Entrance to Astleys CircusAstleys Circus

Whilst the Romans had circles or circuses as venues for entertainment of all sorts there is no direct link to the modern circus which is only about 235 years old. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire small fairs had travelled from town to town with the odd attraction � a juggler or acrobat. But no one had brought together all the various acts we associate with the circus today.

When cavalry Sargent-major Philip Astley, of the 15th Light Dragoons, first left the army he became a trick horse rider performing at various pleasure gardens including Vauxhall and Raneleigh. Rather than working for others, in 1768, he decided set up his own riding school in Lambeth near Westminster Bridge. He teached in the morning and performed his horse riding tricks in the afternoons and evenings in a �ring�. He choose the ring shape as riding in tight circles created centrifugal forces which helped with the riding stunts where he stood on the horses back. Initially the ring had a diameter of 64 feet but this was reduced to 42 feet which has become the international standard for circuses today. Astley soon found that that riding tricks were not enough to bring in the customers so he added extra attractions such as a Clown (Mr Merryman), acrobats, tightrope walkers, and jugglers. These performers found that the circus ring suited their acts and the audience appreciation was greater.

Astley fenced in his circus ring, and added seating and some roofing and quickly learned the art of advertising his Amphitheatre Riding Ring. A former employee called Charles Hughes set up a rival establishment in 1782 short distance down the road, which he called the Royal Circus � so the modern circus was born. Starting with a visit to Paris in 1772 Astley took his riding school abroad, which led to the setting up of several circuses in many European cities. One of the major risks to circus owners was fire and Astleys was burn down three times in its 62 year life.