Waterloo Battlefield, the First Tourists & the Fate of Wellington’s Tree

How soon did sightseers arrive on the battlefield of Waterloo? Astonishingly, the answer is, first thing next morning. Some brave – or very foolhardy – gentlemen had ridden out from Brussels while the fighting was still in progress, which might be expected, but Cavalié Mercer, commander of G Troop Royal Horse Artillery, records the first ‘day trippers.’ In his Journal of the Waterloo Campaign, Kept Through the Campaign of 1815, he records how on the morning of the 19th, immediately after the battle, he was surveying the field, helping get water to the wounded and seeing his men were fed. They made a stew of a “quarter of veal, which they had found in a muddy ditch” and ate for the first time in three days, surrounded by mangled corpses and the wounded.

“We had not yet finished our meal, when a carriage drove on the ground from Brussels, the inmates of which, alighting, proceeded to examine the field. As they passed near us, it was amusing to see the horror with which they eyed our frightful figures; they all, however, pulled off their hats and made us low bows. One, a smartly-dressed middle-aged man, in a high cocked-hat, came to our circle, and entered into conversation with me on the events of yesterday. He approached holding a delicately white perfumed handkerchief to his nose; stepping carefully to avoid the bodies (at which he cast fearful glances en passant), to avoid polluting the glossy silken hose that clothed his nether limbs…With a world of bows my man took leave, and proceeded, picking his steps with the same care as he followed the route of his companions in the direction of Hougoumont.”

Residents in Brussels were the first to reach the battlefield, but almost immediately after news of the victory reached London, civilians began to flock to the area. In To The Field of Waterloo I used the accounts of six visitors in the first year after the fighting to explore why they made the journey and what impressions they carried away with them (along with the souvenirs of battle, poignant, gruesome and glorious.)

Charlotte Anne Eaton, novelist and travel writer, was staying with her brother in Brussels before and during the battle and they visited on July 15th. She recorded her impressions in The Days of Battle or Quatre Bras and Waterloo by An Englishwoman. She had to have a very strong stomach to cope with what they found.

“…the road between Waterloo and Brussels was one long uninterrupted charnel-house: the smell the whole way through the forest, was extremely offensive, and in some places scarcely bearable. Deep stagnant pools of red putrid water, mingled with mortal remains, betrayed the spot where the bodies of men and horses had mingled together in death…” Like all the visitors whose accounts I read, her party eagerly scavenged on the battlefield for souvenirs. “In some places patches of corn nearly as high as myself was standing. Amongst them I discovered many a forgotten grave, strewed around with melancholy remnants of military attire. While I loitered behind the rest of the party, searching among the corn for some relics worthy of preservation, I beheld a human hand, almost reduced to a skeleton, outstretched above the ground, as if it had raised itself from the grave. My blood ran cold with horror, and for some moments I stood rooted to the spot, unable to take my eyes from this dreadful object, or to move away: as soon as I recovered myself, I hastened after my companions, who were far before me, and overtook them just as they entered the wood of Hougoumont.”

In Charlotte Eaton’s case her motive seems to be a desire to remember and celebrate the dead. At Hougoumont (below right), where the ashes from the great funeral pyres were still blowing around, she gathered up some of the “sacred ashes”, resolving to give them a reverent burial when she returned home. And, “As we passed through the wood of Hougoumont, I gathered some seeds of the wild broom, with the intention of planting them at H. Park [Hendersyde Park, Roxburghshire, her family home], and with the hope that I should one day see the broom of Hougoumont blooming on the banks of the Tweed.”

Others simply seemed to want to collect whatever they could find in their passion for souvenirs. The local people lost no time in setting up a battlefield tourism industry – and who can blame them, considering the chaos their lives and livelihoods had been thrown into? They scavenged the battlefield for everything from weapons to bits of uniform to the books and letters of the fallen and discovered that the tourists would buy almost anything. Or, help themselves. One significant victim was the ‘Wellington Tree’. John Scott, a journalist, described its significance in Paris Revisited, in 1815, By Way of Brussels: Including A Walk Over the Field of Battle At Waterloo. (Longman, Hurst etc. London. 1816).

