The Circus is 250 Years Old

Hurray—The circus is coming!

Yes, the circus more or less as we know it was first created in 1768. Philip Astley a retired cavalryman and war hero was its creator and he marked out a ring on an abandoned piece of land in Waterloo, London. Previously most horse acts had been in a straight line. He experimented with different sizes of ring to determine the best diameter for standing on horseback while riding around in a circle. Finally, he decided on a diameter of 42 ft (12.8 m) and this has remained the standard size of a circus ring since then. It is said that he decided this diameter as being best for centrifugal forces produced, but whether he had much scientific knowledge is not known. Presumably, as an ex-cavalryman he rode his horse around the ring and certainly his wife Patty did so, as one of her acts was to ride round covered in a swarm of bees. No doubt part of the acts included bareback riding.

Astley went on to find a number of acts to supplement the horse acts, acrobats, clowns, jugglers and strongmen. The advertisements for his shows were eye-catching describing “never before attempted” and similar claims. This information has been taken from an article by Dea Birkett of Circus250, now digital. Originally the performances were known as “Hippodramas” and Astley went on to create the Amphitheatre Anglais in Paris and the Royal Amphitheatre in 1795. As time went on circus included music in the shape of a mini-orchestra, even if it comprised only two or three instruments. Later, in 1825, the canvas tent, known as the Big Top was introduced by Purdy Brown. In living memory steam traction engines provided transport and generated electrical power for lighting the big top. These “showmans engines” provided additional colour with polished brass fittings and bright red, gold and black paint. Nowadays railway transport may be used between cities, or large diesel-powered lorries and trailers.

I was a very keen circus goer as a child and asked to go every time they appeared in our rural town. In those days many “wild” animals were involved including an intrepid lady in fishnet tights entering a lion’s cage and making it perform several tricks including showing its teeth in a roar with only a small whip for defence. I also remember a man putting his head in a lion’s mouth, but my father said it had probably lost all its teeth. The lady on the flying trapeze looked glamorous in her sequined costume, and there were always elephants, as well as horses and the smell of sawdust. There were two circus companies which come to mind and they usually had booklets describing their circuses for sale at about one shilling (12 old pence). One was Sir Robert Fossett’s and the other Lord George Sanger and I believe both had adopted their titles. They, or a stand-in, acted as Ring Masters, resplendent in scarlet tailcoats, striped trousers, cravat and black shiny top hat and the obligatory whip. I am surprised that Astley did not adopt the title of Major at least.

Clowns go back into history, long before the circus. The ancient Egyptians had a form of clown. Today we usually see two types, the White Face and the Auguste, or grotesque in a variety of costumes. The white face is normally the top clown, like the famous of recent past Pierrot, Joseph Grimaldi, Charlie Cairoli, and Grock while the Auguste is like a tramp in an overlarge suit who falls about and is a master of slapstick. Some clowns are musical, playing a number of instruments, frequently a clown playing the big bass drum leading the procession. Another clown act is an old motor car from which the doors fall off at intervals, as it is driven around the ring.

Locally there are old photographs of elephants processing along the streets of Bridport, without a car in sight, but plenty of happy onlookers. For example “Sally and Leila visiting West Bay”—did they go for a paddle? Bridport Museum in its Local History Centre has a photograph of four elephants being taken from the railway at Bridport Station to the circus in South Street, each ridden by its Mahout. The circus has changed significantly in recent years in respecting animal rights and we no longer see caged animals made to perform tricks or in a menagerie. But the circus continues to entertain us.

The Museum Centre Staff kindly found copies of advertisements for example “May 1892 Farewell Tour of E H Bostock’s Grand Star Menagerie and Circus of Varieties. Three Great Animal Trainers. The Young Cardono with four monster performing lions with the untameable Lion Wallace. Applaud the young Hero as he emerges from the Den. Fair Field, St Michael’s Lane, Bridport”. Another of April 1895 advertises “Prof. E K Crocker’s 30 marvellously educated horses, ponies, donkeys and mules—endorsed by popular praises the most Unique Exhibition of the Age. An entirely New and Novel Act entitled “Le Carouselle”, a Unique Act by 10 Beautiful Ponies at the Drill Hall Bridport”. Finally I found “Fourpawr’s Gigantic Circus & Hippodrome combined with Anderton & Haslam’s Monster Double Menagerie & Museum September 1896 with 150 horses, ponies and mules, 50 carriages and wagons, 40 star artistes, 300 beasts, birds and reptiles, 8 funny clowns, two distinct bands, a herd of camels and dromedaries, wonderful performing elephants—Special engagement of Captain Rowland the most daring lion tamer will perform with 5 distinct groups of savage animals”.

If you are not amazed by all the capital letters and claims, just note the following: Admission 3s, 2s, 1s, and 6d (This is the standard charge for all these shows at the time.)

You may question if the Romans had invented the circus? They had contests between gladiators and possibly wild animal shows and acrobats etc., with the public seated approximately in a circle in their amphitheatres, but were not performing in a circus ring. We may recall Maumbury Rings just on the outskirts of Dorchester, towards Weymouth. This is believed to have been a Neolithic Henge originally, with ramparts of earth and modified by the Romans as an open-air amphitheatre for shows of some sort. Later it was fortified by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and more recently equipped with anti-aircraft guns in World War II, according to Bill Putnam in Roman Dorset. It has subsequently been used as an open-air theatre but after its modifications throughout history it is a far cry from the “Big Top”.

If a circus comes to a field near you, go along and recapture the atmosphere of the old shows and think of the daring Mr Astley.

Bridport History Society does not meet in August, but there is an exhibition in Bridport Town Hall by Bridport Heritage Forum from 1st to 19th August—“War, Peace and New Beginnings”.


Cecil Amor, Hon. President Bridport History Society.