Astley’s Circus was the brainchild of equestrian trainer and trick rider Philip Astley (1742-1814), hence the heavy reliance on horses in the bill presented here. At the time of this advertisement, the circus and its permanent base – Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road – were owned by Andrew Ducrow (1793-1842). Ducrow was himself a skilled equestrian and kept many of Astley’s other innovations in circus-presentation (most obviously the practice of seating the audience around a central circus ring), but he also began to diversify the entertainments to include performances by wild animals – hence the ‘Living Lions’ at the bottom of the bill.
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’.