Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Astley's

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See also two letters to the editor in response, the first by Abraham Cooper, the second by “Philippus.”


If there was one place of amusement—an institution it may be termed—more sacred than another to Londoners in particular, and provincialists in general, one, more presumably probable to have withstood the changes of time and fashion, less likely to have succumbed to a novel and not very classical style of dramatic entertainment; that place most certainly was Astley’s. For though the remodelled theatre in Westminster Bridge Road is still associated with the name of its founder, yet an Astley’s without horses is as yet simply a misnomer, a shadow without a substance. It may be well, then, ere the last reminiscences of its former glories have utterly departed, while the smell of the saw-dust, the cracking of the whip, the contortions of the clown, and the laughter of the spectators still linger in our fond memories, to record a passing notice of this once popular place of amusement, and its able and enterprising founder.

Little more than a hundred years ago, George the Second, wishing to introduce light cavalry into the British army, commissioned Colonel Eliott, subsequently Lord Heathfield, the renowned defender of Gibraltar, to raise and discipline a regiment of this description of force. The comparatively small size of the men and horses, and the fact that a great number of tailors, then out of work, enlisted in the new regiment, caused it to be regarded with considerable contempt by the lower classes; while old military men regretted that the honour of the British arms should be endangered by trusting it in such seemingly feeble hands. Scarcely, however, had Eliott’s Light Horse, as it was recognised in the Army List, or the Tailors’ regiment as it was more generally termed, been a year embodied, before it was employed on active service; and its gallant conduct at the battle of Emsdorf removed all doubts of the capabilities and courage of the men composing it. Three years afterwards, on the return of peace, Eliott’s Light Horse presented to George the Third, at a review in Hyde Park, sixteen stand of colours they had taken from the enemy. “How can I express my admiration of such soldiers!” exclaimed the gratified monarch. “Give us the title of Royal, please your Majesty,” was the reply; and consequently, from that time, they were termed the Fifteenth King’s Royal Regiment of Light Dragoons.

One of the first recruits who enlisted in the gallant corps, was a lad only seventeen years of age, named Philip Astley, the son of a respectable tradesman at Newcastle-under-Lyme. This youth soon distinguished himself in the regiment, by his great activity and excellence in horsemanship; and by a peculiar power he exercised in training and subduing horses and other animals. Nor was he less noted for his presence of mind and intrepidity in action. By his spirited activity on the occasion of the upsetting of a boat, he saved a number of men and horses from being drowned, for which service he was promoted and rewarded in front of the regiment. At Emsdorf, he captured a royal standard of France with his own hands; and on a subsequent occasion, when in command of four men only, he charged a considerable body of hussars, and rescued the Prince of Brunswick, then lying wounded within the enemy’s lines. After serving nearly eight years, and attaining the rank of sergeant-major, beyond which he could not hope for further promotion, Astley applied for his discharge, and, on account of his distinguished services, it was at once granted. Moreover, General Eliott, learning that he intended to “better himself” by exhibiting feats of horsemanship, presented him with a magnificent white charger, as a token of approbation of his conduct as a man and a soldier. Astley received his discharge at Derby, in 1766, and he exhibited in the country for about two years, till he considered himself capable of appearing before a London assemblage of spectators. He then set up what he termed a Riding School—merely a piece of ground inclosed by a slight paling, near a pathway that led through fields from Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge, on the Surrey side of the river. The terminus of the South-Western Railway now nearly, if not exactly, covers the spot. The first bill of performance that he issued here is as follows:

Activity on horseback of Mr. Astley, Serjeant-Major in his Majesty’s Royal Regiment of Light Dragoons. Nearly twenty different attitudes will be performed on one, two, and three horses, every evening during the summer, at his riding-school. Doors to be open at four, and he will mount at five. Seats, one shilling: standing-places, sixpence.

