If you stroll over Westminster Bridge to the eastern end of St Thomas’ Hospital – near where the Florence Nightingale Museum now is – you will be standing on the site of the world’s first circus. Of course, circuses in some form had existed for many centuries. The word itself is of Greek origin and exhibitions of strange animals were held in ancient Egypt. But it is generally agreed that the modern circus was born on this London spot on 9 January 1768 when Philip Astley (1742-1814), born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, pioneered it in the form of a modern arena surrounded by tiers of seats from which to watch trick horse-riding and other acrobatic exercises. Astley reckoned that a diameter of 42 feet for the circus ring was needed so horses could move comfortably, a standard that is still used today. Tumblers, tightrope walkers and clowns were added later.
Astley’s success soon spawned imitators. A rival, Charles Hughes, who had once worked with Astley, set up a Royal Circus a short distance from Astley’s Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts. Hughes, who was the first to use the word “circus” in this context, took his troupe to entertain Catherine the Great in 1790 and is credited with planting the idea of circuses in Russia. Meanwhile, John Bill Ricketts, a former student of Hughes, went to America and established a circus in Philadelphia. A performance in 1793 was attended by George Washington and a commemorative plaque now stands on the site – which is more than can be said for Astley’s original.
Later on, the barnstorming US showman PT Barnum became more successful than Astley, but there is no doubt who was the true architect of circuses. Astley established wooden amphitheatres around Britain and 18 in other European cities. He opened his first Paris circus in 1782 and is buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. In 1844, long after Astley’s death, the circus was still up to its tricks. The Annual Register reported that “an immense number of people” lined the Thames to watch a clown from Astleys sail from Vauxhall to Westminster Bridge in a washing tub pulled by two geese and then walk casually into the circus. That must have been one of the greatest PR stunts of its time.
Amazingly, the world’s first modern circus was situated only a few hundred yards from what is claimed to be the world’s firs serious music hall, which I wrote about here. Astley’s circus has long since disappeared but it lives on in literature having been mentioned by Jane Austen, James Joyce, Charles Dickens and Tracy Chevalier.
LONDON AND BREXIT: Will leaving the EU be good or bad for the capital? On London and the illustrious London Society have jointly organised a debate about this crucial question. Anti-Brexit campaigner Andrew Adonis, former Boris Johnson adviser Daniel Moylan and Lib Dem AM Caroline Pidgeon have been booked to speak. Buy your tickets here.