Tuesday, February 16, 2021

What a Circus!

Many Regency romances, my own included, mention Astley’s Amphitheatre as a place where equestrian feats could be enjoyed. But there was another theatre that rivaled it for a time, a theatre that could not quite make up its mind what it wanted to be.

South of London's Blackfriar’s Bridge, on Great Surry Street stood the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy. Opened in 1782, burned down in 1806 and rebuilt, the Royal Circus was initially a collaboration between Charles Didbin, who wrote plays, songs, and pantomimes, and Charles Hughes, a trick rider who had trained under Philip Astley and became his chief rival. Besides a variety of animal acts, they hired children to perform in various plays and musical numbers Didbin created. Didbin dreamed of the place being a training ground for young actors.

Unfortunately, the theatre didn’t do as well as he’d hoped. In 1809, new management converted it to a theatre proper, the Surrey Theatre. In the picture you can see that the arena for the horses has been opened to a form of standing pit for patrons, though the ground still appears to be dirt to me. Good thing, too, for  another change in management saw the theatre converted back to a circus in 1814, a format it kept until 1827.

But just south of the Royal Circus on Great Surry Street was another. St. George’s Circus was one of London’s first traffic circles or roundabouts as they call them in my neck of the woods. Built in 1771, the center featured an obelisk with four oil lamps. It was inscribed to King George and marked the distances to key landmarks such as Palace Yard, London Bridge, and Fleet Street. Though it was removed at one point late in the 19th century, it has now been returned (without its lamps).

So, you can still go to the circus south of Blackfriar's Bride, if you like.

No comments: