One of the most visited performance venues of the late eighteenth century was Astley’s Amphitheatre. It was situated close to Westminster bridge on the south side of the River Thames. Today its site is buried under the gardens of St Thomas’ Hospital.
The Amphitheatre was opened by Philip & Patty Astley in 1768 and had a bit of a chequered start. The structure burnt down in 1794, and was rebuilt in less than seven months before being destroyed by fire again in 1803. The Amphitheatre was again rebuilt, this time in the style of rival Charles Hughes’s Royal Circus with lavish decorations and reputedly the largest stage in London.
With increasing popularity and larger rebuilds after the successive fires, it grew to become Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre and is considered to be the first modern circus ring. The venue remained popular long after Astley’s death in 1814 and passed through the hands of several different empresarios. Another fire destroyed it in 1841 and it was completely rebuilt by its new owner William Batty who ran the venue until 1853.
During his tenure as owner he managed to lure fellow circus owner Pablo Fanque to perform his feats of horsemanship at the venue. Fanque was and probably is the only black circus owner in the UK and was a great favourite of the Victorian era. He is immortalised in the lyrics of the Beatles “Being for the benefit of Mr Kite” on the Sgt. Pepper album. I’d always heard the lyric thinking it was the name “Frank”, but the line is “The Hendersons will all be there Late of Pablo Fanques Fair, what a scene“. Take a listen for yourself and it becomes clear. The lyrics of the song all seem to have been taken from a poster advertising Fanque’s Circus Royal.
In 1863 the Amphitheatre was turned into the Theatre Royal by Dion Boucicault, however it resulted in failure and left Boucicault heavily in debt. E.T. Smith succeeded Boucicault and provided the American actress Adah Isaacs Menken with her first London appearance in Mazeppa to “overflowing houses”.
The venue was also woven into popular culture. Jane Austin uses a trip to Astley’s in her novel Emma for bringing about the reconciliation and engagement of Robert Martin and Harriet Smith.
Charles Dickens uses a description of an evening at Astley’s in The Old Curiosity Shop (chapter 39) and it also gets a mention in Hard Times and Bleak House.
Its final owner was “Lord” George Sanger, who bought it for £11,000 in 1871 and ran it as “Sanger’s Amphitheatre” for over 20 years. It finally closed and was demolished in 1893.
The site’s link with Astley’s seems to have been forgotten for many years, but in 1969 a plaque was unveiled warranting the filming of it on British Pathe News, however the site that the plaque was unveiled at was totally the wrong place, which is strange as the exact location was well known. The plaque didn’t last long and vanished not long after. You can see a clip of the unveiling here.
It took another 49 years to site a new plaque in the correct position. This was provided by the area’s Residents’ Association and was unveiled on Easter Monday 2018 by circus ringmaster Chris Barltrop, dressed as Philip Astley.