Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Theatre and Shows - Theatres - Astleys 

    There is no place which recalls so strongly our recollections of childhood as Astley's. It was not a 'Royal Amphitheatre' in those days, nor had Ducrow arisen to shed the light of classic taste and portable gas over the sawdust of the circus; but the whole character of the place was the same, the pieces were the same, the clown's jokes were the same, the riding-masters were equally grand, the comic performers equally witty, the tragedians equally hoarse, and the 'highly-trained chargers' equally spirited. Astley's has altered for the better - we have changed for the worse. Our histrionic taste is gone, and with shame we confess, that we are far more delighted and amused with the audience, than with the pageantry we once so highly appreciated.
    We like to watch a regular Astley's party in the Easter or Midsummer holidays - pa and ma, and nine or ten children, varying from five foot six to two foot eleven: from fourteen years of age to four. We had just taken our seat in one of the boxes, in the centre of the house, the other night, when the next was occupied by just such a party as we should have attempted to describe, had we depicted our BEAU IDEAL of a group of Astley's visitors ......  The play began, and the interest of the little boys knew no bounds. Pa was clearly interested too, although he very unsuccessfully endeavoured to look as if he wasn't. As for ma, she was perfectly overcome by the drollery of the principal comedian, and laughed till every one of the immense bows on her ample cap trembled, at which the governess peeped out from behind the pillar again, and whenever she could catch ma's eye, put her handkerchief to her mouth, and appeared, as in duty bound, to be in convulsions of laughter also. Then when the man in the splendid armour vowed to rescue the lady or perish in the attempt, the little boys applauded vehemently, especially one little fellow who was apparently on a visit to the family, and had been carrying on a child's flirtation, the whole evening, with a small coquette of twelve years old, who looked like a model of her mamma on a reduced scale; and who, in common with the other little girls (who generally speaking have even more coquettishness about them than much older ones), looked very properly shocked, when the knight's squire kissed the princess's confidential chambermaid.
   When the scenes in the circle commenced, the children were more delighted than ever; and the wish to see what was going forward, completely conquering pa's dignity, he stood up in the box, and applauded as loudly as any of them ... 
    We defy any one who has been to Astley's two or three times, and is consequently capable of appreciating the perseverance with which precisely the same jokes are repeated night after night, and season after season, not to be amused with one part of the performances at least - we mean the scenes in the circle. For ourself, we know that when the hoop, composed of jets of gas, is let down, the curtain drawn up for the convenience of the half-price on their ejectment from the ring, the orange-peel cleared away, and the  sawdust shaken, with mathematical precision, into a complete circle, we feel as much enlivened as the youngest child present; and actually join in the laugh which follows the clown's shrill shout of 'Here we are!' just for old acquaintance' sake. Nor can we quite divest ourself of our old feeling of reverence for the riding-master, who follows the clown with a long whip in his hand, and bows to the audience with graceful dignity. He is none of your second-rate riding-masters in nankeen dressing-gowns, with brown frogs, but the regular gentleman-attendant on the principal riders, who always wears a military uniform with a table-cloth inside the breast of the coat, in which costume he forcibly reminds one of a fowl trussed for roasting. He is - but why should we attempt to describe that of which no description can convey an adequate idea? Everybody knows the man, and everybody remembers his polished boots, his graceful demeanour, stiff, as some misjudging persons have in their jealousy considered it, and the splendid head of black hair, parted high on the forehead, to impart to the countenance an appearance of deep thought and poetic melancholy. His soft and pleasing voice, too, is in perfect unison with his noble bearing, as he humours the clown by indulging in a little badinage; and the striking recollection of his own dignity, with which he exclaims, 'Now, sir, if you please, inquire for Miss Woolford, sir,' can never be forgotten. The graceful air, too, with which he introduces Miss Woolford into the arena, and, after assisting her to the saddle, follows her fairy courser round the circle, can never fail to create a deep impression in the bosom of every female servant present. 
