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November 10, 2011

Astley’s Horses Start The Circus

Equestrian performances at Astley's Amphitheater took place both on stage and in a circular arena, shown here circa 1808. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Philip Astley, 24, returned to London a new man: Seven years backing cavalry horses in Col. Granville Elliot’s 15th Light Dragoons had quashed the familial tensions he’d joined the army to avoid. Alongside the Prussians in the French and Indian war, he’d rescued the Duke of Brunswick from enemy territory. By his discharge in 1776, he’d risen to a stature of 6 feet and a rank of sergeant major. Elliot, now a general, bestowed upon his soldier an opulent parting gift: a white stallion named Gibraltar. 

But back amongst the citizenry, prospects for employment were less glamorous. Philip, like his cabinet-maker father Edward, was a horseman at heart: a passion that, outside the military, held little fiscal value. Funding and enthusiasm for court entertainments like the live carousel had long since dropped off, and privately staffed riding schools hadn’t yet become popular amongst the 14-hour work-day, tenement-dwelling public.

But Londoners, at least, were accustomed to the time-honored tradition of the theater, where brief chimerical sojourns from reality were cheap and non-committal. Keen on performance, passersby happened upon Philip trick-riding Gibraltar in a Lambeth field in 1768 and recognized what they saw as a spectacle.

Word spread, and Philip held repeat performances, eventually buying up property beside Westminster Bridge to construct grandstands. He started performing his rides on a circuit rather than on a line, which allowed the audience to more easily behold his feats, and the centrifugal force helped to propel acrobatics. By 1779, he’d enclosed the grandstand and arena in a single structure. On the outskirts of the city, Astley’s Amphitheater had taken shape.

Conventional theaters in Covent Garden and Drury Lane, via the Licensing Act of 1737, held a monopoly on prose comedies and tragedies. But the law was both boon and hindrance. For serious theatergoers in the city’s center, the concept of a burletta—loosely defined as a play of at least six songs per act—was abysmal. But outside city limits, where Shakespearean productions held little appeal, burlettas were soon to be the rage. Outer municipalities granted their own, less stringent theatrical licenses, allowing Philip to capitalize on melodramatic and musical mass appeal, if limited to summer months. And who could object, when most of the performances were to be conducted on horseback?

Though Philip’s personal performances had heretofore been mostly acrobatic, he now aggrandized his scope. In addition to the enclosed, 44’ diameter riding circuit, a full 130’ wide theatrical stage was added to the amphitheater in 1784, specially reinforced to support the weight of horses.

Now “pantomimes”—performances in which the rider and horse both played roles—became Philip’s pièce de résistance. In a pantomime entitled The Tailor Riding to Brentford, Philip played a character en route to an election whose horse variably took off, threw him and knocked him down before kneeling to let him re-mount. The bit became a beloved staple of the venue.

Andrew Ducrow, a famed employee of Philip’s who eventually succeeded him as manager in 1825, also developed a series of pantomimes, including The Courtier of St. Petersburg, the climax of which saw him navigating five galloping horses around the amphitheater. Ducrow also originated roles as The Wild Indian Hunter, The Roman Gladiator, The Yorkshire Fox Hunter and The Page Troubadour.

With time, performances became more grandiose and spectacular. A June 4, 1801, advertisement in the Times proclaimed that Astley’s production of The British Glory in Egypt featured “REAL CAVALRY and INFANTRY.”  For later performances of Mazeppa, a play based on Lord Byron’s dramatic poem of the same title, a horse was trained to jump up a series of specially constructed steps and walk through a moveable panorama giving the illusion of quick movement.

By the 1810s, even Covent Garden and Drury Lane had started producing hippodramas to compete with Astley’s, which had expanded to locations in Paris (at the invitation of Marie Antoinette) and Dublin. And though licenses still restricted performances at the original amphitheater to summer months, Philip set out on tour the rest of the year, constructing temporary structures to house his wildly popular riding circuit—or as it had come to be known, circus—for crowds throughout England.

Astley died in Paris in 1814, and though the strange phenomenon of hippodramas phased out in the 1860s, his circus had begun to inspire imitators the world over. Ringmasters clad in military costume—inspired by Astley’s uniform—imitate him to this day.

As a youngster, Chronicle of the Horse staffer Abby Gibbon was mystified by a black-and-white photo of her grandfather competing in a jumper class in the 1960s. He wasn’t wearing a helmet! His saddle pad was non-existent! The wall he was jumping looked like it would knock you down, too, if you happened to knock it! In the past 50 years, the world of equestrianism has evolved, but one thing is still for certain: History is something we all share as horse enthusiasts, and we’ve got to explore it to learn from it. Armed with nearly 75 years of Chronicle archives, Abby plans to unearth articles we haven’t examined for too many years, shedding light on how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go – as modern horsemen.

Have ideas for historical topics? Questions or curiosities? Please e-mail Abby – she’d love to hear from you!

 

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