This vivid poster for Astley’s Circus in Westminster demonstrates the typical range of circus entertainments on offer in the early Victorian period. The emphasis is very much on the exotic and the spectacular, with performing animals transported from around the world, and re-enactments of internationally famous battles and disasters.
Astley’s Circus was one of the most famous and innovative circuses in the world at this time. Founded in 1868 by Philip Astley, an expert equestrian, it was the first circus to stage its events in a ring with the audience seated all round. When Astley died in 1814, he left behind 18 permanent circus amphitheatres around Europe. At the time this poster was issued, Astley’s was run by Andrew Ducrow, himself a skilled horse-rider. He is the Ducrow mentioned in the text of this advertisement.
Charles Dickens visited this incarnation of Astley’s Circus several times during the 1830s, and wrote about it in his Sketches by Boz (1836). Recalling his childhood visits, he remarks: 'Astley’s has altered for the better—we have changed for the worse.’ By this he meant that the innocent glee of the audiences of prior years, his own glee included, had become something more worldly and dispirited. Dispirited or not, Dickens would use the circus as a central location and theme in Hard Times (1854): the innocent illusions of Sleary’s Circus being held in healthy contrast to the industrial society that would turn workers into ‘melancholy-mad elephants’.