Astley – Circus Genius

Re-issue of the tribute book by Paul Bemrose of Newcastle Museum, published by Newcastle Borough Council.

Once in a while, history produces a personality who rises up to become a legend in his own time. Philip Astley, born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1742, proved to be such a person and was fated to become one of the greatest theatrical and circus entertainers of all time.

He made his debut not on the stage of some fashionable theatre of the day, but in a simple dirt ring of his own making in a field on the outskirts of an obscure London suburb some two and a half centuries ago. It is for this reason that we are celebrating him this year.

In 1768 he formalised that dirt ring into a fixed circle surrounded by seating, performed his own astonishing equestrian acts and brought into that ring a bevy of entertainers – acrobats, jugglers, wire-walkers, clowns – to create the rich mix of entertainment we call Circus. The size of that ring he fixed at 42 feet diameter – the international standard of circus rings to this very day.

the international standard of circus rings to this very day

Astley was a brilliant equestrian performer, one of the many riding masters who were plying their skills up and down the country throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. Often they were barely able to eke out an existence for themselves despite their efforts. Many riders had gained their expertise while serving in the army, as indeed was the case with Astley. What marked Astley out from his contemporaries was his uncanny knack of developing and expanding current forms of equestrian entertainment and moulding them into something new and exciting.

It was this innate flair that inspired him to create the circus as we know it today. He shaped his programmes in such a way that fine horsemanship was combined with a blend of fun and laughter. He introduced clowns and performers of every persuasion to titillate his audiences.

Over the years, his innovative ideas and concepts were adapted by virtually every proprietor in the business and Astley’s original ideas formed the basis of the later extravaganzas created by many of the nineteenth century impresarios. Even today, his ideas can still be detected in circus scenarios, a tribute indeed to the foresight of Astley.

This then is the story of a brilliant man whose career ends with his death in 1814 and a legacy acknowledged in the books of authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. In a sense, this book acts as a preface to the fascinating history of the circus because, by the time he died, it had already become the most popular form of mass entertainment in the world. Philip Astley, from Newcastle-under-Lyme, is justly regarded as the Father of the Modern Circus.

The re-issue of Paul Bemrose’s wonderfully researched and illustrated book Astley – Circus Genius (1992), is organised and sponsored by Ray Johnson and Andrew Van Buren to support the Philip Astley Project during this 250th Anniversary year of the birth of Circus.

Book Launch

The book launch takes place at the Stoke Film Theatre, College Road ST4 2EF, at 7.00pm for 7.15pm on Wednesday 31st January – followed by a free screening of The Greatest Show on Earth at 7.45pm (ticket-free, no need to book, free car parking on adjacent University car park). This screening is the first in a short Circus Film Season hosted by Staffordshire Film Archive and Andrew Van Buren at the Stoke Film Theatre.

Astley – Circus Genius – available from local outlets, including the Brampton Museum, the New Victoria Theatre, at £9.99 – and online from (plus postage).

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