Philip Astley

Philip Astley

Philip Astley (January 8, 1742–January 27, 1814) is regarded as the "father of the modern circus."

He was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in England and his father was a cabinetmaker. At the age of nine, he apprenticed to work with his father, but Astley's dream was to work with horses, so he joined Colonel Eliott's Fifteenth Light Dragoon Regiment when he was 17, later becoming a Sergeant Major. He also served in the Seven Years War, and his army service brought him into contact with professional trainers and horse riders. Astley himself was a brilliant rider.

Astley had a genius for trick riding. He saw that trick riders received more attention from the crowds in Islington. He had an idea for opening a riding school in London, where he could also conduct shows of acrobatic riding skill. In 1768, Astley opened his riding school in London, south of the Westminster Bridge. He taught in the morning and performed his “feats of horsemanship” in the afternoon. Astley called the arena a "circus" because of its shape, and Astley chose it for two reasons. First of all, it was easier for the audience to keep the riders in sight. Secondly, the ring (as the circus was better known) helped riders through generation of centrifugal force, which allowed them to keep their balance whilst standing on the backs of their galloping horses. After a few years, he added a platform, seats, and a roof to his ring.Astley's original circus was 62 ft (~19 m) in diameter, and later he settled it at 42 ft (~13 m), which has been an international standard for circuses since then.

Astley began to make more and more money and made a good reputation. However, after two seasons in London, he had to bring some novelty to his performances, so he hired other equestrians, musicians, a clown, jugglers, tumblers, tightrope walkers, and dancing dogs. This laid the foundations of the modern circus, as we know it today.

His circus was so popular that he was invited in 1772 to perform before King Louis XV of France in Versailles. Astley's Amphitheatre opened in London in 1773; [The Wallet of Time] it burned on September 17, 1794, but was rebuilt and, in course of prosperity and rebuilding after successive fires, [New International Encyclopedia] grew into Astley's Royal Amphitheatre. Astley opened the first Parisian circus in 1782, which he called the Amphitheatre Anglais. Soon after that, others opened new circuses, and this led to their worldwide fame.

Astley's first competitor was equestrian Charles Hughes, who had previously worked with Astley. Together with Charles Dibdin, a famous author of pantomimes, Hughes opened a rival amphitheatre in London, which Dibdin called Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy.

Astley established 18 other circuses in other European cities; was patronised by a great number of royals, and was famous, envied, and occasionally rich. He never used wild animals in the circus arena. They began to be displayed 14 years after his death in Paris. He was buried in Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery, [New International Encyclopedia] having expired from gout in the stomach. [ [ The Book of Days] ]

Astley's Amphitheatre is referenced in Jane Austen's Emma, in Chapter 54: "He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley's. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley's."

Astley's fame is also marked by the existence of three dance tunes which bear his name - "Astley's Ride(s)", "Astley's Flag" and more common, "Astley's Hornpipe" [ ['s_Hornpipe See Folkopedia] ] . "Astley's Ride" appears as the first tune in the music manuscript book of poet John Clare.


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