Early every evening Astley, dressed in full military uniform and mounted on his white charger, took up a position on the south side of Westminster Bridge, to distribute bills and point out with his sword the pathway through the fields that led to his Riding School. And that it was a school in reality, as well as name, we learn from the following advertisement:

The True and Perfect Seat on Horseback.—There is no creature yields so much profit as the horse; and if he is made obedient to the hand and spur, it is the chief thing that is aimed at. Mr. Astley undertakes to break in the most vicious horse in the kingdom, for the road or field, to stand fire, drums, &c. And those intended for ladies to canter easy. His method, between the jockey and the ménage, is peculiar to himself; no gentleman need despair of being a complete horseman that follows his directions, having eight years’ experience in General Eliott’s regiment. For half-a-guinea he makes known his method of learning any horse to lay down at the word of command, and defies any one to equal it for safety and ease.

The writer, who is thoroughly acquainted with the subject, must state here, en passant, that Astley subsequently published two books on horsemanship, training, and breaking: one entitled “The Modern Riding Master;” the other, “A System of Equestrian Education;” and these works fully prove that he knew and practised everything that Rarey, long afterwards, assumed to have discovered. The only difference in their systems was, that Rarey employed the spirit-crushing and terrible punishment of strapping up the fore-leg to every horse, under every circumstance; while Astley, well-knowing its evil tendency, applied it only occasionally, and, as a last resort, when all other methods failed.

From the first, Astley saw that his performances were deficient in variety; so, by energetic teaching, he soon made two other excellent performers, his wife, and the white charger. To make the most of the horse’s performance, he interlarded it with some verses of his own composition: introducing the animal, and ordering it to lie down dead, he would thus address the audience:—

My horse lies dead apparent in your sight,
But I’m the man can set the thing to right;
Speak, when you please, I’m ready to obey—
My faithful horse knows what I want to say;
But first give me leave to move his foot,
That he is dead is quite beyond dispute.

[Moving the horse’s feet.

This shows how brutes by Heaven were designed
To be in full subjection to mankind.
Arise, young Bill, and be a little handy.

[Addressing the horse.

To serve that warlike hero Granby.[1]

[Horse rises.

When you have seen all my bill exprest,
My wife, to conclude, performs the rest.

The Riding School being uncovered, there were few spectators on wet evenings. As a partial remedy, Astley, with a few boards and his own willing hands, ran up a shed, to which he charged two shillings for admission. Industry and good conduct soon brought its legitimate reward; and so he was enabled, with an eye to the future, to invest two hundred pounds, as mortgage, on a piece of ground near Westminster bridge. Good fortune followed. The mortgagor went abroad, leaving a quantity of timber on the ground, and was never heard of after. About the same time, too, Astley found, on Westminster bridge, a diamond ring, worth seventy guineas, that was never claimed by the loser. With this assistance, he erected a new Riding School, on the spot of mortgaged ground, ever since associated with his name. This place was open at the top, but, next the road, there was a wooden edifice, the lower part of which formed stables, the upper, termed “the long room,” held reserved seats for the gentry. A pent-house partly covered the seats round the ride, and the principal spectators being thus under cover, Astley now advertised to perform “every evening, wet or dry.” There is a scarce engraving which represents the exterior of Astley’s Riding School about this time. The entrance was reached by steps from the road, and a green curtain covered the door, where Mrs. Astley stood to take the money. To the whitewashed wall were affixed bills and pictorial representations of the performances; the figures of horses, seen on the top, were of painted wood. It was about 1770 that this new house was opened; the first bill relating to it we have seen states that—

Mr. Astley exhibits, at full speed, the different cuts and guards made use of by Eliott’s, the Prussian, and the Hessian Hussars. Also the manner of Eliott’s charging the French troops in Germany, in the year 1761, when it was said the regiment were all tailors.

