Monday, March 9, 2009


A brief history of the


Philip Astley (1742-1814)

The origins of the modern circus can be dated quite accurately. In 1769 Philip Astley bought a piece of property near Westminster bridge, London, England, and constructed upon it the very first circus building called The New British School or Amphitheater Riding Ring. He presented the first performance in 1770. It was so successful that by 1779 he had a roof constructed over the performing area; the modern circus was born, albeit not called as such. That came later, in 1782.
  • The Circus Maximus in Rome - built about 600 B.C., seated 200,000

    The term "circus", meaning a large public entertainment featuring performing animals, clowns, feats of skill and daring, pageantry, etc. (according to Random House College Dictionary) has its roots in the Roman word, circus, meaning a ring or circle. The Roman circus, however, was not so much of a fun place to perform. Often the star performers were eaten by lions, or killed in bloody combat. Originally designed as a sporting event where Roman soldiers could match their skills and prowess against one another in an olympian fashion it quickly evolved into pure carnage. The bloodier the spectacle the more popular it became. People killing people, animals killing animals, animals killing people. It reached its gruesome height under the Emperor Nero. With the final decline of the Roman Empire the event disappeared, but some of its terminology and legacy survived. Modern blood sports can trace their origins back to the Roman arena - bull fighting and cock fighting, for example. Words like circus, arena, and colosseum are Roman terms to describe a place of mass entertainment.



  • With the decline of the Roman Empire many of its former vassal states, like Britain, were left defenseless and unable to protect themselves from invasions from aggressive peoples such as the Saxons, Jutes, Angles, and, later, the Vikings. Communications broke down and left small communities isolated - a period in European history known as the Dark Ages. Groups of traveling entertainers began appearing - going from village to village bringing news, singing songs, and telling stories, after the Saxon fashion. For many these travelers were the only source of information and became very popular. In England these performers were called "gleemen"; eventually known as minstrels. Later in the Middle Ages, after the 1066 invasion by the Normans, a new entertainer appeared - the jugglour or jongleur. They supplanted the minstrels in popularity, but, like the rest of the country, the Saxon and Norman performers soon combined their skills and language.

