Tracing circus ancestors: Q&A with genealogist & book author Steve Ward


09 April 2018
Screen-Shot-2018-04-09-at-10.43.30-25476.png Interior of Astley's, c1810, reproduced by the Dutch Dairy Bureau in the 1950s for its album, 'The Colourful World of the Circus'
As we mark 250 years of the modern circus, learn about the life of the British man credited with 'inventing' the genre as we know it today, and find out how to start tracing your own circus folk who kept the show on the road

Steve Ward chats to Family Tree about his new book, Father of the Modern Circus, 'Billy Buttons': The Life and Times of Philip Astley, published exactly 250 years after British equestrian, war hero and entrepreneur Philip Astley first pegged out a circle on the banks of the River Thames and invented what we would today consider to be the circus...


Q How did you discover Philip Astley’s story and what inspired you to write a book about his life?

A I have had a life-long interest in the circus so I knew a little about how Philip Astley was at the forefront of developing the genre of circus. However, it was not until I began researching for my earlier book, Beneath the Big Top; A Social History of the Circus in Britain, that I became really interested in the man. With 2018 being the 250th anniversary of Astley’s first performances of trick riding and equestrianism, it seemed the opportune time to write a definitive biography of his colourful life and to bring him to the attention of the public.


Q Astley was the British PT Barnum, and in fact pre-dated him as a performer, yet relatively few British people are familiar with his name, despite him even being mentioned in Dickens. Why do you think this is?

A I don’t think that we have really truly celebrated the circus before this year in the UK and I think that this has been as a result of image. Circus has been seen as a vulgar form of entertainment, in the truest sense of the word meaning related to the people. It is a part of our popular cultural heritage yet, in the past, it has been very much looked down upon. Although everyone knows what a circus is, the majority of people know little about its fascinating history, including that of Astley. Things are changing now and circus is becoming more acceptable. The Circus 250 celebrations this year will hopefully make people more aware of the circus and the debt that is owed to Philip Astley.


The Greatest Showman film arrived in cinemas to great acclaim recently. Why do you think the image of the circus is so enduring? And what would be the stand-out fact that would astonish most people today about the circus in Astley's time?

A Stop anyone in the street and ask them what a circus is, and you will get a definite answer of one form or another. It will be a rarity to find someone who has no idea at all. The circus is ingrained in our popular culture, we all seem to share a common psyche in relation to the circus. Circus is all around us and yet we don’t always register it. It appears on posters; in art work; in books; in advertising; on paper ephemera such as stamps and postcards; objects; toys; the list goes on. It has even infiltrated our language. How often do we hear of someone having to ‘juggle the finances’ or ‘walking a fine wire’. How often have I been told to ‘stop clowning around’! And these are just a few examples.  


The circus knows no barriers of gender, ethnicity, language, culture, ability, or age. When Astley gave his first performances he did so with his wife and infant son. The growth of the circus allowed women to compete, and often succeed, in a male dominated world – a very important fact in this centenary year of the emancipation of women. Many female circus performers were at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights. Circus is an art form for everyone, and will continue to be so.


Q How long have you been a genealogist and what first attracted you to family history studies?

A I first became interested in genealogy over 30 years ago. On the day of my grandfather’s funeral a very old and battered family photograph album was produced and I became intrigued by these figures from the past. Fortunately I was able to ask my great aunt who they were and she was able to identify many, but not all. This started me on a quest to find out more about the past members of the family. Like many beginners I suppose I wanted to find as many ancestors as I could but over the years I have become far more interested in the lives and social history of individuals, from the ubiquitous 'Ag Lab' through to a pioneer settler and a well-known actor. It is an absorbing way of uncovering the past.


Q As a genealogist, author, former performer and circus educator, you are uniquely placed to write this book! How do you feel about being able to bring all your passions together in one project?

A I acknowledge that I am very lucky to have the opportunity to write about a subject I have a passion for (some people might say it is an obsession). Although I have drawn upon a wide range of personal experience it has also been a journey of discovery. There is always something new to discover, even if you think that you know something well. It’s this that makes such a project a worthwhile and rewarding experience.


Q What genealogical records did you draw upon while researching your book and what was your favourite?

A My researches covered a whole range of genealogical records and resources, both in the UK and in Europe. The usual online parish records, and marriage bonds and licenses were invaluable; as were wills and testaments, and apprenticeship records. Researching old newspapers through the online British Newspaper Archive was fascinating, but what was most rewarding were my visits to the Parliamentary Archive and the British Library where I was able to handle actual documents relating to Astley. I think my favourite was a letter written from France in 1786 by his wife Patty to a friend in London, in which she details what life was really like for them at that time.


Q What surprised you most in your findings?

A A popular history has grown around Philip Astley yet little is known of his early life. It is commonly accepted that he was born in Newcastle under Lyme in 1742 and that he ran away from home in 1759 to join the 15th Dragoons in Coventry. I was therefore very surprised to find a copy of the inscription on his grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris that labels him ‘as a native of Manchester’.


I also discovered evidence that places the Astley family in London during the 1750s, which would make sense as the majority of 15th Dragoon recruits came from the London area. So I hope my findings will not be too controversial!

Q How would you describe Philip Astley in a nutshell? And, if you could meet him today, what would you say to him?

A Philip Astley was a larger than life figure, standing well over 6ft, with a girth to match. He was loud of voice and loud of manner but there is something about him that draws you to him. I would just like to have the opportunity to shake his hand and say ‘well done’!

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Q What is the best advice you could give to any other family historians thinking of embarking on a similar book project?

A I think thorough research from as many different sources as possible and assiduous note keeping are essential. Be patient and be prepared for surprises, and then stand by what you have discovered.



You may also be interested in this article: Top tips for writing your family history story



Q Are you involved in any Circus 250 events this year? How would you like him to be remembered?

A Yes, I was instrumental in setting up a circus exhibition at the Leeds City Library and I did all the historical research for the ‘Big Top Leeds’ walking map of the city centre. This takes visitors to the 10 sites that were used for circuses in the city during the 19th and 20th centuries.


I am giving regular talks on circus history and I am also involved in a Victorian Circus project for November this year in Leeds. I think that the fact that circus celebrations are taking place all over the country are the best tributes to Astley that we can have – but please can we have some form of statue or memorial to him in London!


Q You have penned a number of books, what is next for you? Any sneak peeks of future projects?

A I have a few ideas I am playing around with at the moment. Last September I catalogued a large collection of forgotten 19th century circus posters held by the Wakefield Library. They have allowed me to extract the images from the posters so at present I am compiling an annotated book of nineteenth century circus poster art. I hope that this will be completed later this year.


Steve's top 3 resources for researching circus ancestors:


1 Tracing a circus ancestor can be tricky. If you only have a name to start with then an exploration of census returns might give a clue to your ancestor’s occupation. Terms such as acrobat, circus proprietor, circus artist, and equestrian rider are specifically circus occupations. But do not discount other roles such as variety artist, stage actor and performer.


2 If you know the circus they performed with then the British Newspaper Archive (also at Findmypast) is an invaluable source.


3 The National Fairground and Circus Archive in Sheffield has a large repository of circus-related material. Some of this is now online but I would recommend a visit to the archive.


Father of the Modern Circus: 'Billy Buttons' by Steve Ward is being published in paperback by Pen & Sword Books on 30 April 2018, RRP £12.99; introductory offer at time of writing, £10.39 (ISBN: 9781526706874). Read our review in the May 2018 issue of Family Tree.