Circus Month - The History of the Circus: Part I

March 13, 2015

As it's Red Nose Day, what better way to celebrate the history of clowns and Comic Relief, than by looking back at the history of the circus? So chuck on your red nose and learn something in part 1 of our examination of all things related to the Big Top. 

The modern circus was created in England by Philip Astley. A former member of the cavalry, Astley had turned to becoming a showman after discovering a remarkable talent for breaking in the horses during his time serving the nation during the Seven Years War. Upon being discharged, Astley imitated successful trick-riders, whom regularly performed in London’s pleasure gardens and provided him with his inspiration.

 In 1768, Astley settled in the capital and opened a riding school near Westminster Bridge, performing tricks for punters in the afternoon. With theatre just developing, Astley built a similar structure in the shape of a circle, from which ‘circus’ gets its name. The shape had already been used with some success by other riders, primarily due to allowing audiences unobscured sight lines when watching performances and because centrifugal force – created when the horses gallop around the ring – makes it easier for riders to keep their balance when performing tricks.

By 1770, Astley was renowned for his tricks rather than his teaching and after two seasons of performing, he felt he needed an extra slice of novelty to aid in his performances. To this end, he hired acrobatsrope-dancers and jugglers between his displays. He also took inspiration from Elizabethan theatre by adding a clown, primarily to fill the pauses between acts. With these additions, the modern circus was born.

 In 1782, Astley opened the first circus in Paris and that vey same year, he faced competition for the first time from Charles Hughes, a former pupil. The title for his school was ‘The Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy’ and the public soon shortened the name to ‘circus’, which is around the time the word entered popular parlance. Although most circus performances were initially in temporary wooden structures, by the 1790s, every major European city boasted a permanent circus and one of Hughes’ students, John Bill Ricketts, went on to open the first circuses in America and Canada around the same time, though the circus in North America was to follow a slightly different format.

In Part II, we’ll take a look at the American travelling circus... 



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By Henry Fosdike