Have you ever been to the Circus? They're a little different now from how they were before. This is a poster from 1838 advertising Astley's Circus and their brand new act, American animal trainer Isaac Van Amburgh (1811-1865).
Animals played a big role in circus entertainment in the Victorian era, the British Empire had begun to stretch across the globe bringing British men and women closer than ever to wild animals such as lions and tigers. Some of the people who travelled the empire caught these animals and brought them home. The British public were fascinated with these new wild creatures and the circuses were a good place to come and see them.
Animal trainers like Van Amburgh used harsh methods to train the animals to do tricks. Supposedly Van Ambrugh is the first person to put his head into a lion's mouth in the name of entertainment.
Things to think about:
- Why do you think circuses were so popular in Victorian Britain?
- Do you think it was cruel to use animals for entertainment?
- How does this circus differ from the ones we have today?
Popular entertainment was a growing industry in 19th Century Britain. This article from the British Library discusses why there was a sudden rise in popular entertainment following the industrial revolution.
This resource can be used in a number of ways, it is a great way to introduce students to leisure in imperial Britain and the social impacts of the Empire. As well as this it could be a great point of inspiration for a creative writing piece or a piece of art.
- This lively poster for Astley’s Circus in Westminster puts the emphasis on the circus’s new star performer, American animal trainer Isaac Van Amburgh (1811-1865). Reputedly the first person to stick his head between a lion’s jaws in the name of entertainment, Van Amburgh used a mixture of determination, skill and outright cruelty to first tame and then exhibit a selection of big cats for public amusement. Shortly after this performance, he would establish his menagerie as a touring attraction in his own right, eventually performing for Queen Victoria in 1844. The queen was so impressed that she commissioned Edward Landseer to paint an oil portrait of Van Amburgh. This portrait is now part of the Royal Collection at Windsor. Astley’s Circus was one of the most famous and innovative circuses in the world at this time. Founded in 1868 by Philip Astley, an expert equestrian, it was the first circus to stage its events in a ring with the audience seated all round. Charles Dickens visited this incarnation of Astley’s Circus several times during the 1830s, and wrote about it in his Sketches by Boz (1836).
- Have you ever been to the Circus? They're a little different now from how they were before. This is a poster from 1838 advertising Astley's Circus and their brand new act, American animal trainer Isaac Van Amburgh (1811-1865).