April 4, 1768: Philip Astley stages world’s first circus

·Christy Karras
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  • Philip Astley
    English equestrian, circus owner, and inventor, regarded as being the "father of the modern circus"

The circus and travel are inextricably intertwined: circuses travel, and patrons travel to see them. It was that way almost from the very beginning, when Philip Astley, an enterprising horse trainer and riding instructor in London, opened his first equestrian-themed show in 1768.

Astley was both a great rider and a savvy businessman. After serving with the military, where he developed his skills as a rider, he dreamed of opening a riding school that would teach skills including trick riding. He opened his school near London, teaching in the mornings and entertaining in the afternoon with tricks that included straddling two cantering horses and doing headstands in the saddle.

His biggest innovation: Rather than performing back and forth in a straight line, as other riders did, he began riding in a circle. That gave audiences a better view of performers and allowed trick riders (including his wife) to take advantage of centrifugal force, which helped them stay on the horse even while doing daring maneuvers. He was also the first to combine riding feats with clowns, jugglers, musicians and gymnasts, who had typically performed separately before.

Astley’s circular show soon began touring, first to other locales in Britain and then around the Continent. He opened a second permanent location in France, the Amphithéâtre Astley (his original location, a luxurious round building, was called Astley's Amphitheatre — he never called his own show a “circus”) and grew wealthy from his ever-expanding entertainments. The circular-tent design of today’s modern circuses owes its design partly to Astley’s innovation. The circle has another advantage for them: It allows them to easily pack up and move on to the next location.