Londina Illustrata. Graphic and Historical Memorials of Monasteries, Churches, Chapels, Schools, Charitable Foundations, Palaces, Halls, Courts, Processions, Places of Early Amusement, and Modern Present Theatres, in the Cities and Suburbs of London and Westminster, Volume 2Wilkinson, Robert
Astley's Amphitheatre, Westminster Road.
Previous to the erection of any building on this spot, Philip Astley, father of the present proprietor, having hired the ground for equestrian performances, in the year , put up a few deal boards in front of the road, and commenced his exhibition of feats of horsemanship, assisted by the music of a drum and fifes. The price of admission to the space without the railing of the ride was sixpence, and the horsemanship was relieved occasionally by tumbling and other agility of the body, the clown to which was a person named Porter, who continued with Mr. Astley several seasons. The novelty of the entertainment drew a vast concourse of spectators, and the road on that side the way was impassable in the afternoon (the performances being in the daytime), from the number of children and others that attended to get a peep at the exhibition through the apertures of the deal partition. The success of his season enabled Mr. Astley to inclose more conveniently his ride, and assisted by a slight covering he commenced his evening amusements, consisting of the Liliputian World, or Chinese Shadows, transparent fireworks, horsemanship, slack-rope vaulting, tumbling, Polanders' tricks, &c., &c., &c. In the mornings, the Amphitheatre was used as a riding-school; and Mr. Astley met with great encouragement from the nobility and gentry as a riding-master, the knowledge of which art he acquired when a light-horseman in General Elliot's regiment.
Mr. Astley, jun., as a boy, was an excellent rider, but was by no means so successful on the stage, where he, until within these few years, performed in pieces of serious action. Mrs. Astley from her infancy was a very successful exhibitor on horseback, and was for many seasons the heroine of the serious pantomimes.
In , Mr. John Horner, head carpenter, was killed by an explosion of gunpowder used in preparing some fireworks, which buried him in the ruins.
. In the morning the Theatre and adjoining houses were destroyed by fire. The horses alone were saved.
. John Astley married Miss Hannah Waldo Smith.
. About half-past in the morning, the Theatre with nearly houses was consumed by fire: everything was lost except the horses. But the most distressing circumstance was the loss of Mrs. Woodham, Mrs. Astley's mother. She was seen at the pair of stairs window of the dwelling-house in front, and a ladder was raised to extricate her. She appeared to intimate she had forgot something; which, it is conjectured, was the receipts of the previous nights' performance (left in her care), and retreated for it, and almost immediately returned to the window; but the very instant she appeared, the floor fell in, and she was lost. This lady was about years of age, came out at , , as Rosetta, in Love in a Village, in which she was very successful, and continued performing at that theatre seasons. She was a pupil of Dr. Arne, and being uncommonly elegant in dress and person, was generally called BUCK Spencer. Miss Spencer afterwards sung at Mary-le-bone Gardens, then went to Ireland, and was a great favourite there many years. She married a Mr. Smith, and afterwards a Mr. Woodham. The neighbouring houses destroyed and damaged, being inhabited by persons of the lower class, who lost their all, occasioned great distress among them. The fire broke out in the lamp-room, occasioned by some sparks from the fireworks used on the previous night falling on the tow. The loss in the Theatre was estimated at , of which only was insured.
Mrs. Astley, sen., died a week previous, and Mr. Astley, sen., was a prisoner of war in France, where he went during the very short peace to look after his property, he having a theatre in Paris. On the of the same month, Astley was permitted, on the score of ill health, to go to Piedmont, from which place he contrived to escape down the Maine, from thence towards the Rhine, and to Husum, where he heard of the loss of his wife and his Theatre.
The present Theatre was immediately built; is feet long and wide in the auditory part, and feet wide behind the curtain; a width very necessary for the horse spectacles which are here exhibited in their proper place.
|It is lighted by a centre chandelier of patent lamps, and chandeliers round the house. The new Theatre was announced , under the patronage of their Royal Highnesses the PRINCE OF WALES and DUKE OF YORK; the words have been lately omitted.|
An annual prize has been given, for near years, of a wherry, to be rowed for by watermen, in honour of His Majesty's birthday. This fully answers the purposes intended; it shows the giver's loyalty, and brings a full house to witness the successful candidate receiving his prize, which is given him in the Theatre, when "God save the King" is sung by the whole company.
