Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities
Thomas Frost, Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, London: Chatto and Windus, 1881.
Fortunes of the Royal Circus - Destruction of Astley's Amphitheatre by Fire - Its Reconstruction - Second Conflagration - Astley in Paris - Burning of the Royal Circus - Erection of the Olympic Pavilion - Hengler, the Rope-dancer - Astley's Horses - Dancing Horses - The Trick Horse, Billy - Abraham Saunders - John Astley and William Davis - Death of Philip Astley - Vauxhall Gardens - Andrew Ducrow - John Clarke - Barrymore's Season at Astley's - Hippo-dramatic Spectacles - The first Circus Camel.
For nearly forty years after the opening of Astley's Amphitheatre, the performances did not differ, in any respect, from the usual entertainment of the smallest tenting company now travelling. The earliest bill of the collection in the library of the British Museum was issued in 1791, when the great attraction of the place appears to have been the somersault over twelve horses, called le grand saut du Trampolin, of James Lawrence, whose vaulting feats gained him the name (in the bills) of the Great Devil.
In 1792, the entertainments comprised a considerable musical element, and concluded with a pantomime. One of the advertisements of this year announces the performances in the arena as follows:
'Horsemanship, and exercises for the Light Dragoons - Ground and lofty tumbling - A grand entry of horses - Equestrian exercises, particularly the metamorphose of the sack - Wonderful equilibres on a single horse - Whimsical piece of horsemanship, called The Taylor riding to Brentford.'
Sadler's Wells continued to vary its programme with tumbling and rope-dancing, and in 1792 gave 'a pleasing exhibition of strength and posturework, entirely new, called Le Tableau Chinois, by Signor Bologna and his children, in which will be displayed a variety of curious and striking manoeuvres. Tight-rope dancing by the Little Devil and Master Bologna, with the comic accompaniment of Signor Pietro Bologna.'
From the Royal Circus announcements of the following year, I select the following two, as good illustrations of the kind of performances then given, and curious examples of circus bills eighty years ago:
The Company at the Circus beg leave to acquaint the Nobility, Gentry, and Public, that young CROSSMAN will appear this present Evening, August 7, On HORSEBACK, and challenge all the Horsemen in Europe.
FRICAPEE DANCING, VAULTING, TIGHT-ROPE
> DANCING, PYRAMIDS, GROUND AND
LOFTY TUMBLING, &C. &C. &C.
The performance will commence with a Grand Entry of Horses, mounted by the Troop. Young CROSSMAN'S unparalleled Peasant Hornpipe, and Hag Dance, not to be equalled by any Horseman in this Kingdom.
LE GRAND SAUT DE TRAMPOLINE by Mr PORTER, (Clown) who will jump over a garter 15 feet from the ground, and fire off two Pistols.
THE MUSICAL CHILD, (only nine years of age) will go through his wonderful Performance. Mr SMITH will go through a variety of Performances on a Single Horse.
THE HUMOURS OF THE SACK,
OR, THE CLOWN DECEIVED BY A WOMAN.
By Mr CROSSMAN and Mr PORTER.
Mr INGHAM (from Dublin) will throw an innumerable Row of Flipflaps.
Mr CROSSMAN will vault over the Horse backwards and forwards, with his Legs Tied, in a manner not to be equalled by any Performer in this Kingdom.
GROUND AND LOFTY TUMBLING,
by the whole Troop.
The AFRICAN Will go through his astonishing Stage and Equestrian Performances.
LA FORCE DE HERCULES:
Or, The Ruins Of Troy.
Mr PORTER will perform on a single Horse, in a ludicrous manner.
Young CROSSMAN will leap from a single Horse over Two Garters, 12 feet high, and alight again on the Saddle, and Play the Violin in various Attitudes.
THE TAYLOR'S DISASTER,
Or, his Wonderful Journey to Brentford,
By Mr PORTER.
To conclude with a Real Fox and Stag Chase by twelve couple of Hounds, and two real FOXES, and a real STAG HUNT, as performed before their Majesties.
