Philip Astley and the First Circuses; A Very British Institution - CircusTalk

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Philip Astley and the First Circuses; A Very British Institution

Here is a challenge for you – stop anyone in the street and ask them if they know what a circus is and you will get some form of definitive answer. There are very few who have no understanding of what a circus is, irrespective of their opinions. Circus seems to be rooted deep within our culture. We all share a common psyche; circus exists in our subconscious. Circus imagery is around us everywhere; from brightly coloured circus posters to advertising motifs on television, the circus is with us. It has been written about in literature; it has been a source for some of the great artists; it has been the subject for many films; it appears on postage stamps and other ephemera; in children’s toys and games; in graffiti; in schools and libraries. It has even infiltrated our very language. How often do we hear of juggling the finances, walking a fine wire, clowning around, and putting one’s head into the lion’s jaw? On the other hand, the word is frequently used in a pejorative way to reflect something chaotic and anarchic. But this in itself reflects just how much the circus has ingrained our society across the years. It seems that the circus has been with us forever but the circus, as we know it today, is a relevantly modern creation.
Philip Astley silhouette-the frontispiece of his book The System of Equestrian Education 1802 (National Fairground & Circus Archive, Sheffield) So here is another challenge. Stop anyone and ask them if they know who Philip Astley was. This time, I am sure, you will get a very different response. Very few people are aware that Astley is considered to be the founding father of the ‘modern’ circus; and I’m not just talking about people in the street. I have come across many performers and students who have no idea who Astley was or the contribution he made to the development of the circus. Some may argue that it is not necessary to know who he was; that he is not relevant to today’s circus. This may be true but I maintain that history is the block upon which we build for the futu...
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Steve Ward

Steve Ward has a background in theatre and clowning. He has created and directed many youth circus festivals in the UK, as well as in Germany and Brazil. He has a PhD in the social and cultural history of the circus, and is a member of the Circus Research Network and the Circus Arts Research Platform. To date, he has written seven books and many articles. Steve also lectures on aspects of circus history and has appeared on television and in many radio interviews. Steve is also available as a speaker on this and other circus topics. He also advises on educational and youth circus matters – and he still finds time to occasionally perform as a clown! Further information on Steve at