first record is of two elephants, Baba and Kiouny, performing in Franconi’s circus in Paris. Amongst their tricks were catching apples with their trunks, uncorking bottles and drinking the contents and playing the hurdy-gurdy. In 1828, Astley’s hired an elephant from Cross’s Exeter Change Menagerie and simply showed the animal to the spectators. They followed this in 1832 with the similar display of a lion, a tiger and four zebras. The first authentic wild beast act took place at Astley’s in 1838 when Morok the Beast Tamer (Isaac Van Amburgh) presented his act with a mixed group of lions, tigers and leopards. The act so captivated Queen Victoria that she commissioned the artist Edwin Landseer to paint a portrait of the American with his “big cats.”

That other stalwart of the modern circus, the flying trapeze, did not appear until 1859. On November 12th that year, at the Cirque Napoleon in Paris, the 21 year old Jules Leotard made his debut. He devised his act whilst practising on the ropes and rings suspended above the swimming pool of his father’s gymnasium in his native Toulouse. He came to London in the 1860s and caused a sensation when he appeared at the Alhambra flying across the hall from trapeze to trapeze above the heads of the dining audience. He was the inspiration for the George Leybourne song “That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”. He devised the tight-fitting costume that bears his name in order to show off his muscles. In case of mishap, Leotard often relied on a pile of mattresses on the floor, the first safety net made its appearance at the Holborn Empire in 1871 when it was introduced by the Spanish troupe the Rizarellis.

Leotard’s popularity was soon eclipsed by that of the first tightrope walker Jean Francois Gravelot, better known as “The Great Blondin”. He was born February 28th 1824 in St. Omer, Pas de Calais in Northern France. Blondin first arrived in Niagara in early 1858. He became obsessed with crossing the Niagara River on a tightrope and on June 30th 1859, he successfully walked across the river on a tight rope in 20 minutes. He followed this by eight more crossings in the summer of 1859 during which he variously stopped to eat on omelette, perform handstands or pushing a wheelbarrow along as he crossed. His most difficult crossing occurred on August 14th when he carried his manager Harry Colcord on his back.

Blondin subsequently played to packed audiences at the Crystal Palace, where he would ascend to a great height by walking up a tightrope at a steep angle and performing various tricks once he reached the horizontal rope. During the summer of 1860, Blondin returned to Niagara for a second successful year of tight rope walking across the Niagara River for hundreds of thousands of sightseers. On September 8th 1860, he made his final tight rope crossing of the Niagara River before heading for London. Here he played to packed audiences at the Crystal Palace, where he would ascend to a great height by walking up a tightrope at a steep angle and performing various tricks once he reached the horizontal rope. He settled in Ealing and died in 1897 at the age of 73 years.
Continued success in the increasingly crowded market depended on astonishing the audience. The circuses increasingly did this by exhibiting curiosities such as midgets, giants, and mermaids; training animals to perform tricks -such as elephants riding cycles; and inventing new and more ingenious acrobatic acts, demanding faultless timing and relentless physical training on the part of the circus performers. One act, which achieved tremendous notoriety in London after its first performance at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1864, was Mazeppa’s Ride. A woman bareback rider named Adah Menken was strapped, supposedly naked (but in fact clothed in what now seems a quite decorous tunic), on the back of a “wild” horse, which would then rear and gallop around the stage. The act had been performed for years, (see the poster from 1833 above) but never before by a woman. It was the start of a new and immensely popular circus tradition of young female performers which introduced a risqué, slightly titillating aspect to the circus spectacular.

Some authorities assert that the first human cannonball act took place in 1871, when a young male performer posing as a woman was shot from a catapult-like device during a show at a London music hall. However, most historians accept that the first human cannonball act was witnessed on April 2nd 1877 at West’s Amphitheatre in London. The young Madame Zazel (a girl from Leicester) was stuffed down the barrel of a cannon – actually a spring-loaded catapult – and fired high above the audience into a safety net at a distance of 60 feet. For each performance Madame Zazel received the unheard sum of £120, and retired with her fortune two years later. Surely the first Circus Millionaire!