  • 16th CENTURY
    • 16th CENTURY
    By the time of Queen Elizabeth I most of the earlier problems of invasion, turmoil, and isolation had been resolved and the country settled down to a more secure and prosperous life. Wandering vagabonds were seen as a threat and laws were passed to curtail their gypsy life. Minstrels and other traveling entertainers no longer had a place in Tudor society. They were equated with "Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars". All were subject to punishment, but performers quickly adapted to this statute and the ever changing needs of developing communities. Instead of performing on street corners and village greens, they began working in new more permanent locations designed specifically for such events.
  • 17th CENTURY
    • 17th CENTURY
    In the seventeenth century country fairs were a popular event with the English populace. They became the major venue for performers to show off their skills. These fairs were not the well organized, smooth running operations we know today. They tended to be riotous and noisy events, and it took a rough and strong individual to be successful at them, but they provided the perfect forum for acrobats, jugglers, rope dancers, and bear trainers. Also, riding exhibitions became a regular feature.
    At this time more permanent facilities became available for the performer. Many of these were adjacent to established enterprises such as Sadler's Wells - named for a Mr.Sadler who, in 1683, discovered a "medical" spring in his garden outside of London by the New River. Performers were encouraged to entertain his patrons in the garden and it is recorded that a well known rider, William Stokes, introduced performing horses to Sadler's Wells in the late 17th century. Today, of course, Sadler's Wells is a world famous Opera House. There were others but the first accredited circus building, and organized circus, had to wait until 1769.
  • 18th CENTURY
    • 18th CENTURY
    Although by the middle of the 18th Century much of what is considered important to a circus was already in place, it took one man to put it all together in the correct environment to invent the modern circus. That man, as we mentioned above, was one Philip Astley.
    Astley was not born into a performing family. His father was a cabinet maker from Newcastle-Under-Lyme, England, and, from the time Philip was born, on January 8th, 1742, his future seemed to be assured - master cabinet maker and carpenter. However, he was not particularly interested in wood but was in love with horses. At the age of seventeen he borrowed a horse and joined the Fifteenth Dragoons as a rough rider and horse breaker. Two years later his regiment was sent overseas to serve under the King of Prussia where he proved his daring and bravery. At Hamburg he saved a horse that had fallen overboard from their ship; at Emsdorf he captured the enemy standard; at Warburg he saved the life of the wounded Duke of Brunswick. By 1766 he was Sergeant Major Astley, stood over 6 feet tall with a huge frame and booming voice that, along with his extrovert nature and daredevil reputation, made him a celebrity.
    About this time he decided that he wanted to start a riding school to teach the nobility art d'equitation. Unfortunately he lacked the funding but heard of an innkeeper who had financed the purchase of his business with the proceeds of trick riding exhibitions. A perfect solution for a perfect equestrian. Thus, accompanied by his regimental commanders white charger, Gibraltar, which he had been presented with upon his discharge, he sort out an appropriate location to begin plying his vocation.
    Islington, on the north side of London, was a large area dedicated to recreation and many riding masters, down on their luck, entertained there, demonstrating their skills to attract clients for their riding schools. When Astley arrived there he discovered he needed to learn the art of presenting a show, so he hired on as a horse breaker. During this period he purchased two more horses and got married to a horsewoman named "Petsy". In 1768 he moved to the south side of the Thames and set up his riding school - opening it with a demonstration of both his and his wife's riding skills. Shortly after he was charging 6 pence admission. With the profits made from this simple beginning he was able to purchase some land near Westminster bridge, and built the first circus building. Originally it was more an open field surrounded by a kind of covered grandstand. Later he covered the whole area with a roof.
    Astley's greatest contribution to the modern circus was not so much combining his riding act with other performers (clowns, for example) but for the circus ring itself. Prior to Astley most riding exhibitions were presented in a linear fashion - the performer riding past his aud- ience as he performed a trick, then having to turn around, or ride back around the other side, before presenting the next trick. When Astley decided that a covered grandstand was needed he realized it would be more advantageous to both performer and audience if the rider worked in a circle. The rider could move from trick to trick without interruption and the people could see everything going on and a larger audience could attend as they sat all around the perform- ance arena. Also, as Astley discovered, by riding in a circle he could use the centrifugal force to aid his performance. With experimentation he discovered the optimum size of the ring to be 42 feet.
    Charles Hughes, a former rider at Astleys, opened a competing company in 1782 - not too far from Astley's booming enterprise - much to the chagrin of Astley. Hughes needed a name for his company. Why he chose the name he did is open to debate - perhaps he was a scholar of ancient history, or, more likely, after the large circular track used for exercising horses in Hyde Park. Whatever the case, he called his company (drum roll!), "The Royal Circus".
    Astley was responsible for introducing the circus into many European countries, and several cities established permanent circus buildings. The first circus in Russia was presented in 1793 at the royal palace in Saint Petersburg.
    This new form of entertainment finally crossed the Atlantic when, on April 3rd, 1793, the first complete circus program was presented in a building on the southwest corner of 12th and Market streets, Philadelphia, by John Bill Ricketts. Ricketts, a British equestrian, went on to present circuses in New York and Boston, and the show continued, under varying names, through the first decade of the 19th century. George Washington saw a Ricketts show in 1797 and sold them a horse.
    The early traveling shows were very simple - in contrast to the flashy city shows. Usually a simple musical accompaniment of a violin, or two, with a juggler, a rope dancer, and a few acrobats - possibly some display of horsemanship.. The show set up in a field and took up collections. Later they worked in an enclosed space and charged admission. The advent of improved tent technology (in the 1820's) and the railways (in America) changed everything.
    While other acts were added to the show, the riding act was still the main attraction and this led to another standard feature of the modern circus - the ring- master. Though today the ringmaster tends to be the announcer, occasional foil of the clowns, and generally keeping the show flowing, originally his job was to keep the horses running correctly around the ring as the rider worked his tricks - hence his traditional riding costume.
  • 19th CENTURY
    • 19th CENTURY
    During the 19th century European circuses and American circus began a divergence. The circus in England, and the other parts of Europe, continued in much the same manner as before, that is, a single ring. Towns are closer together so most traveling shows could travel with horse drawn carriages as they made their way around the country. Tent shows remained compact as the audiences, drawn from the surrounding villages, tended to be small, albeit appreciative. In the United States, however, conditions were very different. Distances between communities were much longer. Fortunately the new railways allowed traveling shows to commute the vast distances more effectively - the great train shows were born. Also, as the shows tended to be tied to the railway lines the audiences were drawn from larger areas and to accommodate the bigger attendance's the circus owners added extra rings with bigger and bigger tents - or tops. The small circus show became an event with a large cast of performers, more extravagant animals, production numbers, and side shows. From this point forward the United States led the way and European shows, though still tending towards a single ring, began to follow with their own more extravagant productions. Some of the best shows in the 19th century were, in America, the Mount Pitt circus and the troupes of the American animal tamer Isaac Van Amburgh, the American chemist and inventor Gilbert Spaulding, and the American Clown Dan Rice.
    With the increased cost of production came an increased awareness for the need to publicize the show more effectively. An advance crew would show up way ahead of the show to post bills and placards to advertise the upcoming event. When the show arrived in the area the performers would parade through the town with the horses and elephants all decked out in their finery. Vendors would ply the crowd with circus programs and confections as clowns cavorted about and helped create the carnival atmosphere of fun and anticipation. In fact the parade became as much a part of the circus as the actual show itself. Special decorated wagons were built for the occasion and the steam calliope was introduced.

