Reconstructing Early Circus: A Database of Entertainments at Astley’s Amphitheatre, 1768-1833

The origins of the genre we now know as “circus” can be traced back to the late 1760’s to the equestrian entertainments of Phillip Astley and his wife, Patty. Astley had served in the 15th Light Horse under General Elliott. Returning to England, Astley opened a Riding School, supplementing his income as an instructor by performing trick riding. With the profits from his shows, Astley was able to expand his enterprise over the next few years, offering performances in both Dublin (in 1773) and Paris (in 1774), moving to different site on Westminster Bridge Road, and adding a roof and a stage to his amphitheatre in 1779. Similar sites of entertainment soon sprung up within London and the British Isles as well as in Europe and North America. Astley never referred to his entertainments as “circus,” however. The term “circus” was originally introduced in the context of a rival venue, the Royal Circus, established in 1784, and was subsequently a dopted at other locations presenting equestrian performances mixed with other entertainments.

The early entertainments at Astley’s consisted largely of feats of horsemanship by men, women and by children -- but they also soon incorporated other novel acts such as automatons, acrobatics, a “learned horse” and bees swarming around their “trainer” in the shape of a wig. The performances were tailored to all classes, with Astley particularly assiduous to assure the comfort of the nobility. While music and song is not regularly represented in the early notices and advertisements for Astley’s, there are a few clues, however, that help us reconstruct a sense of the musical soundscape of his entertainments. The newspaper advertisement for July, 1772, for example, notes that Astley “rode on one Leg, and sound[ed] and Trumpet” and that he also rode two horses and “played a Tune on the Fife in full Speed.”

In 1782, Charles Hughes, a former performer at Astley’s, partnered with Charles Dibdin to found the Royal Circus, Equestrian and Philharmonic Academy, which opened its doors less than one half a mile away from Astley’s. With a proscenium stage as well as a riding amphitheatre, the Royal Circus offered musical theatre along with the more spectacular acts. (The music and songs were designed to serve the purpose of avoiding the ire of the legitimate theatres and the eye of the magistrates. As David Worrall succinctly suggests, “musicality was the key element defining legality” during a time when only licensed theatres were legally allowed to present spoken-word dramas. The Circus overstepped its mark, however, and Hughes -- and then Astley -- was briefly jailed for presenting drama without a license. Both were eventually released and granted permission to operate, but the result was that Astley, too, started incorporating burlettas and pantomimes into his entertainments in an attempt to keep up with his competition. On Easter Monday, 1784, Astley’s opened under the altered name, “The Royal Grove,” with two new acts: a “comic ballet” entitled “The Peasants of the Alps” and a concluding pantomime, “Jupiter in Disguise; Or, the Rape of Europa.” (Eventually, Dibdin himself would leave the Royal Circus and write musical theatricals for Astley.)

The more prominent role of song that accompanied the changes at Astley’s reflected and reinforced an increasing taste for novelty and for celebrity culture in the entertainment business. Accordingly, songs and singers began to get prime real estate in the advertisements and on the playbills for the shows at Astley’s, while particular songs were noted in the advertisements because they were already popular with the audience or because they were associated with particular celebrity singers.