The first circus

DID you know London was the birthplace of the circus?

Philip Astley (1742-1814) served as a Sergeant Major in the 15th Light Dragoons in the Seven Years War. When he retired from the army he became an equestrian trick rider, performing with others at the Vauxhall (see next entry) and Ranelagh pleasure-gardens.

He eventually opened a riding school in 1768 near Westminster Bridge, offering lessons in the morning and trick riding in the afternoon. With experimentation, he found that the best size of ring for his acrobatics was a ring 42feet (13metres) in diameter – still the standard size of a  circus ring today.

As demand for his performance grew, Astley added extra attractions. By 1772, the Circus had dancing dogs, jugglers, acrobats, tightrope walkers and clowns. Of course, Astley had no wild animals – which means the modern circus is returning even more to his original format.

Astley opened the first circus in Paris, the Amphitheatre Anglois, while Astley’s Circus was a fixture on the South Bank for many years. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris (France, for you Americans).


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