    When Miss Woolford, and the horse, and the orchestra, all stop together to take breath, he urbanely takes part in some such dialogue as the following (commenced by the clown): 'I say, sir!' - 'Well, sir?' (it's always conducted in the politest manner.)  -'Did you ever happen to hear I was in the army, sir?'  - 'No, sir.'  - 'Oh, yes, sir - I can go through my exercise, sir.'  - 'Indeed, sir!'  - 'Shall I do it now, sir?'  - 'If you please, sir; come, sir - make haste' (a cut with the long whip, and 'Ha' done now - I don't like it,' from the clown). Here the clown throws himself on the ground, and goes through a variety of gymnastic convulsions, doubling himself up, and untying himself again, and making himself look very like a man in the most hopeless extreme of human agony, to the vociferous delight of the gallery, until he is interrupted by a second cut from the long whip, and a request to see 'what Miss Woolford's stopping for?' On which, to the inexpressible mirth of the gallery, he exclaims, 'Now, Miss Woolford, what can I come for to go, for to fetch, for to bring, for to carry, for to do, for you, ma'am?' On the lady's announcing with a sweet smile that she wants the two flags, they are, with sundry grimaces, procured and handed up; the clown facetiously observing after the performance of the latter ceremony - 'He, he, oh! I say, sir, Miss Woolford knows me; she smiled at me.' Another cut from the whip, a burst from the orchestra, a start from the horse, and round goes Miss Woolford again on her graceful performance, to the delight of every member of the audience, young or old. The next pause affords an opportunity for similar witticisms, the only additional fun being that of the clown making ludicrous grimaces at the riding-master every time his back is turned; and finally quitting the circle by jumping over his head, having previously directed his attention another way.
    Did any of our readers ever notice the class of people, who hang about the stage-doors of our minor theatres in the daytime? You will rarely pass one of these entrances without seeing a group of three or four men conversing on the pavement, with an indescribable public-house-parlour swagger, and a kind of conscious air, peculiar to people of this description. They always seem to think they are exhibiting; the lamps are ever before them. That young fellow in the faded brown coat, and very full light green trousers, pulls down the wristbands of his check shirt, as ostentatiously as if it were of the finest linen, and cocks the white hat of the summer- before-last as knowingly over his right eye, as if it were a purchase of yesterday. Look at the dirty white Berlin gloves, and the cheap silk handkerchief stuck in the bosom of his threadbare coat. Is it possible to see him for an instant, and not come to the conclusion that he is the walking gentleman who wears a blue surtout, clean collar, and white trousers, for half an hour, and then shrinks into his worn-out scanty clothes: who has to boast night after night of his splendid fortune, with the painful consciousness of a pound a-week and his boots to find; to talk of his father's mansion in the country, with a dreary recollection of his own two-pair back, in the New Cut; and to be envied and flattered as the favoured lover of a rich heiress, remembering all the while that the ex-dancer at home is in the family way, and out of an engagement? 
    Next to him, perhaps, you will see a thin pale man, with a very long face, in a suit of shining black, thoughtfully knocking that part of his boot which once had a heel, with an ash stick. He is the man who does the heavy business, such as prosy fathers, virtuous servants, curates, landlords, and so forth. 
    By the way, talking of fathers, we should very much like to see some piece in which all the dramatis personae were orphans. Fathers are invariably great nuisances on the stage, and always have to give the hero or heroine a long explanation of what was done before the curtain rose, usually commencing with 'It is now nineteen years, my dear child, since your blessed mother (here the old villain's voice falters) confided you to my charge. You were then an infant,' &c., &c. Or else they have to discover, all of a sudden, that somebody whom they have been in constant communication with, during three long acts, without the slightest suspicion, is their own child: in which case they exclaim, 'Ah! what do I see? This bracelet! That smile! These documents! Those eyes! Can I believe my senses? - It must be! - Yes - it is, it is my child!' - 'My father!' exclaims the child; and they fall into each other's arms, and look over each other's shoulders, and the audience give three rounds of applause. 
    To return from this digression, we were about to say, that these are the sort of people whom you see talking, and attitudinising, outside the stage-doors of our minor theatres. At  Astley's they are always more numerous than at any other place. There is generally a groom or two, sitting on the window-sill, and two or three dirty shabby-genteel men in checked neckerchiefs, and sallow linen, lounging about, and carrying, perhaps, under one arm, a pair of stage shoes badly wrapped up in a piece of old newspaper. Some years ago we used to stand looking, open-mouthed, at these men, with a feeling of mysterious curiosity, the very recollection of which provokes a smile at the moment we are writing. We could not believe that the beings of light and elegance, in milk-white tunics, salmon-coloured legs, and blue scarfs, who flitted on sleek cream-coloured horses before our eyes at night, with all the aid of lights, music, and artificial flowers, could be the pale, dissipated-looking creatures we beheld by day.
    We can hardly believe it now. Of the lower class of actors we have seen something, and it requires no great exercise of imagination to identify the walking gentleman with the 'dirty swell,' the comic singer with the public-house chairman, or the leading tragedian with drunkenness and distress; but these other men are mysterious beings, never seen out of the ring, never beheld but in the costume of gods and sylphs. With the exception of Ducrow, who can scarcely be classed among them, who ever knew a rider at Astley's, or saw him but on horseback? Can our friend in the military uniform ever appear in threadbare attire, or descend to the comparatively un-wadded costume of every-day life? Impossible! We cannot - we will not - believe it.