About the same time, increasing his company, he invoked the comic music, bringing out that time-honoured delight of rustics and children, “Billy Button’s ride to Brentford.” When the season in London was over, he removed his troupe to Paris, a practice he continued for many years, with great success. At this period he used to parade the west-end streets on the days of performance. Astley led the procession, in military uniform, on his white charger, followed by two trumpeters; to these succeeded two riders in full costume, the rear being brought up by a coach, in which the clown and learned pony sat and distributed handbills. But in the following year he announced that he had given up parading, “and never more intends that abominable practice.” And Master Astley, then but five years of age, made his first public appearance, riding on two horses.

Astley next brought out a new entertainment, styled in the bills “Egyptian Pyramids; or, La Force d’Hercule.” It consisted in the now well-known feat of four men supporting three others on their shoulders, these again supporting two more, the last, in their turn, supporting one.

This was long a very favourite and attractive spectacle, and Astley erected a large representation of it on the south end of the Riding School. He also named his private residence Hercules House, after this tour de force, and the street in Lambeth, now called Hercules Buildings, derives its name from the same source.

The centre of the Riding School, being still uncovered, caused many inconveniences, and Astley, as early as 1772, ever provident for the future, purchased, at a very cheap rate, a quantity of timber that had been used as scaffolding at the funeral of Augusta, Duchess Dowager of Wales. He then bided his time till 1780, when an election for Westminster took place. It having been the custom, at the close of elections, for the mob to destroy and make bonfires of the hustings, Astley, mingling in the crowd, represented that as he would give beer for the timber, if it were carried to his establishment, it would be a more eligible mode of disposing of it than burning. The hint was taken, and with the material thus cheaply obtained, Astley covered in and completely remodelled the Riding School, adding a stage, two tier of boxes, pit, and gallery. But as this was the first attempt to exhibit horsemanship in a covered building, and the bare idea of doing so was, at the time, considered preposterously absurd, he, as a sort of compromise with public opinion, caused the dome-shaped roof to be painted with representations of branches and leaves of trees, and gave the new edifice the airy appellation of “The Royal Grove.”

The discoveries and death of Captain Cook caused a remarkable sensation in England, not long after the time that Astley, by building the Royal Grove, was enabled to perform in the winter season, and by candle-light. So, with the originality of genius—for who else would ever have thought of such a thing!—he brought out a grand equestrian dramatic spectacle, entitled “The Death of Captain Cook.” However strange to our minds may be the idea of the great discoverer sailing round the world, and wooing the dusky maids of ocean isles, mounted on a white charger, the piece was most successful, forming a very important step in the ladder by which the quondam sergeant-major rose to fame and fortune. And when it had nearly run out in London, Astley, with the energy of a soldier, carried it—men, horses, and properties—over to Dublin, thus reaping a second golden harvest from what may not be inaptly termed his horse-marine entertainment.

One of Astley’s objects in constructing his new building was to be enabled to give up his annual winter visits to France; but the proprietors of the patent theatres raising formidable legal objections to winter entertainments and dramatic representations at the Royal Grove, he was compelled to continue his journeys to Paris. And Louis XVI. presenting him with a piece of ground in the Fauxbourg du Temple, he erected a circus there, long since known as Franconi’s. The regulations of the Parisian police not allowing him to have a stage, and as he could not well perform feats of tumbling, &c., without one, he ingeniously evaded the law by constructing a platform in several pieces, which in a few moments could be fixed together and supported on horses’ backs. A woodcut of this curious stage, supported by sixteen horses, was appended to his French bills, one of which, now before the writer, merely states:

Par Permission du Roi.—Exercises surprenans des Sieurs Astley. Rue de Fauxbourg du Temple.

Master Astley, whose first appearance has already been noticed, was now a very handsome young man, as agile and graceful as Vestris, and was frequently invited to perform before the Court at Versailles. The unfortunate Marie Antoinette presented him with a gold medal, studded round with diamonds.

The breaking out of the French Revolution put an end to Astley’s Parisian performances; so, building a circus in Dublin, he carried on his winter campaigns in Ireland; and in 1792 he gave the principal cares and management of the business up to his son.