In , the season commenced at the usual time (Easter) under the firm of Astley, Davis, and Parker; the partnership was for seasons, and terminated a few weeks back (). During this period, the horse spectacles on the stage have been brought to the highest perfection, and those seasons, with some trifling exceptions, have been more profitable than any preceding ones.
Mr. Astley, sen., died at Paris, , of the gout in his stomach, aged years, and the Theatre became the property of his son. Mr. Astley published some books on horsemanship, and Memoirs of his own life. The late Mrs. Astley appeared on horseback on the stage in the Jubilee, .
Within these years, another accident happened at this Theatre: a neighbour (a sadler) was killed by a stag which was exhibited, and which he was playing with morning in the stables.
The progressive improvement in the performances at this Theatre, may be judged from the following extract of an advertisement of the exhibitions here in the year , shortly after its establishment as an enclosed Theatre for evening entertainments: "Astley's Amphitheatre Riding House, . This and every evening, will be presented the following pleasing amusements, with many new additions never exhibited in London. Doors to be opened at half past , to begin at half past o'clock precisely. Admittance. Box Upper Box Pit Side Gallery Part I. will consist of the Liliputian World, or Chinese Shadows: the whole being adapted to the place of exhibition. Scene I. A curious Opera Dancer, with all the new Attitudes in a comic Dance called the Dutch Woman. Scene II. The Dock Yard, with a Representation of the several Artists at work on a large Ship, to conclude with a Song on Admiral Rodney's Victory over the Spaniards, by Mr. Connel. Scene III. The Lion Catchers. Scene IV. The Broken Bridge, with a Song by Mr. Wilkinson. Scene V. The Duck Hunters. Scene VI. The Storm, &c. The whole of the above exhibition to conclude with a Hornpipe, in a most extraordinary manner. Between the acts of the Chinese Shadows, will be presented an exhibition called the Theatre of Florence, representing several frontispieces of beautiful fireworks, which have been displayed in different parts of Europe. Part III. Horsemanship on a single Horse, by Mr. Griffin, Mr. Jones, Mr. Miller, &c. Part IV. Tumbling and other agility of body, by Mr. Nevit, Mr. Porter, Mr. Dawson, Mr. Garmon. Clown, Mr. Burt. Part V. Horsemanship on and horses, in a manner truly entertaining. Part VI. Slack Rope Vaulting on full swing in different attitudes. Part VII. Polanders' Tricks on Chairs, Ladders, &c. Part VIII. The Clown on Horseback, with several parts of Horsemanship burlesqued. Part IX. The Taylor riding on the Dancer, the Hunter, and Road Horse. The whole to conclude with the amazing performance of Men piled on Men, or the Egyptian Pyramids."
All sorts of phenomena have been exhibited here; a lady with hair that lay several feet on the ground walked round the ring attended with candles by Mr. Astley, sen.; very short and tall men and women, particularly a Dutch dwarf, Wybrand Lolkes, from Aelst, in West Friesland; grimaciers, the monstrous craws, Cherokees, Indian chiefs, Catabaws, dancing dogs, and the wonderful monkey, General Jacko.
The representation of the Bastile was a very early stage representation here; and so extremely imperfect was it, that caricatures were put forth in the magazines of the performance, with a man bringing on a banner, stating, "This is a draw-bridge;" an explanation often necessary to stage representation at that period.
Mr. Astley for many years explained the different exhibitions to the audience; and not being gifted with the happiest orthography, gave great delight to the Gallery and Pit, and afforded ample scope for several successful mimicking imitators. Shortly after its establishment, the Riding House title was dropped, and it was called , or .
Title page of Vol. 2 reads: Theatrum illustrata. Graphic and historic memorials of ancient playhouses, modern theatres and other places of public amusement in the cities and suburbs of London & Westminster with scenic and incidental illustrations from the time of Shakspear to the present period.