In November 1783 the celebrated showman Philip Astley was in Paris, where on the Boulevard du Faubourg 10 years earlier he had opened the French branch of his equestrian show to huge success. It is likely that he witnessed one of the Montgolfier brothers’ first balloon flights, at Annonay or Versailles. Never one to miss a likely new trend in entertaining the masses, within six months Astley had launched his own balloon from the amphitheatre near the south end of Westminster Bridge Road. Typically, he added his own touches to the spectacle — ‘a great explosion [of fireworks] every 200 feet and …three reports when it reached the height of 4,000 feet’ — and offering a reward of a silver tankard for the return of the silk.
To use an old-fashioned phrase, Astley was not backwards about coming forwards and he was very business oriented, a true entrepreneur with a personality to match. The author of his interesting and efficient biography writes that he ‘did little unless there was profit and glory attached to it’. We get to know Astley as extravert, intelligent, ebullient, energetic, egotistical, courageous, daring and an astute risk-taker. He could be generous and kind but there were disturbing reports of cruelty. William Blake, his neighbour in Hercules Road, came out of his house to remonstrate with him in the street for shackling a young boy.
Much of what we know about Astley is inferred from secondary sources. There seem to be plenty of playbills relating to Astley’s shows but no personal archives. The only letter in existence attributed to his hand turns out to have been written by his wife. Even his birthplace, somewhere in Staffordshire, is obscure. Ward has done a good job tracking him but his exact movements as a young man are uncertain.
What is clear is that after a short career as a cabinet-maker (he was apprenticed to his father) he joined the 15th Light Dragoons where, being good-looking and unusually tall, he stood out from the crowd. His natural talent and skill with horses soon became apparent and he was promoted to corporal having distinguished himself with heroic acts, among them saving a horse belonging to one of the officers from drowning and protecting the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick from being killed by French Hussars. On his discharge and after a bit of mentoring from a horse master, he launched his own circular riding show at Halfpenny Hatch in Lambeth Marsh and performed at New Spring Gardens in Chelsea. His bill included Billy the Little Learned Horse and his new wife Patty (Martha) Jones, a granddaughter of the 4th Baronet of Wolverton no less, wearing a ‘muff’ formed by a swarm of bees.
Ward takes us through the expansion of Astley’s ‘brand’ — he was brilliant at advertising, making liberal use of motivating terms such as ‘the first’, ‘uncommon’, ‘incomparable’, ‘surprising’ and ‘positively the last time’. He was not creating something new but developing existing traditions into the format for modern circus by adding his own clown character, Billy Buttons, tumbling acts, short comedies and fireworks. He toured Britain and Dublin, and expanded to Paris, where he performed for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, all the while fighting myriad court cases between himself or his rivals and fending off the magistrates worried that he was overstepping the terms of his licence.
Astley was nothing if not a survivor. His amphitheatre being burnt to the ground more than once, he rejoined the Dragoons in his 50s and during Napoleonic France was imprisoned and escaped back to England. In his final years, he passed his Lambeth amphitheatre on to his son and enjoyed a final flourish, and great success, with the Olympic Pavilion near Drury Lane before dying in Paris (he is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery).
Just one or two niggles. Many passages are quoted in full from primary source material, a service to later researchers no doubt but a distraction, at least for me, from the narrative flow; and some sources are credited within the text without giving ‘chapter and verse’. (It is not helpful to tell us that a birth certificate is available on ancestry.co.uk or that a document is in the British Library without giving a useable reference. Pen & Sword should offer its authors more explicit guidance on the level of referencing appropriate for individual titles.)
This is a useful, readable and entertaining study by an expert who is immersed in circus culture: Steve Ward is a former performer, teacher and director of a youth circus. If you are interested in the history of live entertainment or simply want to read about an extraordinary character who displayed a precocious grasp of marketing to promote his product and beat the opposition, it is highly recommended.
Father of the Modern Circus: ‘Billy Buttons’: The Life & Times of Philip Astley
Pen and Sword (2018)