“From St. Jean, the road immediately rises up the back of the ridge, on the height and in the front of which, the infantry of the Duke of Wellington’s army was formed in line. The cavalry, at the beginning of the battle, were posted on the St. Jean side of the eminence. The ascent is easy: you reach the top unexpectedly, and the whole field of battle is then at once before the eye. Its sudden burst has the effect of a shock, and few, I believe, are found to put any question for the first five minutes. The point from whence this complete view of the scene, so often pictured in imagination, first presents itself, is one of the most interesting that it includes. It is the summit of the ridge close to the road, over which hangs an old picturesque tree, with a few straggling branches projecting in grotesque shapes from its ragged trunk. The British position extended on the right and left of the road, for the extent of about a mile and three quarters, along the top of a continued line of gentle eminences, immediately confronted by very similar heights, distant from half to three quarters of a mile along which the French army was posted. … The tree, already mentioned, fixed on the bank above the high road from Brussels to Charleroi, denotes the center of, our position, and, the Duke of Wellington having been near it the greater part of the day, it goes by the name of the “Wellington tree.” I found it much shattered with balls, both grape and musket; all of which had been picked out by visitors. Its branches and trunk were terribly splintered. It still retained, however, the vitality of its growth, and will, probably, for many future years, be the first saluting sign to our children and our children’s children, who, with feelings of a sacred cast, come to gaze on this theatre of their ancestors’ deeds.”

But the tree was not to survive for long. The party with schoolmaster John Evans, author of An Excursion to Windsor in 1810…to which is annexed A Journal of a Trip to Paris in the Autumn of 1816, by Way of Ostend, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Waterloo. (Sherwood, Neely and Jones. London 1817) showed far less respect for the tree as a symbol than Scott did. “…we came in sight of WELLINGTON TREE, situated on a rising ground to the left of the road [seen from the south]. I took a Sketch of it, and some of my companions a bough or two. The bough immediately over the place where THE DUKE had stood, still bore the mark of a cannon-shot! This bough fell under the axe of an Irish officer in our party.” Charlotte Eaton, returning to the battlefield for a second time, records the end of the tree.  “*Footnote: It is on the left of the road in going towards Waterloo, behind the farmhouse of la Haye Sainte. But this tree, which ought to have been for ever sacred, has been CUT DOWN!!!”

Below is a picture of La Belle Alliance, drawn on June 25th.  It became a virtual tourist centre, stuffed with items to buy and with guides, both locals and military, to take visitors over the battlefield.

My other tourists were a young man on a spree with his friends, a lawyer and friend of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate. They all had their own motives for visiting and each account recounts different emotions and reactions to what they found.  Perhaps the remarks that moved me most were those of John Scott, searching for – and finding – hope in the shattered, trampled, bloody ground where, somehow, flowers were managing to bloom.

 

 

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W H Pyne and a View into Rural England

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I collect original early 19th century prints – costume prints, London views and, whenever I can lay hands on them, the work of William Henry Pyne (1769–1843). Pyne is not a great artist, but he had the knack of catching the everyday lives of English people, especially the working classes, in a vivid and revealing way.

His The Costume of Great Britain, designed, engraved, and written by W. H. Pyne, was published in 1808 and fetches large sums of money these days – I’ve had to make do with a reprint of the whole book, but I do own a few of the individual plates. You can see two of these at my posts for 5th November 2015 (‘Pray Remember Guy Fawkes!’) and February 18th 2014 (recycling Georgian Style.)

But the work I enjoy the most are the sketches he made and published to help amateur artists populate the landscapes they made with suitable figures. With virtually everyone claiming any degree of gentility being expected to sketch creditably, this must have been a huge market. The first of these came out in Microcosm, or a Picturesque Delineation of the Arts, Agriculture, and Manufactures of Great Britain; in a Series of above a Thousand Groups of Small Figures for the embellishment of Landscape … the whole accurately drawn from Nature and etched by W. H. Pyne and aquatinted by J. Hill, to which are added Explanations of the Plates by C. Gray. That was published in 1803 and was followed by Etchings of Rustic Figures for the Embellishment of Landscape in 1815. I own a number of plates from the first (which I can’t scan at the moment as they are in store: the joys of building work!) and several from the second.

The countrywomen and children at the top of this post are from Etchings of Rustic Figures… as are the Gypsies below.

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My favorites are from On Rustic Figures in Imitation of Chalk, (1817) and I’m lucky enough to own the whole volume. It was published by Ackermann, of Repository fame and would have fitted in well with the artists’ supplies that they sold from the shop at 101, Strand. Below is the Woodcutter.

Woodcutter from W H Pyne's Rustic Figures

In the Introduction Pyne wrote:

“The study of drawing the characters of the peasantry, or rustic figures, although having its foundation in a certain knowledge of the proportions of the human figure, is nevertheless essentially different from the study of the elegant or classic figure, and, perhaps is as great a degree as the manners and habits of he peasantry differ from those of the most polished of the human race. Not that the rustic is always devoid of dignity; but his is a dignity of a peculiar order, existing in nature, without either the elegance or the affectedness which may be derived from education.”

