One of our wonderful Manchester scrapbooks is always referred to as ‘Cambrics’ - a rather curious name which simply describes the original fabric which covered the scrapbook. Within the book is a rich assortment of what the donor refers to as ‘handbills’ which cover topics as diverse as theatrical performances, a set of rules for the Coffee House, notices and reports of political and trade meetings, and a small collection of very early bills advertising local circus performances.
Three of our circus bills advertise the performances of Philip Astley’s ‘troop’. The earliest is dated 5 March 1773 and announces:
‘Horsemanship. Mr Astley and pupils will exhibit their various feats, in a manner quite new and surprising, in a field opposite to Strangeways gardens, this afternoon, being Friday, exactly at three o’clock’. The images of the horses and riders have great charm, although the animals do tend to resemble rocking horses. One of the riders has a banner flying above his head which says ‘I’m only five years old’.
Philip Astley (1742-1814) is usually credited with the invention of the first circus. He had joined the dragoons at the age of 17 and became famous for his prowess at riding and breaking in horses. In 1768 after leaving the army he set up his own riding school and he and his wife began performing various tricks and equestrian feats, for which they charged spectators 6d or a shilling to watch. The business flourished and Astley toured his performers to fairs, markets, race meetings and pleasure gardens all over the country.
Horses moving around a circular space are much easier for equestrian performers, as centrifugal force helps them to balance. Over the years Astley developed covered rings and tiered seating and constructed temporary rings for use when travelling.
Other circus shows in Manchester were from Mr Jones in 1784, whose show was to be staged ‘at the riding school near the Infirmary’ and two bills for the New Circus in 1793. One features Mr Parker ‘on his young charger’ demonstrating for one night only the ‘various evolutions of the Broadsword’. The dramatic image depicts Mr Parker, dressed as a hussar, brandishing his sword on his rearing steed.
We’ve recently had some very good news relating to Cambrics and our circus posters, as the library has received a grant from the Arts Council’s Designation Development Fund which will enable us to digitise our collection of single sheet material (broadsides, ballads and ephemera).