In the following year, war having broken out with France, the Duke of York was sent on the Continent in command of the British Army; and Astley, who had made himself very useful in superintending the embarkation of the cavalry and artillery horses, went with his Royal Highness. In what character or capacity Astley was employed at this time, he never divulged, but there can be no doubt that public rumour was correct in stating, that he had been expressly commissioned by the King to take care of the Duke. His old regiment, the Fifteenth, was in the same army, and Astley, knowing by experience the wants of actual service, presented the men with a large supply of needles, thread, buttons, bristles, twine, leather—everything, in short, requisite in mending clothes and shoes. He also purchased a large quantity of flannel, and setting all the females employed at the Royal Grove to work, they soon made a warm waistcoat for every man of the regiment; and in a corner of each garment there was sewn what Astley termed “a friend in need,” in other words, a splendid shilling. This patriotic generosity being duly chronicled in the newspapers of the period, did not, as may readily be imagined, lessen the popularity of the Royal Grove, or the nightly receipts of cash taken at the doors of that place of entertainment.

In 1794 Astley was suddenly recalled from the Continent by the total destruction of the Royal Grove and nineteen adjoining houses by fire. Nothing daunted, he immediately commenced to rebuild it on a more elegant and extended scale, and on the following Easter opened the new house, naming it the Amphitheatre of Arts.

At the peace of Amiens, in 1803, Astley went to Paris, and finding that the circus he had erected in the Fauxbourg du Temple had been used as a barrack by the Revolutionary government, he petitioned Bonaparte, then First Consul, for compensation. To the surprise of every one, the petition was favourably received, and compensation awarded. But scarcely had the money been paid ere hostilities again broke out, and all Englishmen in France were subjected to a long and painful detention as prisoners of war. By a rare union, however, of cunning and courage, Astley, disguised as an invalid French officer, and furnished with a false passport, made his way to the immediate vicinity of the frontier. There, at a certain favourable point on the road, a brace of pistols presented to the heads of the astonished postilions induced them to drive speedily across the boundary line, and our adventurer soon found himself safe on neutral soil. Though favoured by fortune in this bold escape from a cruel imprisonment, dismal intelligence awaited Astley’s arrival in England. His faithful wife was dead, and his theatre a smoking ruin, having been a second time burned to the ground. Once more he rebuilt and opened it, as the Royal Amphitheatre. This last erection, as many will recollect, was burned in 1841, when under the management of Ducrow, who died shortly afterwards.

Space does not permit our following Astley through his varied and energetic career, to recount his travels over Europe, or enumerate the theatres—nineteen it is said—that he erected. He lived, however, to see another peace with France, and recover his property in Paris; for he died at the advanced age of seventy-two years in his own house in the Fauxbourg du Temple, and was buried in the well-known cemetery of Père le Chaise. His son, who was always termed “Young Astley,” died in 1821, in the same bed, in the same house, and was buried in the same grave as his father.

A notice of Astley would be incomplete without a reference to the famous white charger presented to him by General Eliott. The life of this animal far exceeded the usual limit allotted to its race. For forty-two years it was at Astley’s, more than thirty of which it passed in the service and amusement of the public; and when old age rendered it incapable of performing, it was still retained as an honoured pensioner of the establishment. At one time it was turned out to graze at “Young Astley’s” country seat in Surrey; but the old performer, even in the richest pasture, pined for the long-accustomed music, noise, bustle, and acclamations of the amphitheatre. So it was brought back to its old stall, and as its failing teeth were unable to masticate oats, and oat-bruisers were not then invented, the treasury allowed it two quartern loaves per day; while every man, woman, and child about the circus delighted to feed it with cakes, carrots, apples, and other equine delicacies. At the first conflagration, in 1794, it was one of the horses that were saved, and at the second fire, in 1803, it walked as coolly out of the stable as if performing in a previously rehearsed piece. By thus quietly showing the way, it was instrumental in saving all the other horses, which, amidst fire, uproar, and confusion, without the slightest panic, followed their accustomed leader. At last the old horse died, and Mr. Davis, the then manager, with a keen eye to the fitness of things, caused its skin to be tanned, and converted into what is technically termed “a thunder drum,” for the use of the establishment. And speaking of this noisy instrument reminds us that Astley, when he first started his riding school, had no other music than a common drum, which was beaten by his wife. To this he subsequently added a fife, the players standing on a kind of small platform, placed in the centre of the ring, and it was not till he opened the Royal Grove that he employed a regular orchestra.