He goes on to mock the “insipid…rustics of the elegant designer” and points out that “Nothing can be more absurd than to see a race of gods and goddesses, with scythes and hay-rakes, attired in waggoners’ frocks and mob caps.”

His drawings, even of the poorest, avoid any kind of attempt at caricature or ‘humour’ as so many other images of the day do. These charming children, for example, or the spinner at her wheel, seem to me to be genuine attempts to depict the subjects sympathetically, and realistically, in their setting.

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I love the detail in these drawings – the construction of a bucket, the way the spinning wheel works and, in the final example, the man sharpening his scythe. We can see the construction of his clothes but also the holder for the sharpening stone fixed to his belt in the small of his back.

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Directions to the Cook for March

Shivering as the snow is whirled round the house by winds of over 40mph I’ve turned to my Georgian cookery books for inspiration for today’s blog in the hope of something warming.

The New London Family Cook or Town and Country Housekeeper’s Guide by Duncan MacDonald “Head Cook at the Bedford Tavern and Hotel [on site of present Maple Leaf, Maiden Lane], Covent Garden, and Assistants” is probably the most comprehensive cookery book I own. My copy, dated 1812, is battered and without its covers or any of the index after “Daffy’s elixir, old receipt for…” but it has a large section of “Instructions for Marketing”, monthly guides to what is in season and several suggestions for entire dinners and recipes and carving instructions. The “Family Recipes” section provides solutions for everyday problems – thinning and falling hair, cramp, scorched linen – and “restoring the life to drowned persons.”

You can see Duncan MacDonald in the damaged frontispiece above surrounded by the tools of his trade. He looks a good advertisement for his recipes!

Many of these recipes and receipts occur in other cookery books – trying to work out who was stealing whose recipes – or copying wholesale, come to that – is a work of archaeology.

For March, Mr MacDonald informs us, beef, mutton, veal “house-lamb” and pork are the meats in season. The poultry and game are turkeys, fowls, capons, chicken, duckling, tame rabbits and pigeons. (I’m not clear what the difference between a fowl and a chicken is.) A wide range of fish is in season including oysters, flounders, eels, roach, crab, turbot and mackarel [sic]. The vegetables he lists are mainly roots and the cabbage family including borecole – what we now call Brussel Sprouts – plus mushrooms, tansy, parsley, fennel and celery. Lettuce and cucumbers are listed – presumably grown under glass – and a wide range of herbs.

The list of fruit is sometimes baffling – “Golden pippins (an apple variety dating from the 17thc), rennetings (one of the group of apples called reinettes now), love (no idea – unless it is ‘love apple’ ie tomato), pearmain and John-apples (there are a number of apples whose name includes ‘pearmain’ but I can’t trace John-apples), the bon-chretien (nowadays usually known as the Williams pear) and double blossom pear, oranges and forced strawberries.

Here is the menu and table layout for the first of his suggested March dinners. This is service à la française – the dishes are brought out all together in two or more ‘courses’ for the diners to help themselves and each other to whatever combination they like, as opposed to service à la russe, the modern method, where each dish is served separately by a waiter or footman.

Given how cold the weather is, I’ll give the two soup recipes – and a warning – I haven’t tried these, so I cannot vouch for what they’ll taste like if you try them at home!

Soup Sante or Gravy Soup

“Take turnips and carrots, shred them small with celery heads about two inches long; wash and steam them separately in a little water until nearly done; when quite done, cut the white of the celery small, likewise a small quantity of leeks, cabbage, cos lettuces, endive and chervil; put all the vegetables to boil til quite tender, with three quarts of cleared brown consumes [presumably consommé]; if in season, add green peas, tops of asparagus, and button onions, stewed, etc.

You may put in a small piece of bouille beef stewed; but dry it with a cloth, and put it in the soup with the vegetables when you serve it. This, however, is not very general.”

Rice Soup

“Put a pound of rice and a little cinnamon [stick, not powder] into two quarts of water. Cover close, and let it simmer till the rice is quite tender. Take out the cinnamon, sweeten it to your taste, grate in half a nutmeg, and let it stand until cold. [This sounds more like a cold rice pudding than a soup.]”

“Another way

Wash a handful of rice in warm water, put it into a stewpan, with as much stock as it is wanted to make, and let it simmer slowly for two hours. Season it to your taste, and serve it up.”