Crossman, it will be seen, had transferred his services from Astley's to the rival establishment, where he must have been an acquisition of some importance. The Ducrow mentioned in the second bill, must have been the father of the celebrated equestrian of that name.
CHANGE OF PERFORMANCES.
THE WINDSOR HUNT.
This and every Evening, until further Notice, at the
In which will be introduced a Representation of
THE DEER CARRIAGE AND STAG
With Horsemen and Women coming out of Holyport Mead to see the Stag turned out; the Hunt will be then joined by Ten Male and Three Female Equestrians. The Stag will be Twice, and the Horsemen and Horsewomen Five Times, in FULL VIEW.
AN ENTIRE NEW DANCE, CALLED
THE CROATIAN MERCHANTS,
Composed by Mons. Ferrere. Principal Dancers, Mons. Ferrere, Madame Ferrere, Mons. D'Egville, and Signora Fuzi, with Six Couple of Figurants. The Dresses and Decorations entirely New, by Mr RISLEBEN.
Will appear this and every Evening on HORSEBACK, and challenge all the Horsemen in Europe.
By the celebrated SAXONI, from Rome.
PYRAMIDS, GROUND and LOFTY TUMBLING, &c.
The Grand Leaps over SEVEN HORSES.
Also, through the Hoop on FIRE, fourteen feet high, by Mr PORTER and Mr DUCROW. The former will leap over more Horses than any Man in Europe.
MR FRANKLIN'S inimitable Performances with
THE CHILD OF PROMISE,
In various attitudes. Playing on the violin, &c.,
MR SMITH, MR INGHAM, MR PORTER, MR DUCROW, MR MEREDITH, MR ALLERS, MR JONES, MR BENGE, MR QUIN, MR FRANCIS, and
THE FAMOUS AFRICAN,
(Who is not to be equalled) will go through the TILTS and TOURNAMENTS, and MILITARY EXERCISES, as performed on HORSEBACK, in the FIELD and MANAGE. To which will be added,
THE TAYLOR'S DISASTER!
AND FOX HUNT.
By the above Male and Female Equestrians.
The performances at Sadler's Wells this year included 'a series of varied equilibres and posturework, called Le Tableau Chinois, by Signor Bologna and his children,' and 'a capital display of agility on the tight-rope by the inimitable Mr Richer, from Petersburgh; also the pleasing exertions of La Belle Espagnole.' There does not appear to have been many changes in the programme of this establishment, which in the following year presented 'a new and picturesque exhibition, called the Pastimes of Pekin, or Kien Quang's Family Tree; in which will be displayed, by a group of ten capital performers, under the direction of the Great Kien Quang, a variety of entertainments and active manoeuvres, a la Chinois, with banners, garlands, and umbrellas;' and 'the pleasing and varied exertions of Messrs Bologna and La Belle Espagnole.'
Astley's Amphitheatre was destroyed by fire in 1794, to the serious loss of the proprietor, who was not insured; but such was his indomitable energy and enterprise that it was rebuilt in time to be opened on Easter Monday, in the following year. In the mean while, in order to keep his company and stud employed, he had converted the Lyceum into a circus, in conjunction with a partner named Handy.
The Royal Circus was far from prosperous. The load of debt upon it kept the lessees in a position of constant difficulty and embarrassment, and in 1795 Mrs West levied an execution on the premises. It was then opened by Jones and Cross, the latter a writer of spectacles and pantomimes for Covent Garden; and in their hands it remained until it was destroyed by fire in 1805.
Handy was still Astley's partner in 1796, when the advertisements announce 'thirty-five new acts by Astley's and Handy's riders, and two surprising females,’ in addition to pony races, the performances of a clever little pony, only thirty inches in height, a performance on two ropes, and a novel act by a performer named Carr, who stood on his head in the centre of a globe, and ascended thirty feet 'turning round in a most surprising manner, like a boy's top.' Later advertisements of this year describe the Amphitheatre as 'under the patronage of the Duke of York,' and announce the special engagement of two Catawba Indians - both chiefs, of course, as American Indians and Arabs who appear in the arena always are represented to be. These copper-coloured gentlemen gave their war dance and tomahawk exercise, and performed feats of dexterity with bows and arrows. The only mention of equestrianism at this time is, that 'various equestrian and other exercises' will be given 'by pupils of both the Astleys.'
