The story of Waterloo #4: Astley's Amphitheatre

For centuries Waterloo has been one of London's most notable homes for entertainment. In 1768 a man named Philip Astley opened his famous Amphitheatre and changed the history of entertainment forever.

Philip Astley's Amphitheatre was opened in 1768 and is recognised as the world’s first modern circus. In his early life Astley was a distinguished military man and when he left the army he became a trick horse rider performing at the various pleasure gardens around London, including those at Vauxhall and Ranelegh. In 1768 he made the decision to open up his own riding school and teach his trade to others. Each night he would perform his tricks to a paying audience, capitalising on the Georgian obsession outdoor spectacles.

Astley's Amphitheatre from Microcosm of London published 1808-10

Later, he established what we now recognise as the modern circus, adding acrobats, tight rope walkers and even clowns to his motley crew of performers. Even today’s standard 42-foot diameter for circus rings comes from Astley’s original ring.

The amphitheatre burnt down in 1794 and was rebranded as “Astley’s New Amphitheatre of the Arts”. Then in 1803 it burnt down again, and later in 1841.

"Transparent fireworks, slack-rope vaulting, Egyptian pyramids, tricks on chairs, tumbling, &c., were subsequently added, the ride enlarged, and the house opened in the evening"

Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London. Past and Present (1850)

describes the festivities at the amphitheatre.

The amphitheatre lasted well past Philip Astley’s death in 1814 and has persisted, to this day, in our cultural consciousness. Astley’s was paid a visit in Jane Austen’s Emma:

Equestrian acts at Astley's Amphitheatre ©Victoria and Albert Museum

“It is a very simple story. [Robert Martin] 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.”

Despite its age, the amphitheatre was still influential within Victorian culture. Charles Dickens’ wrote a short story titled Astley's. He also mentions it in Sketches by Boz, The Old Curiosity Shop, and the circus is also referred to in Hard Times and Bleak House.

The amphitheatre was originally located on Westminster Bridge Rd (between Lambeth North station and Morley College!) until it was finally demolished in 1893.