Although destroyed by fire several times and rebuilt, Astley’s Amphitheatre remained a major international venue for circus long after its founder’s death. The establishment reached the peak of its fame in the years 1825-41 under the management of the superlative horseman, Andrew Ducrow (1798-1842). Ducrow raised the spectacle of circus riding to an art form. His exquisite equestrian-based pantomimes and spectacles were imitated in circuses throughout the British Isles, on the Continent, in the new United States and in the new colonies of Australia.
The concept of the modern circus was still a new genre of entertainment when The First Fleet sailed in 1788. Indeed, we may speculate that many of the Fleet’s human cargo had witnessed, or were at least aware of, the delights of Astley’s. But organised popular entertainments were not among the priorities of a penal settlement. Sydney and Hobart Town were not served by regular theatre performances until the 1830s and then only with difficulty. The ropewalkers, gymnasts and equestrians who made occasional appearances as early as 1833 proved transient. Some 60 years passed after the arrival of the First Fleet before the elements necessary to launch a colonial circus industry – bureaucratic largesse, entrepreneurs, performers, audiences and prosperity – fell into place. Of the few settlements along Australia’s coastline, Launceston held the least promise as the foundation place of Australian circus. In 1847, this minor seaport held a population of only some 10 000, most of whom served the town’s penal purpose in some or another. Nevertheless, the location gave birth to the first comprehensive and successful demonstrations of colonial circus activity and, with it, the launch of a colonial circus industry.
There, in 1847, a Devonshire-born equestrian, horse dealer and publican named Robert Avis Radford (1814-65) pioneered the first successful circus in Australia and, with it, a continuous Australian circus tradition. This Astley’s ‘on a limited scale’ was a building of simple construction – presumably timber, iron and canvas – located in the yard of Radford’s Horse & Jockey Inn in York Street. It opened on the evening of Monday, 27 December 1847. With a little company of performers, some of whom were former convicts, Radford presented feats of horsemanship, dancing, vaulting, gymnastics, acrobatics, clowning and equestrian burlesque. The features of Astley’s Amphitheatre and the equestrian art of Andrew Ducrow were thus transposed, on a miniature and probably rougher scale, to this most distant point on the globe.