Sadler's Wells gave this year 'various elegant and admired exercises on the tight-rope, by the inimitable Mr Richer and La Belle Espagnole, particularly Richer's astonishing leap over the two garters, with various feats of agility and comic accompaniment by Dubois.' This establishment and the Royalty gradually abandoned entertainments of this kind, and were at length converted into theatres; and the like change was effected at the Royal Circus, or rather at the building which rose upon the ruins made by the conflagration of 1805.
Astley's was burned again in 1803, when Mrs Woodhams, the mother of Mrs Astley, perished in the flames. Astley was again a heavy sufferer, the insurance not covering more than a fourth of the damage; but once more the building rose from its ruins, and it was again re-opened in 1804. Astley being occupied at the tune with the construction of a circus in Paris, since known as Franconi's, the new Amphitheatre was leased by him to his son, John Astley, with whom William Davis soon became associated as a partner.
In 1805, the Royal Circus having been destroyed by fire, Philip Astley leased the site of the Olympic Theatre from Lord Craven for a term of sixty-one years, at a yearly rental of one hundred pounds, with the stipulation that two thousand five hundred pounds should be expended in the erection of a theatre. It was an odd-shaped piece of ground, and required some contrivance to adapt it to the purpose; but Astley, who was his own architect and surveyor, and indeed his own builder, for he is said to have employed the workmen ge required without the intervention of a master, overcame all difficulties with his usual energy and fertility of resource.
He bought the timbers of an old man-of-war, captured from the French, and with these built the framework of the theatre, a portion of which could, it was said, be seen at the rear of the boxes of the old Olympic Theatre before it was destroyed by fire. There was very little brickwork, the frame being covered externally with sheet iron. and internally with canvas. The arrangements of the auditorium were very similar to those of the provincial circuses of the present day; there was a single tier of boxes, a pit running round the circle, and a gallery behind, separated from the pit by a grating, which caused the ‘gods' to be likened to the wild beasts in Cross's menagerie, Exeter Change. There was no orchestra, but a few musicians sat in a stage box on each side. The chandelier was a present from the king. The building was licensed for music, dancing, and equestrian performances, and called the Olympic.Pavilion. It passed in 1812 into the possession of Elliston, who purchased it, with the remaining term of the lease, for two thousand eight hundred pounds and an annuity of twenty pounds contingent on the continuance of the license. The annuity soon ceased to be payable, for Elliston opened the theatre for burlettas and musical farces in 1813, and it was closed a few weeks afterwards by order of the Lord Chamberlain, on the ground that the license had been granted on the supposition that the theatre was to be used for the same kind of entertainment as had been given by Astley, and only during the same portion of the year.
The Amphitheatre continued to be conducted in the same manner as it had been when in the hands of the proprietor, and brought before the public a succession of clever equestrians, tumblers, and rope-dancers. In a bill of 1807 we first meet with the name of Hengler, its then owner being a performer of some celebrity on the tight-rope. The travelling circuses which were springing into existence at this time, both in England and on the continent, furnished the lessees with a constant succession of artistes; and the admirably trained horses fairly divided the attention of the public with the biped performers.
Philip Astley was the best breaker and trainer of horses then living. He bought his horses in Smithfield, seldom giving more than five pounds for one, and selecting them for their docility, without regard to symmetry or colour. He seems to have been the first equestrian who taught horses to dance, the animals going through the figure, and stepping in time to the music. One of his horses, called Billy, would lift a kettle off a fire, and arrange the tea equipage for company, in a manner which elicited rounds of applause. He was a very playful animal, and would play with Astley and the grooms like a kitten. His owner was once induced to lend him for a week or two to Abraham Saunders, who had been brought up by Astley, and was at that time, as well as at many other times, involved in pecuniary difficulties. While Billy was in the possession of Saunders, he was seized for debt, with the borrower's own stud, and sold before his owner could be communicated with. Two of Astley's company, happening shortly afterwards to be perambulating the streets of the metropolis, were surprised to see Billy harnessed to a cart. They could scarcely believe their eyes, but could doubt no longer when the animal, on receiving a signal to which he was accustomed, pricked up his ears, and began to caper and curvet in a manner seldom seen out of the circle. His new owner was found in a public-house, and was not unwilling to part with him, as Billy, 'though a main good-tempered creature,' as he told the equestrians, ‘is so full o' all manner of tricks that we calls him the Mountebank.'
