The circus today means the Big Top but it’s origins lie in bricks and mortar.

The origins of the circus may lie in the 1700’s with Astley’s Circus in London, but it was in the 1800’s that Circus made its mark. The Amphitheatre, the first real circus, had been opened in London by Philip Astley in 1768. The acts took place in a circular arena in a building. The main attraction was acts of outstanding horsemanship. The gradual inclusion of acrobats and clowns brought circus to it’s present form. Four years later Charles Dibdin opened his Royal Circus. Although the first circuses were housed in permanent buildings around 1840 travelling circuses appeared, thanks to the introduction of large tents by visiting American circuses. Many of the most famous circuses impresarios began their careers on the fairground. The emphasis on action rather than words meant that there was a greater exchange across Europe than in other areas of showmanship. It became very fashionable to have an Italian surname in the 1900’s if you wanted to work in a circus in Britain. Even today Italy has more touring circuses that other European countries.

Hand coloured engraving from the Illustrated London News of the reopening of Astley’s New Amphitheatre, under the ownership of William Batty, London 1843.

The interior of Astley’s Amphitheatre.

Mr Pablo Fanque and his trained steed performing at Astley’s Amphitheatre in London in 1847. He was an equestrian, acrobat, rope walker and circus proprietor and one of the leading circus artists of the nineteenth century.

Pablo Fanque demonstrates his equestrianism in Astley’s Amphitheatre. This horseman, in private life mister William Darby of Norwich, later had his own show. John Lennon and Paul McCartney immortalized the Pablo Fanques Fair in the Beatles-song Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite (from the famous album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Barnum’s even presented Roman Races.

Some of the amazing acts that made up the great shows of Barnums circus. Barnum certainly didn't suffer from false modesty ! He just called his show "The Greatest Show On Earth"

An open-air performance featuring a conjurer, an equestrian and a tightrope walker.

The Astley Amphitheatre in London offered a varied programme.

Astley’s Amphitheatre: Amidi Neuporte, a then famous Dutch equilibrist, in action, November 7 1846.


A flea circus. This one was owned by monsieur Bertolotte de Bendres.