About the Astley's
Philip Astley was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Staffordshire, c. 1742. In 1759, he joined Colonel Eliott's 15th Light Dragoons, and distinguished himself for his equestrian skills. Returning to England after military service, he married Patty Jones in 1765; she, too, was an equestrian performer. The Astley's son, John, born in 1767, followed in his parents' footsteps, becoming an accomplished trick rider before he was 5.
The Astley's opened a riding school in an area named Halfpenny Hatch in Lambeth in 1768. Philp Astley supplemented their income by working as an instructor to the gentry by performing trick riding. The first advertisement for Astley’s “ACTIVITY on HO[R]SEBACK,” published in the Gazetteer and Public Advertiser for 4 April, 1768, promises that “Near twenty different attitudes will be performed on one, two and three horses every evening during the summer season excepting Sundays.”
Astley’s was site of sociability for all classes in Romantic-era London, albeit one that confirmed social hierarchy by providing special seats for the higher classes. Admittance at Astley’s was organized according to the following fees: “Box 2s. 6d. Upper Box 1s. 6d. Pit 1s. Gall[ery]. 6d.”
Exterior view of Astley's Amphitheatre, near Westminster Bridge; a sculpture of a man standing on top of a horse at top of entrance; posters and signs showing acrobatics across front. 1777 © The Trustees of the British Museum
Astley’s success encouraged other entertainment entrepreneurs to try their hand at the circus business. Sites similar to Astley’s sprang up within London and other locations in the British archipelago as well as in Europe and North America, including Jones’s Equestrian Amphitheatre in Whitechapel (1786), Swan’s Amphitheatre in Birmingham (1787), the Edinburgh Equestrian Circus (1790), Ricketts's Equestrian Pantheon in Boston (1794) and Montreal (1797), and the Royal Circus, Equestrian and Philharmonic Academy in London (1782).
Astley’s made circus not just a London location of entertainment, but also a national and transnational phenomenon.