Saunders, at this time a prisoner for debt in the now demolished Fleet Prison, was well known as a showman and equestrian for three quarters of a century. Many who remember him as the proprietor of a travelling circus, visiting the fairs throughout the south of England, are not aware that he once had a lease of the old Royalty Theatre, and that in 1808 he opened, as a circus, the concert-rooms afterwards known as the Queen's Theatre, now the Prince of Wales's. After experiencing many vicissitudes, he fell in his old age into poverty, owing to two heavy losses, namely, by the burning of the Royalty Theatre, and by the drowning of fifteen horses at sea, the vessel in which they were being transported being wrecked in a storm. In his latter years, he was the proprietor of a penny 'gaff' at Haggerstone, and, being prosecuted for keeping it, drove to Worship Street police-court in a box on wheels, drawn by a Shetland pony, and presented himself before the magistrate in a garment made of a bearskin. He was then in his ninetieth year, and died two years afterwards, in a miserable lodging in Mill Street, Lambeth Walk.
There is a story told of Astley, by way of illustration of his ignorance of music, which, if true, would show that the Amphitheatre boasted an orchestra even in these early years of its existence. The nature of the story requires us to suppose that the orchestral performers were then engaged for the first time; and, as we are told by Fitzball that the occasion was the rehearsal of a hippo-dramatic spectacle, it seems probable that there is some mistake, and that the anecdote should be associated with Ducrow, instead of with his precursor, no performances of that kind having been given at the Amphitheatre in Astley's time. But Fitzball may have been in error as to the occasion. As the story goes, Astley, on some of the musicians suspending their performances, demanded the reason.
'It is a rest,’ returned the leader.
'Let them go on, then,' said the equestrian. ‘I pay them to play, not to rest.'
Presently a chromatic passage occurred.
'What do you call that?' demanded Astley. 'Have you all got the stomach-ache?'
'It is a, chromatic passage,' rejoined the leader, with a smile.
'Rheumatic passage?' said Astley, not comprehending the term. 'It is in your arm, I suppose; but I hope you'll get rid of it before you play with the people in front.'
'You misunderstand me, Mr Astley,' returned the leader. 'It is a chromatic passage; all the instruments have to run up the passage.'
‘The devil they do!' exclaimed Astley. ‘Then I hope they'll soon run back again, or the audience will think they are running away.'
Hitherto the quadrupeds whose docility and intelligence rendered them available for the entertainment of the public had been limited to the circle; but in 1811 the example was set at Covent Garden of introducing horses, elephants, and camels on the stage. This was done in the grand cavalcade in Bluebeard, the first representation of which was attended with a singular accident. A trap gave way under the camel ridden by an actor named Gallot, who saved his own neck or limbs from dislocation or fracture, by throwing himself off as the animal sank down. He was unhurt, but the camel was so much injured by the fall that it died before it could be extricated. The elephant, though docile enough, could not be induced to go upon the stage until one of the ladies of the ballet, who had become familiar with the animal during the rehearsals, led it on by one of its ears. This went so well with the audience. that the young lady repeated the performance at every representation of the spectacle.
Philip Astley died in Paris, at the ripe age of seventy-two, in 1814, - the year in which the celebrated Ducrow made his first appearance on the stage as Eloi, the dumb boy, in the The Forest of Bondy. The Amphitheatre was conducted, after the death of its founder, by his son, John Astley, in conjunction with Davis; but not without opposition. The Surrey had ceased to present equestrian performances under the management of Elliston; but in 1815, on his lease expiring, it was taken by Dunn, Heywood, and Branscomb, who were encouraged by the success of Astley to convert it into a circus. The experiment was not, however, a successful one.
