Georgian Circus from a Georgian Gentleman – Mike Rendell on Philip Astley – the English Hussar

Mike Rendell

Mike Rendell

Today I am lucky to have a terrific guest blogger on No wriggling. Mike Rendell, author of a wonderful book based on the writings of his  4x Great Grandfather Richard Hall, The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman and keeper of the fabulous Georgian Gentleman blog. Here he writes of his fascination with the story of Philip Astley , one of the original circus impresarios and the subject of his latest book.

If you had suggested to me six months ago that I might write a book about the origins of the circus in the 18th Century – a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing – I would have assumed you were a trifle unbalanced. Yet here I am about to publish a 145-page book about Philip Astley – the guy who made the modern circus possible. The bi-centenary of the anniversary of his death is on October 20th next year and I thought I would mark the occasion!

It is not as if I have ever been particularly fascinated by the circus – here is one person who never dreamed of running away to try my hand on the high wire, or juggling. But having heard about Astley, and delved into some of the material about him, his life and achievements quickly became an obsession. He was one of the greatest showmen of his Age – indeed of any Age. His name is now almost forgotten – but why?

Forget Barnum, forget Bailey – a hundred years earlier than these giants of the triple top Philip Astley laid down the basics of the modern circus.  Most circus stars were (and still are) born into a particular branch of the entertainment world – there are generations of the same family who juggle, or walk the tightrope, or whatever. But Astley had no theatrical or street-entertainment background – his father was a cabinet maker from Newcastle under Lyme. Yet he became a giant of popular entertainment. How? Because of horsemanship.

Image one  Equestrian skills were at the heart of his acts – he could get his horse to dance the minuet, or the hornpipe. He could do handstands on the back of a horse, while firing a pistol. He could ride three or four horses at the same time, and jump from the back of a horse over a ribbon held ten feet above ground level, and land again perfectly. He could gallop at full speed, slide off the saddle and pick up a sword from the ground without pausing. These were skills honed when he served in the British Army during the Seven Years War. Here was a man who thought nothing of charging through the enemy lines to rescue the Duke of Brunswick, who had fallen injured and been overtaken by the swirl of battle. He also captured an enemy standard and presented it to the elderly George II. Later, he rubbed shoulders with George III, blew the socks off fanatical crowds, and went on to open no fewer than 19 circus premises throughout England and Europe.

Astley was the horse whisperer of his Age – and a brilliant showman. He also realized that if you belted up and down a rectangular pitch the audience could not easily follow the action. So he fixed on a circle – he called it a ring – and found that with a diameter of 42 feet the horse could gallop at full speed without changing its gait, and with the added advantage that centrifugal force would then help keep the rider standing upright. All of the action took place right in front of the audience, all the time. It is still the standard size of circus ring in use today.

My ancestor Richard Hall's handbill from when he went to see Astley in the 1770's.

My ancestor Richard Hall’s handbill from when he went to see Astley in the 1770’s.

When he married, his wife joined him in his acts, appearing on horseback with a muff. Not your normal everyday muff, but one made up of a swarm of bees encircling her wrists! Everything had the WOW! factor. Astley diversified from horse riding skills to introduce equestrian clowning; he did juggling and magic tricks involving an early form of a mind-reading act; he brought a spectacle involving fireworks, an orchestra, juggling, acrobatics, rope walking,  and so on and gave the public what they wanted – skills and thrills a-plenty. He created the role of ringmaster, standing in the centre of a circus ring, controlling the horses and performers, with his bellowing voice and “statuesque” physique (he was over six feet tall, and had a girth like a tree trunk).

Image three

His business empire was frequently hit by fire, but each time his premises burned to the ground, he re-built them. Curiously he always re-built in wood, never stone, despite the obvious risks of using candles – literally thousands of them – with sawdust on the floor, wooden seats, and with a wooden roof and walls.

He trained and inspired a legion of skilled entertainers and impresarios, who spread the circus throughout Europe, to America, Asia and Australia. Forget the sad parade of wild animals being dragged from town to town – they were not HIS circus. Wild animals didn’t really come into the circus story until the mid-1800’s. His circus was based on equestrian skills – although admittedly he also used a monkey called General Jackoo who performed acrobatic tricks, and a “Scientific Pig” able to count cards and do mind-reading tricks!

He enjoyed royal patronage both in England and in France, where Philip and his son were particular favourites of Marie Antoinette.

He led a remarkable life, but died of “gout in the stomach” in 1814 in Paris, aged 72. He was succeeded by his son John, another brilliant horseman, but he only outlived his father by seven years, before liver failure killed him. He died in the same house – and indeed the same room, in the same bed – as his father and both were buried in the same cemetery.

Image four

And so it is that for the past few months I have been trawling through some of the amazing on-line newspaper records from the Georgian era identifying advertisements and news reports about Astley. The material available about him is vast – he certainly knew how to blow his own trumpet! And because I am a sucker for pictures I have included loads of images in the book, which comes out next month on Amazon, hopefully just before Christmas. The book is called “Philip Astley – the English Hussar” (because that was his original stage name).

Yes, I would have loved it if I could have got it into “real” bookshops but it just isn’t going to happen, so self-publishing is a realistic alternative. Besides, it will be good to draw a line under the project, and turn my attention to some other facet of Georgian life – because I write for the sheer enjoyment of it, I am never too worried about whether things sell, as long as people enjoy reading it!

Meanwhile: I salute the old boy – he was a rough diamond if ever there was one. A man with virtually no formal education, he was a Georgian entrepreneur who should be up there with all the other greats of the Age, from Matthew Boulton to Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Chippendale – and yet his success is nowadays totally overlooked.

My sincere thanks to Mike for this wonderful post. Do check his blog for more wonderful stories from the Georgian era. He has a knack for finding the most fascinating facts!

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3 Responses to Georgian Circus from a Georgian Gentleman – Mike Rendell on Philip Astley – the English Hussar

  1. Viv says:

    I recall a mention of Astley’s circus in Dickens. I have a feeling it was Mr Guppy in Bleak House mentioned it. Might be wrong. Lovely post.
    I still want to run away and join the circus.

    • Mike Rendell says:

      I don’t recall it in Bleak House but there is quite a good description of a visit to Astleys in in a short story by Dickens called “Master Humphrey’s Clock’ and another in his “Sketches by Boz.” In fact authors rather liked including Astleys in the background to their stories – as in Emma by Jane Austen. It also features in one of Thackeray’s books – and of course in several of Georgette Heyer’ novels.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Me too – although I think I would have to be ‘behind the scenes’ or maybe a clown. Trapeze etc a definite on go area!

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