    By the end of the century the circus was an established, and much sort after, form of family entertainment. Many entrepreneurs appeared, such as P.T.Barnum, who turned what was originally an incidental form of entertainment into a grand production. In 1871 he teamed up with circus producer W.C.Coup and produced a huge show in Brooklyn, N.Y., advertised as "The Greatest Show On Earth". Ten years later he went into partnership with the best organizer in the business, James Bailey. Their show was so huge it needed three rings. Barnum cashed in on the popularity of circus animals and exhibited unusual and unique creatures such as the world's largest elephant, Jumbo, which he reputedly paid $30,000 for (see cartoon).
    In 1884 the five Ringling brothers started their first circus. During the following years they purchased six other shows including, in 1907 (after the death of Bailey), Barnum & Baileys. Another show John Ringling purchased in 1914 was, incidentally, the British version of the Hanneford Circus to acquire the Hanneford riding act - but that's another story.
    The first combined show, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was in 1918. By this time the Hannefords were starring performers with the Ringling show and worked in the first combined Ringling show.

    Early Barnum & Bailey Poster


    Many acts are important to a modern circus but the one that is synonymous with the word circus, of the human kind, is the flying trapeze. Originally it was, as the song proclaims, the daring young man on the flying trapeze. Nowadays it is usually a troupe of daring young men and women. The first man to perform on the flying trapeze was Jules Leotard on November 12th, 1859, in the Cirque Napoleon in Paris. The original act consisted of the performer swinging on one trapeze bar then releasing it and "flying" to a second bar. In the 1870's a second performer was added and the "flyer" flew to the hands of the "catcher". After each trick the flyer would have to drop into a net and climb back to the platform, retrieve the bar, then perform the next trick. Then a third performer was added to the routine to remain on the platform, catch the empty bar, then swing it over to the flyer who caught it and returned to the platform without having to drop to the net.

    The act that defined the flying trapeze, however, was the Clarkonians. Charles Clarke was a circus owner who had three sons and three daughters. All were superb riders but the show needed something else. He decided that two of his sons, Charles and Ernie, should learn a flying trapeze act. Though he knew the basic design of the rigging he had no clue as to the distances and dimensions of the two trapeze bars. Charles experimented and designed a rig that allowed the flyer, Ernie, to return to the platform without the aid of a third person. After several years of practice they created an act unique in circus history. They first performed some of the most difficult tricks, including the double somersault with a pirouette. They first worked with Barnum and Bailey's Circus in 1901, and continued with the Barnum show, and other Ringling owned shows, through till 1926. Ernie married Lizzie Hanneford in 1920. For more details about Lizzie and Ernie, plus the full size blow up of the picture, go to the family history section.

    A Bone Of Contention

    Research of the early history of the circus most sources state that the circus was first staged by Philip Astley in 1768. They then go on to talk about his first building constructed with a ring in 1769 and opening for its first show in 1770. The facts are, according to the same sources, that Astley first performed his riding act in Islington in 1768 ALONE and later added his wife and then, upon opening his first building, other acts. Now, I realize that some clever actors have made movies in which they have played all the leading roles, but it would be hard for Astley, or anyone, to perform as rider, clown, juggler, ringmaster, rope dancer, etc., all at the same time. In other words - one man alone doth not maketh a circus. Therefore, in my humble opinion, the birth of the circus, starting with the first such show - however primitive - had to be in 1770, NOT 1768 as many would contend. Else, you could say that the first circus started somewhere around 1500 B.C. with the Greeks, or, indeed, some 10,000 years ago, or so, when early modern man learned to juggle hunting, fire making, chipping flints, keeping his wife and kids happy, and literally keeping the wolf from the door! (Does that make my life a circus too?)


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