Philip Astley of Hercules Hall

Updated: Nov 3, 2018


Lambeth. The south side of the Thames in the 1760s. A scattering of houses, a few roads. By the River, a wall of wooden shorings with landing-places for those ferried across – a direct alternative to the only two road crossings, at Westminster Bridge and London Bridge.

The area, known to us as the South Bank, but in those days as Lambeth Marsh, was for recreation, outside the jurisdiction of the Cities of London and Westminster. A little further along the River Thames, at Vauxhall, was New Spring Gardens, one of several London spots where a source of health-giving spring water had led to a resort growing up, a green lung for the City where the gentry walked and entertainers performed, where works of art were displayed in architect-designed pavilions, Royalty danced and orchestras played. The entertainers included trick-riders on horseback, among them young war hero Sergeant-Major Philip Astley, who’d recently left the Cavalry. He’d so impressed his regimental colleagues with his daring horse-back tricks that, on demobilisation, he’d been presented with a white charger he named Gibraltar. Young Astley apprenticed briefly to ‘Old’ Sampson, a noted equestrian performer, before renting a field on Lambeth Marsh and starting out on his own as an equestrian entertainer. The spot he’d chosen was a busy one. A popular footpath crossed it and there were plenty of passers-by who, having paid the landowner’s half-penny toll, which gave the place the name of Ha’penny Hatch, were ready to stand, stare and drop their coins in the hat as it went round after each trick. Unlike most trick-riders, Astley rode in a circle. Centrifugal force helped him balance standing on the horse’s back, making greater feats possible. To hold his crowd he hired a comic performer – a clown – to amuse them between displays. Astley had a flair for publicity and sensation. Using his military fame as an extra attraction, he included displays of sword-play while his wife Patty, also a fine equestrian, rode with a swarm of bees on her arm. It was 1768, and he was in a good spot at a good time. Astley prospered. After two years, he leased a former timber-yard at the southern end of Westminster Bridge. He built a wooden stand for his audience, and added acrobats to his shows. Astley’s Amphitheatre was open and the first circus was born. Every circus, anywhere in the world, began at this moment by the south bank of the Thames. Astley took his newly-invented entertainment to Paris to perform for Marie Antoinette, to Dublin and cities across Europe. Rivals copied his idea, taking it even further afield to Russia and America. Astley expanded his entertainment empire; he bought land nearby and in 1788 built a house, which he called Hercules Hall, after one of his most famous horseback feats, representing the Labours of Hercules. Hercules Road was built soon afterwards. The street was also home to the poet William Blake. In 2018, a quarter of a millennium after Astley opened the very first circus, Circus250 will celebrate 250 years of circus in Britain with a UK-wide festival of all forms of circus. There will be astounding feats and extraordinary acts, in the radical spirit of Astley. The young 18th century Sergeant-Major may have invented circus, but the Greatest Show is about to begin. Chris Barltrop is a ringmaster and founder of Centre for Circus Culture Find out more about Circus250 on Twitter @circus250, Facebook Circus250 and

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