Indeed, as an accompaniment to equestrian exercises, Astley always considered that loudness was the most desirable quality in music. And though he overtook care to have an excellent band, with a well-qualified leader, he, nevertheless, considered them more as an indispensable drain on the treasury, than a useful auxiliary to the performances. “Any fool,” he used invariably to say, “can handle a fiddle, but it takes a man to manage a horse; and yet I have to pay a fellow that plays upon one fiddle as much salary as a man that rides upon three horses.” Such opinions, freely expressed, not unfrequently led to angry scenes, of which amusing anecdotes have been related.

On one occasion Astley requested his leader to arrange a few bars of music for a broad-sword combat—“a rang, tang, bang; one, two, three; and a cut sort of thing, you know;” for thus he curtly expressed his ideas of what he required. At the subsequent rehearsal Astley shouted out to his stage-manager, “Stop! stop! This will never do. It’s not half noisy enough; we must get shields,” simply meaning that the mimic combatants should be supplied with shields to clash against the broad-swords, causing the noise so excitingly provocative of applause from the audience. But the too sensitive leader, thinking it was his music that was “not half noisy enough,” and it was Shields, the composer, to whom Astley alluded, jumped out of the orchestra, and, tearing the score to pieces, indignantly exclaimed, “Get Shields, then, as soon as you please, for I am heartily sick and tired of you.”

At another time, on the first night of a new piece, as the curtain rose to slow and solemn music, Astley, who was in the front observing the effect, overheard a carpenter sawing a board behind the scenes. “Go,” said the manager to Smith, his rough-rider and aide-de-camp in ordinary, “go and tell that stupid fellow not to saw so infernally loud.”

Smith, fancying it was the music Astley alluded to, went at once to the orchestra, and whispered in the leader’s ear, “Mr. Astley has desired me to tell you not to saw so infernally loud.”

“Saw!” retorted the enraged musician. “Go back and tell him, this is the very last night I shall saw in his infernal stables.”

Of course, when the curtain fell, the musician’s wrath was appeased by the mistake being explained.

Besides the publications already mentioned, Astley’s name is appended to two more, respectively entitled, “A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Places now the Seat of War in the Low Countries;” and “Natural Magic, or Physical Amusements revealed.” These are mere compilations, in every respect inferior to his other two works on the horse and horsemanship; the last being exceedingly characteristic of the sound, sterling sense of its author. They were written from his dictation by his niece and constant amanuensis, and afterwards prepared for the press by his dramatist James Upton, a clever but erratic Irishman, the respected author of a well-known song, “The Lass of Richmond Hill.”

Astley’s letters, having been written by a not too-well-educated amanuensis, exhibit a curious mixture of the first and third persons. With the following verbatim specimen, containing a curious bit of information on the tractability of the monkey-race, we must conclude:

According to promise in my last, I sitt down to write to my dear Mr. and Mrs. Pownall first I forgott to mention in my last concerning the monkey, if it has no tail, and tractable Mr. Astley would be glad you would purchase it for him, but if a tail he wont lern anything, we have lost another since we came to Pariss the little Blackfaced one dyed partly the same as the other, I think we are rather Unlucky in that Spetia of Animells.

William Pinkerton.

  1. The Marquis of Granby, the popular military hero of the day.