Astley's Circus

Philip Astley (1742-1814) was originally a cavalryman with the 15th light dragoons, fighting in the Seven Years’ War from 1759. After his decommission he began training horses and teaching riding, which eventually led to his performing tricks on horses. These included picking up handkerchiefs from the ground while cantering, doing headstands on his saddle, and riding astride two horses while playing a pipe.

He first established an equestrian show in Lambeth in 1768, and soon added other acts, including acrobats, rope dancers, a pig that could do sums, a strong man called Hercules, and even a horse that could perform card tricks and make a cup of tea.

Astley’s Amphitheatre at the foot of Westminster Bridge was built in 1769, and the show became more elaborate, adding theatrical re-enactments and pantomimes. The building burned down several times, but outlasted both Astley and his son John, who also did horse tricks and was famed for his elegant horse dancing.

Philip Astley was a larger-than-life character who loved spectacle. He sent up a hot-air balloon from his garden; took it upon himself to set off fireworks on the Thames every year for the King’s birthday; and even, as a bet, floated down the Thames on his back, a flag in each hand, from Westminster to Blackfriars Bridge.

When war broke out between Britain and France in 1793, Philip Astley went over to France, not so much to fight as to boost the morale of the troops. He also sent back reports from the front, which his son translated into up-to-the-minute spectacles for circus goers.

John Astley took over the managing of the circus in his father’s absence, and married Hannah Smith. By all accounts he was not half as charming as his father. Both father and son eventually ended their days in Paris, Philip dying in 1814, John in 1821. They are buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.