Philip Astley (1742-1814) is considered the “father of the modern circus”. He was an equestrian, circus owner, and inventor.
Astley was born on January 8th, 1742, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, West Midlands, England. His father was Edward Astley, a veneer-cutter and cabinet maker, and Philip was 9 when he first apprenticed with his father. But Philips's great love was horses. At 17, he joined Fifteenth Light Dragoons, a cavalry regiment under Colonel George Augustus Eliott, where he, in time, reached the rank of Sergeant Major and excellent riding skills. He was discharged from the army in 1766.
The second half of the 18th century marks the rise in popularity of trick-riding exhibitions. Philip Astley opened his riding school in 1768, where he taught riding in the morning and held performances in the afternoon. He rode a horse that he got from Colonel Eliott and performed horse riding tricks with him. He also presented "The Little Military Horse," – a miniature horse he trained to perform different tricks. In 1769 he moved to the new “Astley's Riding House,” where he continued to perform successfully. He and his pupils performed in the open air inside an arena with a diameter of some 20 meters. Next year he decided to broaden his show, including acrobatic acts and clowns.
When he was not performing in London, Astley traveled the country and abroad during the spring and summer seasons and constructed wooden amphitheaters for him to perform. The first one was built in 1773 in Dublin, Ireland. A year before, in 1772, Astley got the first competition. One of his former equestrians, Charles Hughes, opened his own “Hughes' Riding School” where he copied (almost completely) Astley’s show. Magistrates of Surrey County shut them both in 1973 because they both didn't have the proper license to perform. That didn't stop Philip Astley, who acquired the license while Hughes started his eight eight-year tours of Europe. In 1774, Astley performed for the first time in Paris. Astley closed his theater with a roof in 1779, allowing him to perform in winter months and evenings. He renamed his amphitheater “Astley's Amphitheater Riding House” and stopped performing but stayed as a Ringmaster.
Astley opened the first circus in France in 1782, a place called “Manège Anglais” or “Amphitheatre Anglais”. Next year his circus performed again in front of the court of Queen Marie-Antoinette at Versailles. This show's success allowed him to open a permanent theater in Paris - “Amphithéâtre Anglais des Sieurs Astley, père et fils,” which was opened on October 16, 1783. To these endless arenas in two different capitals, he added the third in 1789 – one built in Dublin, Ireland.
His amphitheaters were built of wood, and because of that, they burned often, but Astley rebuilt them, and they would return to work. He died in his 72nd year in his Parisian home and was inherited by his son John Astley. We remember him today as a man who invented a modern variant of the circus.