Astley’s Circus combined many different traditions – juggling, rope-walking and clowning to name just a few. But the late 18th Century also saw the development of what became mind-reading acts, linked to performances of magic and conjuring. Astley may have been no conjurer, but that didn’t stop him trying his hand at legerdemain, and he even published a book of magic tricks. Mind you, none of the tricks were original and the book was a straight lift of a French volume from a few years previously…
It rather looks as though Astley felt compelled to be a magician in order to compete with arch-rival Hughes. Hughes had opened premises just down the road from Astley’s Amphitheatre by Westminster Bridge, and employed the brilliant Philip Breslaw. The latter was a far, far better illusionist and conjurer than Astley, and they both felt a healthy professional disdain for each other.
Astley also used his brilliance as a trainer of animals to get them to perform all manner of tricks. Billy, a.k.a. The Little Learned Military Horse, would appear to fire a pistol, or lie down and play dead, or lift a kettle and pour a pot of tea. Billy was trained to respond to the subtle sound of soft finger clicks to scrape one or other front hoof on the ground, and Astley used this to enable him to appear to be able to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to questions raised by the audience.
And then there was The Scientific Pig. He was not Astley’s pig, but he appeared regularly in his early shows. The pig was trained to give the appearance of telling the time by looking at a watch produced by a member of the audience; he could read minds; he could spell – and if Gillray’s cartoon shown in my previous post is correct, he would even allow a monkey to ride him round the circus ring. The public rather liked the idea of a performing pig, and I can imagine that Astley had rather a lot of fun getting his porcine friend to react with members of the audience.
This is Rowlandson’s sketch of one such performing porker, drawn in 1785:
More details appear in my book “Astley’s Circus – the story of an English Hussar” where I have a separate section describing some of the acts used in the early performances of what became known as the Circus.
Generally speaking, wild animals didn’t get a look-in. O.K., I can find reference to a zebra and an occasional ostrich, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. Astley would have been horrified to learn how the circus entertainment was later to be “sullied” by the introduction of herds of elephants, lions and tigers. These were ‘Americanisms’ brought in a century later by the likes of Barnum and Bailey. The shows put on by Astley were about horsemanship. And the odd monkey. And the occasional pig….