I’m now going to go off and try out the recipe for Portable Soup…

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The Story of a Square 6: Queen Square

Today I’m visiting Queen Square, built in the first decades of the 18th century and named for Queen Anne. The first image shows it in 1786 in a painting by Edward Dayes. [Yale Center for British Art. Public domain image, US]. This is the view from the south.

The second image is from Ackermann’s Repository for September 1812 and the artist is standing in Guilford Street on the northern, open edge.

Now there are buildings on the plot of land enclosed by the iron railings but, according to the text with this print, The north side formerly commanded fine views of Hampstead and Highgate. This view can be clearly seen in the Dayes painting and on Roque’s map of 1738 with, to the north-east, Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital. Fanny Burney, the novelist, playwright and diarist, lived in the square 1771/2 with her father and wrote of,  A beautiful prospect of the hills ever verdant of Hampstead and Highgate. Dr Burney was visited here by Captain James Cook, just before his second voyage.

By the time of the 1812 print, Richard Horwood’s map (below) shows the extensive development over what had been Lamb’s Conduit Fields to the north and the private garden in the foreground of the image. Originally the site was an ancient reservoir, part of the waterways that formed the water source for Lamb’s Conduit and which supplied water to the Greyfriars in Newgate Street. If you look at the paved area at the southern end on StreetView you can see a black iron water pump, the late Victorian replacement for the original, which taps into the same source.

Number 31 (east side), now replaced by the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, was a school for young ladies, sometimes referred to as “the ladies’ Eton”. Deportment was clearly of great importance and the young ladies would travel by coach to attend the church of St George the Martyr, just a few metres away on the south-west end of the square. This meant they could practice getting in and out of a carriage in the correct manner and, according to the London Encyclopedia, when the carriage became too ancient to move it was installed in one of the schoolrooms so they could use it there.

St George the Martyr was built at the same time as the square as a chapel of ease, a subsidiary of St Andrew, Holborn. As London expanded these chapels sprang up in all the fashionable new developments and this one was created when (to quote Ackermann’s) several of those who resided at the extremity of the parish [of St Andrew] having proposed to erect a chapel for religious worship, Sir Streynsham Master [a prominent member of the East India Company] and fourteen other gentlemen were appointed trustees for the management of the building. Along with two houses it cost £3,500 and it was intended to recoup the cost by the sale of pews. However, by 1733 the density of new building was such that a new parish was created and the church, bought from the trustees, was named St George’s in honour of Master’s governorship of Fort St George in Madras (Chennai). Originally it was a plain brick building without steeple, and destitute of any pretensions to elegance, though convenient and well lighted. It was remodeled twice in the 19th century, a bell tower was added and the original exterior brickwork covered up, presumably adding some much-needed elegance. The 1786 painting at the head of this post shows the church in its original brick in the left foreground.

When George III first became unwell in 1788 he stayed for a short time in Queen Square with Doctor Willis before being treated at the White House at Kew. The King’s apparent recovery made Willis famous, fashionable and rich. Coincidentally, the statue of George’s wife, Queen Charlotte, that still stands in the square, was erected about 1775.

[Photograph by Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10043271%5D

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The Georgian Muff

I wanted to write this blog last week when the blizzards were howling, but I couldn’t get across the back garden to my studio and my print collection. Now the need for a muff has reduced I’ve managed to wade across and retrieve the volume covering 1795-1805. I found it was absolutely stuffed with illustrations of muffs.

For the early history of muffs, and the origin of the name, I can’t do better than refer you to this interesting post by The Costume Historian (snufskins anyone?). During the 17th and 18th century men used muffs too (Samuel Pepys borrowed his wife’s last-season muff and had to buy her a new one) but by the end of that period they were coming to be seen as effeminate and positively French (Horrors!).

Muffs could be made of fur, swansdown or padded fabrics, although all the ones in the prints in my collection look like either fur or the skin of very long-haired sheep, with the occasional one that might be feather. Infuriatingly, even when I have the description with the image they don’t describe the muff. Even if lined with silk and padded with down these vast muffs must have weighed a great deal and it is difficult to see how one could have put both hands into the biggest ones without your elbows sticking out like jug handles. There would certainly be room inside for other things – it was even possible to buy muff pistols, although confronted by a foot-pad it might have been more effective simply to smother him with the muff itself. In one or two images you can see that they are being held by the rim – the idea of a loop handle or strings around the neck doesn’t seem to come in until they reduced greatly in size with the Victorians.

