Philip Astley Poster 130819 Credit Flikr.jpg

The Cavalryman Who Founded The Modern Circus

Discover how Philip Astley went from the Light Dragoons to staging the first-ever circus ring in 1768.

Philip Astley Poster 130819 Credit Flikr.jpg

A sketch featured in Astley's 1802 book: 'Astley's system of equestrian education' (Picture: Flickr).

The circus as we know it today invokes a variety of different images, from clowns to acrobats and horses. Perhaps less likely to come to mind is the British Army.

The birth of the modern circus in 1768 is a product of Philip Astley, a former Cavalryman with 15th Light Dragoons who would become one of Britain's greatest showmen.

Forces News spoke to a circus historian, Dr Steve Ward, tracing modern circus history back to its military roots.

Astley was considerably larger than the average man of his time, 1742-1814.

Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1742, Astley quickly abandoned a pending future in carpentry with his father, instead pursuing a love of horses at a London horse fair.

A well-built 17-year-old, eager to serve King and country, he was an unmissable target for cavalry recruitment officers in attendance. 

Dr Ward explains: "He was well over 6 feet in height, the average would have been 5.7 or so, and was said to have had a booming voice to match.

 "I'd imagine he'd have needed a custom-made uniform or he would have looked rather silly, he wasn't easily missed in a crowd."

Astley showed a talent for riding and underwent specialist training at Lord Pembroke's Salisbury estate. Lord Pembroke was the Lieutenant Colonel in the 15th Light Dragoons.

The Light Dragoons are known to this day as a regiment with the capability to move quickly in and between deployments. Modern warfare swapped their fast horses for high-performance armoured vehicles such as the Jackal.

There, he would break in regimental horses before deployment to the Seven Years' War - a five-continent conflict fought between 1756 and 1763 that divided Europe into two coalitions. Dr Ward says:

 "By the time the regiment left for Europe in June 1760, Astley would have been skilled as a rough rider, instructor and horse-breaker, promoted to the rank of Corporal by this."

The Light Dragoons have built on their reputation as a fast-response regiment (Right picture: MOD).

His Certificate of Service recounts their arrival in Bremen, one horse breaking from its sling and falling into the water. Astley promptly removed his waistcoat and swam it to shore.

On 25 June 1788, The Times reported: "...his spirited activity was the principal means of saving several men and horses, in imminent danger, from the accidental oversetting of a boat."

The Sergeant then became Sergeant Major after further exploits in the Battle of Emsdorf, says Dr Ward: "2,500 French soldiers and officers surrendered, nine guns were taken and nine colours seized in a huge victory for the allies, Astley instrumental despite being unhorsed and wounded. He captured a pair of Colours himself.

"He was also instrumental in rescuing the Duke of Brunswick during the Battle of Friedberg."

His Commanding Officer, George Eliott, who went on to become General, years later presented Astley with his horse named 'The Gibraltar Charger' because it was used by Eliott during the defence of Gibraltar under Franco-Spanish siege.

"This horse was bomb-proof", explains Dr Ward, with audiences "staggered" by the beast's refusal to flinch whilst surrounded by performance explosions and fireworks. Dr Ward jokes:

 "Of course, there's room for the theory that this horse could have been completely deaf!"

Returning to civilian life as a war hero, Astley taught military riding techniques alongside his wife, Patty. Their son, John, was riding on horseback by the age of five.

They went on to develop their 'British Riding School' in 1769 in a timberyard at the foot of Westminster Bridge, building a performance ring to display war-themed tricks.

"He would go through demonstrations of cuts with sabre, one time riding with head in the saddle and firing pistol", says Dr Ward. 

A high 18th-century demand for trick-riding saw the two-rider display grow in popularity. Other acts were soon incorporated, such as acrobatics, clowning, pantomime and juggling.

Astley established his first performances in 1768 and went on to open at least 19 worldwide. He often allowed veterans free entry to his shows.

He later volunteered again for military service in 1793 during further hostilities with the French, rescuing two guns and several horses. Rewarded by his Commanding Officer with the horses, he sold them and gave the proceeds to his compatriots.

Astley's Amphitheatre, drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann's Microcosm of London (1808-11).

Following Philip Astley's death in October 1814, the circus continued his legacy, with displays holding on to their heritage and often used to convey current military events.

"It became a news platform of the time, of course with an elevated portrayal of the British.

"One display of the French Revolution ended with a chorus singing 'Rule Brittania'."

Dramatic horse displays illustrated news from Napoleonic Wars, whilst Astley’s presented 'The Battle of Waterloo' in 1853 - 40 years on from the real event, enriching the spectators' understanding of the allied victory over the French. 'The Battle of Alma' recounted events taken from the Crimean War, one year into the war itself.

The Amphitheatre closed in 1893, the garden of St Thomas' Hospital now standing in its place, but Astley's military journey still influences circus performances worldwide.

19th-century advertisement for 'The Battle of Alma' at Astley's Amphitheatre.

Asked to describe Astley's lasting legacy, Dr Ward said:

"He was a larger than life, louder than life character - he was happy to play the heroic role that the people needed it at the time."

"He showed audiences what the mighty British could do in the face of the enemy."

Although horses may now have taken a backseat role, the red and yellow colours associated with the circus are a direct link to the uniforms sported by Astley and his compatriots during his early shows.

For more information on the military history behind the modern circus, read Dr Steve Ward's book 'Father of the Modern Circus: Billy Buttons: The Life & Times of Philip Astley'.