Much has been said and written about Philip Astley’s life and legacy. Indeed, Astley’s own ability in marketing, promotion and showmanship was undoubtedly one of the key elements in his success as a circus manager and entrepreneur.
Accounts of Astley as a war hero include helping to rescue the Duke of Brunswick from behind enemy lines during the Seven Years War (1755-1764) and defeating five battalions with their colours and nine pieces of cannon at Emsdorff (Cannon, R. 1841).
However, the principal reason Astley’s name is known to us today is for his enormous contribution to our cultural life. Bringing together acrobats, clowns and trick riders in a 42-foot ring, creating the art form that became known as The Circus; for over 30 years, Astley entertained both high society and the general public with a series of acts that combined risky and tense displays of skill with comic relief. Astley himself was at the heart of these performances, simultaneously riding up to three horses whilst performing ever more daring tricks (London Gazetteer, 4th April 1768).
Little is known about Astley’s early life in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire; but we can imagine it was very different from the glamorous life he was to go on to lead. Although there is no official record of his birth, Philip Astley’s ancestors lived within the Newcastle-under-Lyme area for a number of generations and it is generally accepted that he was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme on 8th January 1742. At this time, Newcastle-under-Lyme was a lively market town – an important staging post on the road to London. From a young age, it is assumed that Philip worked with his father Edward, a cabinet maker and veneer-cutter, records show Philip and the Astley family living in Ladd Lane in the middle of the town. Later accounts (DeCastro, 1824) indicate that at that time, his relationship with his ‘warm tempered’ father was poor.
In 1759, Philip Astley enlisted under Colonel Eliott in the 15th Light Dragoons, the first Light Cavalry Regiment of the British Army (Muster Lists 15th Light Dragoons). A few months later, Astley was chosen by Dominic Angelo, Lord Pembroke’s trainer to be instructed in a new method of riding at Lord Pembroke’s estate near Salisbury. Astley demonstrated skill in ‘trick riding’ and ‘subduing’ and training horses. Astley’s military career saw him in active service during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and French Revolutionary wars.
Astley’s fantastic equestrian skills, developed during his military career, were at the heart of his success as a showman and entrepreneur.
Philip Astley is considered to be the founder of modern circus. Following a time of experimentation, Astley discovered that a 42-foot ring is the ideal diameter for trick riders to make use of centrifugal force to stay on the back of their horses whilst performing for the public. 42 feet remains the standard size of circus ring used around the world.
In 1768, Astley acquired “Ha’Penny Hatch” a small piece of land on the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster Bridge. In 1770, Astley established the first of his ‘amphitheatres’. Astley claimed this was funded by the ‘discovery’ of a diamond ring when crossing Westminster Bridge, but is more likely due to receiving an inheritance from his Great Uncle, Richard Milligane, who was the Postmaster of Newcastle-under-Lyme [copy of the will held at Brampton Museum archives].
Astley’s Amphitheatre (and his promotional skills) captured the public’s imagination. Building on his success, Astley toured across Europe and had particular success in Paris, performing for Louis XV at Versailles.
Philip Astley died in 1814 and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. However, Astley’s original Amphitheatre remained on its site near Westminster Bridge Road for nearly 125 years and is mentioned in the literature of the time including Charles Dickens’ Sketches by ‘Boz’ (1837), The Newcomers by Thackery (1855) and Jane Austen’s Emma (1833). In total, Astley built 19 amphitheatres in locations including London, Dublin, Bristol and Paris (Simms, 1894).
Cannon, R. Historical Record of the Fifteenth, Or the King’s Regiment of Light Dragoons, (1841) London: J.W. Parker.
DeCastro, J (1824) The Memoirs of J DeCastro. London: Sherwood Jones & Co.
Muster Lists of 15th Light Dragoons, Public Record Office, Kew.
Will of Richard Milligane of Newcastle-under-Lyme, 14th November 1767. Original held at Lichfield Record Office.
Simms, R. (1894) Bibliotheca Staffordiensis. Lichfield: A.C. Lomax.