For those of you who are fans of Emma, you might remember Mr. Knightly’s mention of Astley’s where Harriet Smith finally thrown back into the company of Robert Martin, which leads to his proposal and of course, her acceptance, however, Mr. Knightley never mentions what on earth Astley’s is!
“It is a very simple story. He went to town on business three days ago, and I got him to take charge of some papers which I was wanting to send to John.–He delivered these papers to John, at his chambers, and was asked by him to join their party the same evening to Astley’s. They were going to take the two eldest boys to Astley’s. The party was to be our brother and sister, Henry, John–and Miss Smith. My friend Robert could not resist.” – Emma (Chapter 54)
“However, I must say, that Robert Martin’s heart seemed for him, and to me, very overflowing; and that he did mention, without its being much to the purpose, that on quitting their box at Astley’s, my brother took charge of Mrs. John Knightley and little John, and he followed with Miss Smith and Henry; and that at one time they were in such a crowd, as to make Miss Smith rather uneasy.” – Emma (Chapter 54)
Harriet Smith even tells Emma all about her evening at the mysterious Astley’s, but we still never learn what it is!
Harriet was most happy to give every particular of the evening at Astley’s, and the dinner the next day; she could dwell on it all with the utmost delight. –Emma (Chapter 55)
So what exactly was Astley’s?
Astley’s Amphitheatre first opened in 1773 in Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth. Philip Astley, who is now known as the “father of the modern circus,” previously owned a riding school where he taught in the morning and performed equestrian tricks in the afternoon. Over time, he incorporated acrobats, jugglers, strong men, rope dancers and clowns, which comprised the show when the amphitheatre opened.
In 1794, Astley’s burned and reopened a year later as Philip Astley’s Royal amphitheatre, which contained not only the circus ring, but also a ramp, allowing the horses to run from a stage to the circus ring during the performances while the audience sat within inches of the horses as they ascended to the stage.
The shows, called hippodromes (plays consisting of horses), contained drama and song as one would expect in a more traditional theatre setting. Re-enactments of famous battles could also be seen at Astley’s complete with explosions and sound effects that remained in popular demand into the Victorian period.
The building, like all theatres of the age, used candles for light–causing Astley’s to burn again in 1803. Astley, however, never rebuilt exactly what he had prior. With each fire and successive rebuild, he made the structure grander or more ornate than it was before. The illustration to the right is of Astley’s when it reopened in 1804.
The doors opened to the 1804 season and “the handsomest pleasure haunt in London” (the new theatre) on Easter Monday. One might not notice the opulence of the new structure when they approached from the outside, but a chandelier consisting of fifty patent lamps hung over a sawdust circus ring. Audiences of close to two thousand (mostly middle class) were entertained with Astley’s ‘hippodramas’ which included dramas such as The Black Red Knight (1811) and sometimes even a pantomime or harlequinade.
Audiences had several options for seating just as those who frequented the Theatre Royal. One could have a box on one of the two tiers of boxes for four shillings, sit in the pit for two shillings, or the sit in the gallery for one shilling. Doors opened at half past five and the performances began at half past six until the season ended in October or November.
To this day, Astley is still credited with discovering and first using the optimum size circus ring of forty-two feet because it allowed the horses to run continuously in a circle without stopping and also allowed him to use centrifugal force to balance on the horse’s back.
British Library: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/illustration-of-astleys-amphitheatre
Victoria and Albert Museum: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-first-circus/
Cronin, Richard & McMillan, Dorothy (editors). The Cambridge Edition of Emma. Cambridge University Press (2005).
Feltham, John. The Picture of London for 1803. R.Phillips (1803).
Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L. The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing (1999).