The image at the top of this post is from Heideloff’s The Gallery of Fashion for February 1799 and show large, long-haired fur muffs, the brown one with walking dress and white one used inside. This next plate is from Phillip’s Fashions of London and Paris (February 1800) and shows two Full Dresses, one accessorized by a vast fluffy white muff. Presumably this was simply carried for effect – or would cold rooms have made it necessary?

I have a number of plates from The Lady’s Monthly Museum which are notable for their rather plain ladies and decided lack of elegance! Here is a pair of Morning Dresses for February 1800.

And for December that year two more Morning Dresses with very shaggy muffs. In the descriptions details right down to stockings are described – but not the muffs.

For March 1801 The Lady’s Monthly Museum has a charming pair of Morning Dresses with a poodle who seems to think the large white muff might come from a relative of his and an Afternoon Dress with the muff discarded on the sofa while the very nattily-dressed gentleman makes intense eye-contact.

For February 1802 here are two ladies from a very lovely Gallery of Fashion plate with below it Morning Dresses from the much less exclusive Lady’s Monthly Museum.

For March 1805 The Lady’s Magazine has a London Walking Dress with a very curly muff and a feather to match and The Ladies’ Monthly Museum a figure in Full Dress with a positively enormous white muff.

And finally, here is a rare plate from Le Miroir de la Mode by the mysterious Madame Lanchester. I blogged about her here with some more examples from my collection. In this example of a Walking Dress from January 1803 the muff is so large that it seems almost as long as the wearer’s legs!

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Bringing Spice to the Kitchen – Or the British and ‘Curry’

The British in India, from the 17th century onwards, cheerfully lumped the many and varied styles of cooking, and the subtle differences in dishes they encountered, under the term ‘curry’, a word copied from the Portuguese. Pietro della Valle (died 1652) described as ‘caril’ or ‘carre’ the ‘broths… made  with Butter, the Pulp of Indian Nuts… and all sorts of Spices, particularly Cardamons and Ginger… besides herbs, fruits and a thousand other condiments [which are] poured in good quantity upon … boyl’d Rice.’

The British in India ate ‘curry’ with every meal, using the term to cover anything in a spicy sauce. No British lady would dream of undertaking her own cooking, so she would have no idea about how the dishes her Indian household served up were made. Eventually curry powder came to be considered a spice in its own right, completely ignoring the infinite varieties and combinations that might be used. Anglo-Indians might think they were immersing themselves in local culture – like the young East India Company employee above, listening to Indian musicians amongst his European furniture – but they seemed to have no appreciation of the subtleties of the cuisine.

As East India Company officials came back to Britain they brought their taste for curry with them and often they brought their Indian cooks with them. These men had learned to create the first Anglo-Indian cookery style to suit their employers and soon curry began to appear in ordinary household cookery books.

One enterprising India entrepreneur, Sake Dean Mahomed [Sidi Deen Mahomet in some sources], opened the first Indian restaurant in Britain in 1810. I discovered it (or, rather, where it had been) when I was researching for Walking Jane Austen’s London. It was located on the corner of George Street and Charles Street, just North of Portman Square, a fashionable area and one that was home to many retired Anglo-Indians.  The Hindostanee Coffee House even had a smoking room where patrons could smoke hookahs. Despite serving ‘Indian dishes in the highest perfection… allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequaled to any…ever made in England’ the business became bankrupt the following year. Possibly his choice of location was unfortunate and many of the Anglo-Indians could eat curry at home made by their own Indian cooks or they preferred to combine business with curry by patronising the various City coffee houses that served curry alongside English food. Norris Street Coffee House on Haymarket had been serving curry since 1773 when its ‘Mistress’ advertised in The Public Advertiser ‘true Indian curey paste.’ ‘At the shortest Notice [she would send] ready dressed Curey and Rice, also Indian Pilaws, to any Part of the Town.’ East India Company merchants had created almost a club for themselves at the Jerusalem Coffee House on Cornhill. No specialist Indian restaurant appeared again in Central London until the 1920s.

Sake Dean Mahomed (right. Painted by Thomas Mann Baines c.1810) had far more success with his bathing establishment in Brighton. “Mahomed’s Baths. These are ascertained [sic] by a native of India, and combine all the luxuries of oriental bathing. They are adapted either for ladies or gentlemen, and the system is highly salutary in many diseases, independently of the gratification it affords, particularly to those who have resided in the East.”  [W. Scott. The House Book or Family Chronicle of Useful Knowledge (1826)] The ‘luxuries of oriental bathing’, I learned when I was researching for The Georgian Seaside, included shampooing – not of the head, but of the whole body in a foaming massage.

