On 9 January 1768, a trick rider named Philip Astley climbed aboard his horse for a performance. Instead of following convention and riding in a straight line, he had the horse go in a circle, thus pioneering the format which was soon to become known as a ‘circus.’
That wasn’t the only aspect of the modern-day circus Astley created. From his riding school near Westminster Bridge he began expanding his shows as they became more and more popular and drew bigger crowds. Soon musicians, a clown, jugglers, tumblers, tightrope walkers and performing animals joined his afternoon trick riding shows.
The crowds lapped it up, and the money (and fame) rolled in. He built an arena with a roof, platform, and seats called Astley’s Amphitheatre that was so famous it was mentioned in works by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. In 1772 he was invited to perform before Louis XV of France at Versailles and later established the first circus in France, the Amphitheatre Anglais in Paris. He went on to establish 18 other permanent circuses throughout Europe and several more in England and Ireland. One thing he did not do was use wild animals in his shows—that was an innovation that was invented some 14 years after his death.
Astley died in Paris of Gout in the stomach, but his legacy lives on in circuses all over the world, which still use the same size ring that Astley did—a 13m standard.