The centrepiece of this performance at Astley’s Circus, Westminster, is a dramatic restaging of the story of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’s Queen of the late 16th century, who was executed amid much political scheming in the Tower of London.
Writing of this sort of entertainment in 1850s, Charles Dickens spoke of an idealised working-class man (‘Joe Whelk’) who,
is not much of a reader, has no great store of books, no very commodious room to read in, no very decided inclination to read, and no power at all of presenting vividly before his mind’s eye what he reads about. But, put Joe in [a theatre] gallery … show him doors and windows in the scene that will open and shut, and that people can get in and out of; tell him a story with these aids, and by the help of live men and women dressed up, confiding to him their innermost secrets, in voices audible half a mile off; and Joe will unravel a story through all its entanglements, and sit there a long after midnight as you have anything left to show him.
Dickens here means to champion the role of the imagination in the lives of people who have very little other obvious attainment.
Astley’s Circus was perhaps the most famous circus in the world during the Victorian period. Beginning in 1868 as an exhibition of purely equestrian acts, it was one of the first circuses to have a permanent home (on Westminster Bridge Road, in this case) rather than being a roving entertainment. This settlement had a great deal to do with the growing concentration of Britain’s population in urban areas: it no longer paid quite so well to move from town to town. Having a permanent home also meant that the circus could more easily arrange for spectacular entertainments such as this one, with dozens of human performers and dozens more trained horses.