The First Showman

The Extraordinary Mr Astley, The Englishman Who Invented the Modern Circus

Karl Shaw
The First Showman

Nominated for the 2020 Arnold Bennett Prize

‘One of the most comprehensive and detailed account of Astley and the origins of the circus it has been my pleasure to read.’ David Hibling, Creative Director Zippos Circus

A hugely entertaining, informative history of the man who created the modern circus: Philip Astley. There have been many books about aspects of the circus but never the story of its inventor. Here, New York Times bestselling author Karl Shaw draws on a huge amount of research to tell the story of Britain’s Barnum. He brilliantly evokes the time, the place, the drama, pitfalls, successes, characters and passion behind Astley’s rise to fame and place in the history books. Astley learned his horse-riding skills in the army, before becoming a brilliant innovator of equestrian tricks and spectacles. Astley’s Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts – the world’s first circus – opened 9 January, 1768. In 1769 he put a clown and a strongman in his still-standard 42-ft sawdust ring and opened the world’s first circus. He was invited to perform before King Louis XV of France in 1772, and built France’s first purpose-built circus building, the Amphitheatre Anglais, in Paris. In fact, he established circuses in 20 European cities. Astley’s Amphitheatre was mentioned in books by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, and his name is commemorated in popular songs of the time. He died on 27 January 1814 and was buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. His life is a wonderful story of perseverance and flair on the way to achieving fame.

‘This highly readable book not only adds greatly to our knowledge of Philp Astley but also serves as an invaluable history of the development of the circus during the 19th century.’ Graham Downie, journalist and Chairman of The Fairground Association of Great Britain

‘The definitive work on this enigmatic showman and a wonderful insight into the lives of people and popular entertainment of the late eighteenth century.’ Neil Calladine, writer and circus academic

‘Far more than a mere ‘history’, since it brings the story and the period to life with so much background detail. Congratulations on a very readable and detailed work which is hugely informative to those who haven’t previously studied the foundation of circus.’ Chris Barltrop, circus historian

‘The First Showman is highly readable and the ultimate research book for Philip Astley’s life and legacy.’ The Philip Astley Organisation, Staffordshire University


  • Amberley Publishing UK

Material: finished copies 287pp including 16 page colour illustration section