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836

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    This magnificent theatre will be ready for opening at the usual time, viz., Easter Monday. The external walls, built by Mr. Buckwell, jun., of  Brighton, are 148 feet in length, and include an area larger than any other theatre in London. There are two fronts; the old one facing Westminster-road, the only part of the former building left untouched by the late fire; the other facing the intended new street from Westminster-road to Stangate. This will form the entrance to the gallery. The box-entrance will be, as formerly, from the Westminster-road; thus the two entrances will have the advantage of being widely separated from each other.
    The general form of the interior is octagonal, and has been constructed by Messrs. Heywood and Nixon, from plans and models furnished by Mr. Usher, of whom those who remember the palmy days of the elder Astley will have an amusing recollection . . . his plans have succeede in placing the ring, for the equestrian performances, in such a position that a perfect view can be obtained from the distant seats of the upper gallery. . . . 
    The prevailing decorations are white, lemon-colour, green and gold, with rich crimson hangings for the private boxes. There are two full tiers of boxes, and two half tiers, ranging evenly from the two galleries. Each of the full tiers contains nineteen open boxes. The circles are supported from the pit by eight Doric pillars and forty-six Corinthian columns, fluted in white and gold. There are six spacious saloons - two for the dress circle, two for the pit, two for the upper boxes, with extensive refreshment places for the galleries. In the centre of the first tier is the royal box, tastefully ornamented. The new scenic curtain represents the triumphal procession to the Temple of Fame of the competitors from the games of the athletae with Fame distributing her gifts to the victorious Olympians. The decorations consist of copies of the productions of the ancient masters in entablatures of gold. From the rich, allegorical dome is suspended a crystal and gold chandelier, emblematic of Fame holding the coursers of triumph. The proscenium forms a magnificent triumphal arch, and has been designed and erected by Mr. John Evans, the inventor and builder of the stage and proscenium of the St. James's and other theatres. The stage measurrs 75 feet by 101, and is fitted with substantial platforms for equestrian spectacles.
    The proprietor, Mr. William Batty, has undertaken the rebuilding of the Amphitheatre entirely on his own resources.

from The Illustrated London News, 1843

Astley's Amphitheatre ... open from Michaelmas to Easter. Performance commences at half-past 6. Admission to the boxes, 4s; pit 2s.; gallery 1s.

