Draft:Victorian Circus

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Victorian Circus
Circus poster, 1890.jpg
Trapeze Illustration, in lithograph by Calvert Litho. Co., 1890
TypesTrapeze, Animal Taming, Trick Riding
Ancestor artsTheatre

The Victorian Circus was a form of art, entertainment and culture in 19th Century England. By the 1850s there were hundreds of functioning circuses around the country.[1] In array of locations there was a variety of acts, sights and styles of circus. Performers were from a variety of different backgrounds. The invention of the railway meant that circuses could travel and reach a vast audience around the country.[2] The Victorian Circus inspired circuses around the world in countries such as the United States of America.



The basic principles of the circus are argued to have originated in Ancient Rome. Circus Maximus, built in 6th Century BCE, was a track created for chariot racing and other public spectacles such as animal and gladiator fights.[3] Audiences sat around the circus’ elliptical structure, completely surrounding the acts they came to see. In the 13th century the hippodrome of Constantinople in turkey displayed performers such as Jesters and French lyricists.[4]

Philip Astley's Amphitheatre

The modern circus was started by Philip Astley in the year 1768.[5] He brought together “acrobats, clowns and trick-riders in a 42 diameter ring”.[6] The audiences of the modern circus were from the both upper and lower classes. The entertainment was both created by risk and intensity from acts such as trapeze and also comic relief from clowns and some animals.[7]

Andrew Ducrow was a successor of Philip Astley and another source of equestrian entertainment known as “The Colossus of Equestrians”.[8] Ducrow was born in Surrey in 1793 to a Belgian father who was a circus performer. Originally he was trained by his father in the disciplines of vaulting, tight roping, riding, fencing and boxing. When he was 20 he joined the Royal Circus and eventually moved to Astley’s Amphitheater as a trick rider. He became the proprietor of Astley's Amphitheatre in 1824 which burnt down three times in the period of his ownership.

The Victorian Era[edit]

Queen Victoria Profile

The Victorian era in England went from 1819 to 1901 under the reign of Queen Victoria. She became queen when she was 18 years old following her uncle William IV of the United Kingdom. In this period there was scientific, technological and infrastructural growth in England. Some key technological and social advancements under Queen Victoria’s reign were; the first electric telegraph, abolition of slavery, first modern railroad line and the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.[9]

It was a period of protestantism and religious conformity. In the 19th century England was a predominantly Christian country. Monarchs dictated shifts between Catholicism and Protestantism throughout history.[10] Politics in Britain was conservative, reforming without violent revolution. The Whigs and Tories made up the bipartisan system in England with the Whigs forming the coalition at the beginning of the Victorian period. During Victoria’s reign the number of men entitled to vote increased from one-sixth to two-thirds.[11]

Majority of food was locally produced and railroad advancements made transportation of produce from rural areas more efficient. Access to clean water was an issue for many, with the greatest cause of death being infectious diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis and small pox. By 1850 men were expected to live until 40 and women until 42.[12]

The British empire had many colonies around the globe and was at war with other European powers to build more colonies in Africa.

England had a prominent arts and culture sector. An example of the this cultural and “economic upswing”[13] is the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Fine arts and entertainment were traditional[14] and the development of the circus was different and contemporary.



There were a range of acts and famous performers in Victorian Circuses. These included equestrian performances, battle re-enactment, acrobatics, juggling, animals and tight rope walkers.

Trick Riding[edit]

Female animal trainer and leopard

An example is the act of trick riding which included the riding of a horse whilst performing stunts such as standing up on the horse. Other examples of stunts included jumping off the horse and getting back on whilst the horse is moving and hanging off the side of the horse which was known as the death drag. The aim of this act varied from humour, where clowns would ride horses and pretend to fall, to death defying where riders would perform serious and potentially dangerous tricks. The equestrian circus ended after the first World War.[15]


The trapeze was an act that included stunts performed on ropes hanging from the ceiling, sometimes with a bar attaching two ropes. Trapeze artists would swing between these ropes and bars. Trapeze artists who performed solo would swing between ropes and silks that hung. If there was more than one person, they would use each other to swing from and catch their partners. For safety, there was a net beneath to catch a falling trapeze artist if they made a mistake. Trapeze artists, in many cases, would wear fancy dress and costumes to perform in, similar to tight rope walkers, to add to the entertainment and aesthetic of the performance.   

