Reconstructing Early Circus

The genre we know today as “circus” can be traced back to the equestrian performances of Phillip Astley and his wife, Patty, at Ha’penny Hatch, Lambeth in the late 1760’s. While the first spectacles at what would become known as Astley’s Amphitheatre and Riding School consisted largely of feats of horsemanship, the nightly entertainments soon came to incorporate acts such as acrobatics, musical automatons, a “learned horse,” trained bees swarming around their “trainer” in the shape of a wig, pantomimes, fireworks, hot air balloons, comic songs and re-enactments of occasions like the storming of the Bastille. In short, the performances at Astley’s offered a public space which re-presented the latest novelties as well as current events, re-mixing them along with a variety of astonishing physical entertainments. Given its huge popularity, it was small wonder that Astley’s inspired rival circus sites within London and the rest of the British Isles as well as in Europe and North America.

This website provides a searchable database of newspaper advertisements listing the featured acts at Astley’s from 1768-1833. It takes us back to an era before the circus became synonymous with wild animals and ring-leaders in order to help us learn more about this neglected popular entertainment, early circus, and about the age in which it flourished.

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