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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > June 2018 > Father of the Circus

Father of the Circus

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, roll up, roll up and join Pat Kinsella behind the scenes at Philip Astley’s amphitheatre, as we celebrate 250 years of the circus
Over 100 years before PT Barnum of The Greatest Showman fame, Philip Astley’s shows set the stage for the modern-day circus


The diameter of Astley’s performance arena, which remains the international standard for circuses to this day.

This year, Hugh Jackman bamboozled cinemagoers around the world with his all-singing, all-dancing depiction of the legendary American ringmaster, freak-show pimp and snake-oil salesman, PT Barnum, in The Greatest Showman. But entertainment aficionados who prefer the big top to the big screen are celebrating another very significant character, as the 250th anniversary of the modern-day circus rolls around.

Because, although Barnum is often perceived as the popular pioneer of travelling curiosity shows, the under-canvas, circle-based shenanigans that we all associate with the circus were actually conceived and combined just over 100 years before Barnum established his Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome in 1871 – which, after a merger in 1881, would become the famed Barnum & Bailey Circus. The true father of the phenomenon emerged from the coal mines, cotton mills and market towns of northern England, not in a puff of smoke from the razzmatazz of America.

At six feet tall – a giant for his time – the original ringman Philip Astley did not blend into a crowd easily
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About History Revealed

In this month's issue… Hitler's rise to power How a failed painter on the fringes of local politics managed to hoodwink a nation and become - against all likelihood - the Fürher. Plus: 250 years of the circus; the Kingmaker's comeuppance in the War of the Roses battle of Barnet; famous folk who died broke in spite of their achievements; women who fought against the suffragette movement; and the strangely enthralling history of the toilet. Watch out for X.