Exotic Animals[edit]

The taming of exotic animals such as elephants and big cats was increasingly used later in the Victorian era. Animals like lions and tigers were imported from Asia and Africa and were trained by professional animals tamers to perform stunts such as placing the trainers head inside the mouth of a lion.[16] The first trained elephant presentation occurred in Paris in 1812, and marked the beginning of the use of animals imported from Asia to be trained and displayed in the Victorian Circus.[17]

The Travelling Circus[edit]

Victorian Railway

Philip Astley was a circus proprietor in the late 1700s who was the first man to tour his circus. In 1773 his circus went to Dublin and he continued onto many other European cities such as Paris.[18] The travelling circus was also known as tenting due to the use of large tents as temporary infrastructure to house audiences and the acts they came to see. Smaller tents acted as living quarters for the people involved in the performances.

Locomotive advancements made transport easy and accessible for circuses to travel around the country. Trains were first successfully used in 1804 when iron was transported along 9 miles of track by Richard Trevithick.[19] In 1830 the first passenger train was used from Canterbury to Whitstable.[20] These advancements lead to the transportation of circus troupes to reach audiences that were many miles apart.

Key Figures[edit]

Pablo Fanque, the first black circus proprietor in Britain

Pablo Fanque[edit]

Pablo Fanque was a famous equestrian performer. Fanque was born in Norwich. The date of his birth is undocumented and the centre of debate by historians with the two dates of 1810 and 1796 being speculated. He was one of at least five children and is said to have been orphaned in his youth. He was originally born under the name William Darby[21] but changed his name later in life.

At age 11 he became the apprentice to William Batty, a circus proprietor. In this circus he performed equestrian stunts and tight roping. He trained his horses and performed stunts with them in time to musical numbers, such as the waltz.[22] Fanque was also the first black man to own a circus. Fanque became the first black man to own a circus. In 1847 he debuted his circus in London, after this he continued to tour around the country. He owned and performed in his circus with had predominantly equestrian acts.[23]   

Philip Astley[edit]

Philip Astley

Philip Astley was known as the father of modern circus. He was born in 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme. His father, Edward Astley was a cabinet maker and horse-rider, both skills he passed on to Philip.

He began professionally training horses in the military when he was assigned to break in new horses for his regiment. Domenico Angelo, fencing master, taught Astley skills that aided in his work with the cavalry.[24] Astley used the skills he obtained as a corporal to become a trick rider, a sport that was becoming more prominent in the second half of the 1800s.[25] He opened up a riding school in 1768 where he taught people to execute tricks on horseback.[26] Astley eventually incorporated other forms of entertainment and in 1780 built an arena for these acts.

Astley’s Royal amphitheatre which was built in 1795 and audiences could sit right on the edge of the ring and see the acts and passing horses up close.

The Cooke Family[edit]

The Cooke Family circus is was owned and run by the parents and children of the Cooke Family. It was a travelling show, started by the father; Thomas Cooke. The circus consisted of the family and hired performers who did equestrian tricks.[27]

The Cooke Family had the opportunity to perform in front of King William IV. They performed in a variety of venues, undertaking both tenting and the hiring of permanent arena’s and performance venues.

Race and Culture[edit]

Black Victorians[edit]

Their was an increasing population of people of African descent in England during the Victorian era. Slavery was legal until 1833 and later in the Victorian Era, more of the black population were immigrants instead of being imported. Discrimination and harsh living conditions were common issues faced.[28]

The circus was known for hiring a racially diverse cast of people. Discrimination was less common in hiring processes as talent and entertainment was the priority.[29]

Some people of colour were coerced and exploited by the circus and their acts within the circus were that of dehumanisation and gawking because of physical features.[30]


Women were highly valued members of the circus community with the most common female act being the trapeze. There is also an array of famous female animal trainers. The role of women came with much more freedom that if given in the status quo of Victorian society would be highly questioned.

Contemporary Relevance[edit]

Pop Culture References[edit]

Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite Poster

The Beatles[edit]

The Victorian circus has been mentioned in the lyrics of the song by The Beatles titled Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! The song is from their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which was released in 1967. The title refers to a poster for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royale in Rochdale and majority of the lyrics are lines directly from the poster. John Lennon saw the poster in an antique store in Kent, purchased and framed it.[31] He altered some of the details of the poster in the song for example the horse’s name was changed from Zanthus to Henry. Mr. Kite is believed to be referring to William Kite, a benefactor of the circus. [32] 

Contemporary Circus[edit]

Circus culture today has evolved from Victorian circus characteristics, with many similar acts and more. The contemporary circus emerged in the 1960s and was a culmination of traditional circus and theatre performing arts.[33] They are performed in theatres and arenas, contrasting to the traditional tenting. Contemporary circus is inclusive of spectacle such as trapeze and silks as well as comic relief through clowns.

An example of this is Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) which was a Canadian circus company founded in 1984. It is based in Montreal and they produce many shows globally in theatres and arenas. The shows use a large number of props, costumes and cast members.[34]  


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  2. ^ "Victorian era circus performances facts: acts, costumes". Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  3. ^ "Circus Maximus". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2019-05-28.
  4. ^ "History of Circus - From Ancient to First Modern Circus". www.historyofcircus.com. Retrieved 2019-05-28.
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  6. ^ "Welcome to Philip Astley". The Philip Astley Project. Retrieved 2019-05-28.
  7. ^ "History of the Circus: Lesson for Kids". Study.com. Retrieved 2019-05-28.
  8. ^ "Andrew Ducrow - Father of British Circus Equestrianism". www.historyofcircus.com. Retrieved 2019-05-28.
  9. ^ Editors, History com. "Victorian Era". HISTORY. Retrieved 2019-05-28.
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  12. ^ "Victorian Food and Health". English Heritage. Retrieved 2019-05-28.
  13. ^ "An Introduction to Victorian England". English Heritage. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  14. ^ "An Introduction to Victorian England". English Heritage. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  15. ^ "SHORT HISTORY OF THE CIRCUS - Circopedia". www.circopedia.org. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  16. ^ Cowie, Helen. "A brief history of lion taming". The Conversation. Retrieved 2019-05-29.
  17. ^ "SHORT HISTORY OF THE CIRCUS - Circopedia". www.circopedia.org. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  18. ^ Victoria and Albert Museum, Online Museum (2011-03-07). "Victorian Circus". www.vam.ac.uk. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  19. ^ Left, Sarah (2002-01-15). "Key dates in Britain's railway history". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-05-31.
  20. ^ Left, Sarah (2002-01-15). "Key dates in Britain's railway history". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-05-31.
  21. ^ Badami, Sunil (2017-01-31). "The story behind the Beatles' iconic Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite". ABC News. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  22. ^ Victoria and Albert Museum, Online Museum (2011-01-25). "The First Circus". www.vam.ac.uk. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  23. ^ "100 Great Black Britons - Pablo Fanque". www.100greatblackbritons.com. Retrieved 2019-05-31.
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  25. ^ "Philip Astley - Circopedia". www.circopedia.org. Retrieved 2019-05-31.
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  27. ^ "A nineteenth-century family circus". The Collation. 2017-09-19. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  28. ^ "Black Victorians and their life in the Victorian society". Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  29. ^ Katz, Brigit. "Black and Female Circus Artists Take Center Ring in New Museum Show". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  30. ^ Katz, Brigit. "Black and Female Circus Artists Take Center Ring in New Museum Show". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2019-05-22.
  31. ^ "Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!". The Beatles Bible. 2008-03-14. Retrieved 2019-05-31.
  32. ^ Badami, Sunil (2017-01-31). "The story behind the Beatles' iconic Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite". ABC News. Retrieved 2019-05-31.
  33. ^ "History of Contemporary Circus - Popular Modern Circus". www.historyofcircus.com. Retrieved 2019-05-31.
  34. ^ "Cirque du Soleil: Discover Shows, Tickets and Schedule". Cirque du Soleil. Retrieved 2019-05-31.