Astley's Amphitheatre, near Westminster Bridge, was first established by the late Mr. Philip Astley in 1767, and was then an open area. In 1780, it was converted into a covered amphitheatre, consisting of boxes, gallery and pit. It was twice destroyed by fire; in August 1794, and in September, 1803; it was rebuilt in about six months after, and first opened in April 1804. A third fire, attended with fatal consequences, occurred here on the 8th of June, 1841, when the theatre was again destroyed. The dreadful shock sustained by its talented proprietor, the late Mr. Ducrow, from this conflagration, which terminated in the death of one of his oldest servants, and destruction of the whole of his theatrical property, induced a state of insanity, from which he never recovered, and finally sunk on the 27th of January 1842. An elegant Theatre, upon an enlarged scale, and of increased splendour, the decorations being of crimson and gold, has been erected by Mr. Batty, a celebrated equestrian performer.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

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We this week give one of the most effective "Scenes in the Circle" at this popular theatre - the daring feat of Jean Polanski, on two fleet steeds, as "The British Fox-hunter." Thus doubly mounted, Polaski chases a live fox round the circle, leaping over four gates in his course. There is something pretty national in the scene, and it has been received with great applause.
    The performances of Mr. Lavater Lee, the wonderful vaunter, also form a feature in the circle.

Illustrated London News, January 29, 1848

ASTLEY'S AMPHITHEATRE, WESTMINSTER BRIDGE ROAD. The first amphitheatre on this spot was a mere temporary erection of deal boards, set up, in 1774, by Philip Astley, a light-horseman in the 15th or General Elliot's regiment. It stood on what was then an open piece of ground in St. George's Fields, through which the New Cut ran, and to which a halfpenny hatch led. The price of admission to the space without the railing of the ride was sixpence, and Astley himself, said to have been the handsomest man in England, was the chief performer, assisted by a drum, two fifes, and a clown of the name of Porter. At first it was an open area. In 1780, it was converted into a covered amphitheatre, and divided into pit, boxes and gallery. In 1786, it was newly fitted up, and called "The Royal Saloon, or Astley's Amphitheatre." The entertainment, at first, was only a day exhibition of horsemanship. Transparent fireworks, slack-rope vaulting, Egyptian pyramids, tricks on chairs, tumbling, &c., were subsequently added, the ride enlarged, and the house opened in the evening. It is now both theatre and amphitheatre.
    ... In 1794 (Aug. 17th), the amphitheatre and nineteen adjoining houses were destroyed by fire. In 1803, (Sept. 2nd), it was again burnt down, the mother of Mrs. Astley, jun., perishing in the flames.
    ... in 1841 (June 8th) it was a third time burnt down, Mr. Ducrow, who had been one of Astley's riders and became manager, dying insane soon after, from the losses he sustained. Old Astley, who was born at Newcaste-under-Line in 1742, died in Paris, Oct. 20th, 1814. He is said to have built nineteen different theatres.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

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The Circus at Astley's

Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1850

ASTLEY'S AMPHITHEATRE, Westminster Bridge Road, derives its name from Philip Astley, an ex-light-horseman, who in 1774 erected here a temporary wooden building, and meeting with considerable success, enlarged and decorated it in 1786, under the title of the "Royal Grove." Its present appellation was adopted in 1792. Two years later it was burnt down, and again in 1803 - a circumstance which is alluded to in the "Rejected Addresses:"
        "Base Bonaparte, fill'd with deadly ire,
        Sets one by one our playhouses on fire;
        Boils some black pitch, and burns down Astley's twice."
It was destroyed a third time by fire in 1841, and rebuilt. 
Class of Performance: Melodrama, farce, light comedy, and pantomime.
Admission: Boxes, 4s. ; upper boxes, 3s. ; stalls, 5s;  pit, 2s.; gallery, 1s. ; upper gallery, 6d. Doors open at half-past six; curtain rises at seven.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865

Astley's Amphitheatre, Westminster Bridge-road. Equestrian Performances, drama, operas, &c. Prices, 6d. to 5s.

Routledge's Popular Guide to London, [c.1873]

see also James Payn in Lights and Shadows of London Life - click here

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in Days and Nights in London - click here

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here