In August 1796, while staying in Cork St, London, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra that she was looking forward to an evening out: ‘We are to be at Astley’s tonight, which I am glad of’.
John Philip Astley, father of the modern circus, was Staffordshire-born. While serving in the army, Astley learnt feats of horsemanship, and in 1770 he founded a ‘Riding School’ near Westminster Bridge, where he gave open-air shows during the summer evenings: a rope defined the ‘ring’ for performances. In the mornings he gave riding lessons to ladies and gentlemen.
These early shows were fairly humble. Astley’s wife beat a drum to provide music; a fife-player was soon added. The wonderful ‘Spanish Horse’ could allegedly undo his own saddle and wash his hooves in a pail of water. Another equine star, ‘Billy’, could take a boiling kettle off a blazing fire and arrange teacups and saucers ready for tea.
Astley installed (circa 1780) a stage and scenery at his riding school, and a dome-shaped roof painted with leaves and trees: he renamed it ‘The Royal Grove’. Now he could give shows illuminated by candlelight, accompanied by music from an orchestra. A typical evening's fare on a November evening in 1780 at the 'Amphitheatre Riding-House' began with Ombres Chinoises (shadow puppet-plays), equestrian displays, human pyramids, etc. Clowns 'helped' with the show. Horses were not the only animal stars; 'dancing dogs' and ‘the surprising Learned Pig' put in guest appearances.
By the date of Jane Austen's visit, pantomimes had been added to the repertoire, and Astley's horses performed dances like the minuet or the hornpipe. A box for the evening's entertainment cost four shillings (approximately £33 today); a seat in the pit was two shillings.
In Austen’s novel Emma (1816), Mr and Mrs John Knightley, their little boys Henry and John, Robert Martin and Emma’s friend Harriet Smith spent an evening at Astley’s, where they were all ‘extremely amused’ by the show. After ‘quitting their box...they were in such a crowd, as to make Miss Smith rather uneasy’. Robert took such gallant care of Harriet that she gratefully accepted his marriage proposal the following day.
You can find out more about Astley's Amphitheatre and his amazing life story in the latest issue of Jane Austen's Regency World; and there's lots more info on the entertainment on offer during her lifetime in A Visitor's Guide To Jane Austen's England.
2 views of Astley’s Riding School in 1770. ‘From J. T. Smith’s Historical and Literary Curiosities’. Old and New London Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1878).
Entrance to Astley’s theatre, 1820. Old and New London Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1878).
Interior of Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1843. Old and New London Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1878).