Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Astley, Philip

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ASTLEY, PHILIP (1742–1814), equestrian performer and theatrical manager, was born at Newcastle-under-Lyme. Receiving little education, he was brought up to his father's trade of cabinet-making and veneer-cutting. About 1759 he joined General Elliott's regiment of light horse, became rough-rider and breaker-in, and rose to the rank of sergeant-major. Having distinguished himself at the battles of Emsdorff and Friedburg and upon other occasions, he obtained his discharge, and opened an exhibition of horsemanship in an open field in Lambeth, his only horse being his regimental charger, given him by General Elliott. He travelled through the country, performing at fairs and markets, resorting sometimes to his old trade as a cabinet-maker. In 1770 he opened a wooden theatre, with sheltered seats, but with an unroofed circus, in a timber-yard at the foot of Westminster Bridge. In 1775 Mr. and Mrs. Astley appeared on horseback at Drury Lane in the Jubilee in honour of Shakespeare. The theatre in Lambeth was gradually enlarged and improved, and called the Amphitheatre Riding House. In 1781 the theatre was opened in the evening, and a candle-light exhibition first attempted, the earlier performances having been presented in the daytime. He had no license from the magistrates, but he pretended that his theatre was under the special protection of a royal patent. In 1783 he was committed to prison for performing illegally, but he was released upon the intervention of Lord Chancellor Thurlow, whose daughters had been taught to ride by Astley. Presently the magistrates granted him a license; he now called his theatre the Royal Grove, having painted the interior to resemble foliage, and added a stage to his circus, to vie with the attractions of a rival establishment of like kind opened on the site of the present Surrey Theatre. He carried his performers to Dublin and Paris, and established equestrian theatres in both those cities. In Paris he instituted the cirque known in later times as Franconi's. He endeavoured to establish floating baths in the Thames off Westminster Bridge. The French Revolution interrupted his performances in Paris, and his amphitheatre was converted into barracks. He re-entered the army, and served with distinction under the Duke of York. In 1794 the Royal Grove Theatre was burnt to the ground. Astley obtained leave of absence from the duke, hurried home to rebuild his theatre, and meanwhile engaged the old Lyceum building in the Strand for equestrian performances. His new theatre was opened in 1794, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales and Duke of York, and in 1798 he was permitted to designate his establishment Astley's Royal Amphitheatre. After the peace of Amiens he returned to Paris, presented his claims before the First Consul, regained possession of his premises, and obtained payment of rent for the whole period of their occupation by the troops of the Revolution. With great difficulty he made his escape from Paris upon the issue of the decree for the detention of all English subjects in France. In 1803 the amphitheatre was again destroyed by fire, Astley's loss being estimated at 25,000l. Forthwith he laid the first stone of a new building, which was completed in time to open on Easter Monday, 1804. Astley now retired from active management in favour of his son, receiving, however, one clear half of the annual profits. He next attempted to establish an amphitheatre on the Middlesex side of the Thames, and obtaining a license through the influence of Queen Charlotte for ‘music, dancing, burlettas, pantomimes, and equestrian exhibitions,’ he opened the Olympic Pavilion on the site of the present Olympic Theatre. By this venture he lost 10,000l. In 1812 he sold the Olympic Pavilion to Elliston for 2,800l. and a small annuity to be paid during the life of Astley. There was but one payment of the annuity. Astley died in Paris, aged 72, and was buried in the cemetery of Père-la-Chaise. His son, ‘Young Astley,’ also an admired equestrian performer, to whom he had bequeathed the interest arising from his somewhat encumbered property, survived seven years only. He also died in Paris, and was interred beside his father in Père-la-Chaise. Philip Astley was the best horse-tamer of his time. He usually bought his horses in Smithfield, caring, as he said, ‘little for shape, make, or colour: temper was the only consideration.’ He rarely gave more than five pounds for a horse. He was a man of violent temper, peremptory of speech and rude of manner, but of great energy and notable integrity; and he was regarded with affection by the members of his company. He constructed in all nineteen amphitheatres for equestrian exhibitions.

[De Castro's Memoirs, 1824; Brayley's Theatres of London, 1833.]

D. C.