In the following year, Vauxhall Gardens assumed the form and character by which they were known to the present generation; and the celebrated Madame Saqui was engaged for a tight-rope performance, in which she had long been famous in Paris. She was then in her thirty-second year, and even then far from prepossessing, her masculine cast of countenance and development of muscle giving her the appearance of a little man, rather than of the attractive young women we are accustomed to see on the corde elastique in this country. Her performance created a great sensation, however, and she was re-engaged for the two following seasons. She mounted the rope at midnight, in a dress glistening with tinsel and spangles, and wearing a nodding plume of ostrich feathers on her head; and became the centre of attraction for the thousands who congregated to behold her ascent from the gallery, under the brilliant illumination of the fireworks that rained their myriads of sparks around her.
Andrew Ducrow, who now came into notice, was born in Southwark, in 1793, in which year his father, Peter Ducrow who was a native of Bruges, appeared at Astley's as the Flemish Hercules, in a performance of feats, of strength. Andrew was as famous in his youthful days as a pantomimist as be subsequently became as an equestrian, and was the originator of the poses plastiques, the performance in which he first attracted attention, and which was at that time a novel feature of circus entertainments, being a series of studies of classical statuary on the back of a horse. He appeared at the Amphitheatre during only one season, however, leaving England shortly afterwards, accompanied by several members of his family, to fulfil engagements on the continent. The first of these was with Blondin's Cirque Olympique, then in Holland. He had at this time only one horse; but, as his gains increased with his fame, he was soon enabled to procure others, until he had as many as six. After performing at several of the principal towns in Belgium and France, he was engaged, with his family and stud, for Franconi's Cirque, where he was the first to introduce the equestrian pageant termed an entree. There he exhibited his double acts of Cupid and Zephyr, Red Riding Hood, &c., in which he was accompanied by his sister, a child of three or four years old, whose performances were at that time unequalled.
Simultaneously with the rise of Ducrow, the well-known names of Clarke and Bradbury appear in circus records. When Barrymore, the lessee of the Coburg Theatre (now the Victoria), opened Astley's in the autumn of 1819 for a limited winter season, his company was joined by John Clarke, fresh from saw-dust triumphs at Liverpool, and Bradbury, who was the first representative on the equestrian stage of Dick Turpin, the renowned highwayman, whose famous ride to York had not then been related by Ainsworth, but was preserved in the sixpenny books, with folding coloured plates, which constituted the favourite reading of boys fifty years ago. Clarke's little daughter, only five years of age, made her appearance on the tight-rope in the following year, when Madame Saqui re-appeared at Vauxhall, and was one of the principal attractions of that season.
John Astley survived his father only a few years, dying in 1821, on the same day of the year, in the same house, and in the same room, as his more famous progenitor. After his death the Amphitheatre was conducted for a few years by Davis alone; and by him hippo-dramatic spectacles, the production of which afterwards made Ducrow so famous, and which greatly extended the popularity of Astley's, were first introduced there. Davis also signalized his management by the introduction of a camel on the stage for the first time in a circus, the occasion being the production of the romantic spectacle of Alexander the Great and Thalestris the Amazon.
In the circle a constant variety of attractive, and often novel, feats of horsemanship and gymnastics continued to be presented. All through the season of 1821 the great attraction in the circle was the graceful riding of a young lady named Bannister - probably the daughter of the circus proprietor of that name, whose name we shall presently meet with, and who had, shortly before that time, fallen into difficulties. During the following season the public were attracted by the novel and sensational performance of Jean Bellinck on the flying rope, stretched across the pit at an altitude of nearly a hundred feet, according to the bills, in which a little exaggeration was probably indulged. The great attraction of 1823 was Longuemare's ascent of a rope from the stage to the gallery, amidst fireworks, which had been the sensation of the preceding season at Vauxhall Gardens, where, at the same time, Ramo Samee, the renowned Indian juggler, made his first appearance in this country.
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