The Epicure’s Almanac (1815) has a section on seasonal foods and for July mentions that ‘various preparations of curry afford a delectable repast to those who have acquired a taste for this Indian diet.’ Ready-made curry powder could be bought alongside other spices and was first mentioned in Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery (1747).

Here is a recipe for curry made with curry powder from The New London Family Cook (1811) by Duncan McDonald, head cook at the Bedford Tavern and Hotel, Covent Garden. The Bedford Tavern and Hotel was a large establishment on the Great Piazza. It opened in 1726 and continued in business throughout most of the 19th century.

And this is from A New System of Domestic Cookery (1807)

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curry 3 For a fascinating history of Europe’s love affair with curry, try Lizzie Collingham’s Curry; a biography (2005).

 

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Two Hundred Years Ago – the Birth of Circus in England?

The Sunday Times newspaper on 7 January mentions the celebrations planned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Astley’s Amphitheatre as the beginning of circus in England. This reminded me that I own a playbill for Astley’s for November 10th 1813  which features a tightrope act “being  justly allowed the First Performer in the United Kingdom”. The Unparalleled Wilson’s act was complete with Wonderful Somersets (somersaults) and Surprising Leaps. Philip Astley, a six foot tall cavalryman, rose to the rank of sergeant major and left the army in 1768. With two horses he began to give unlicensed shows of horsemanship and riding lessons on open ground in Southwark. According to the London Encyclopedia he obtained a licence with the patronage of George III after subduing an out of control horse near Westminster Bridge. This enabled him to open ‘The Royal Grove’, a canvas-covered ring close to the southern end of Westminster Bridge in 1769. Today if you stand on the bridge and look towards St Thomas’s Hospital on the far bank you can see a patch of trees where the hospital gardens are. This is approximately the location of Astley’s, shown below in 1777.

Astley’s fame spread rapidly and in 1772 he performed before King Louis XV at Versailles. Patty, his wife, was also an accomplished rider. At first she assisted by beating out rhythms on a large drum but she soon joined in with horseback tricks including riding with a “muff” of swarms of bees over her hands and arms. Her husband began to incorporate comedy into his tricks, including his most famous act, The Tailor of Brentford.

As the popularity of his shows increased Astley gathered other acts, scouring fairs and going as far afield as Paris to find good street performers. The shows began to incorporate many of the circus acts we would recognise today – acrobats, jugglers, rope-dancers, clowns, strong men and, of course, the equestrian acts. The arena was roofed by 1780 so that he could continue to give shows year-round.

Astley is credited with discovering that the ideal size for a circus ring is 42 feet in diameter, allowing the optimal use of centrifugal force to keep him on the horse’s back as he galloped round the ring. However, Astley did not use the name ‘Circus’ for his show as this had been appropriated by Charles Dibden whom opened The Royal Circus nearby in 1782, stealing many of Astley’s ideas.

When The Royal Grove was destroyed by fire in 1794 he rebuilt in splendid style, this time calling it Astley’s Amphitheatre. By now it was so established, eclipsing Dibden’s Circus, that he could attract famous performers such as the clown Grimaldi and he added melodramas, comic sketches such as the one entitled ‘Honey Moon’ in the poster and dramatic sword fights. Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on 23 August 1796 that she had arrived safely in London and that “We are to be at Astley’s tonight, which I am glad of.” Unfortunately there is no letter describing what she saw, but she sends lovers Harriet Smith and Robert Martin to Astley’s in Emma and Harriet “could dwell on it all with the utmost delight.”

As well as the ring  the Amphitheatre had a stage with a proscenium arch linked to it by ramps allowing dramatic gallops from ring to stage. By the time the building was destroyed by fire again in 1803 Astley could afford to rebuild on a far more impressive scale as the print of 1803 [“*57-1633, Houghton Library, Harvard University”] shows.

Astley died in 1814 but the Amphitheatre continued to be wildly popular and would include crowd-pleasing shows recreating the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Astley also contributed to the development of the circus  by taking shows on tour in the summer months to wooden amphitheatres he’d had constructed throughout Britain and in eighteen cities on the Continent. He died in Paris and is buried there. The 1803 building lasted until a third fire in 1841. Charles Dickens describes it in Sketches By Boz as “delightful, splendid and surprising.” It was rebuilt in 1862 as the New Westminster Theatre Royal, but demolished in 1893.

 

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