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Astley's Olympic Pavilion

The year 1803 was disastrous for Philip Astley. On September 1st, a fire destroyed Astley's Amphitheater and forty adjacent houses. Astley is in France at the time, held prisoner since May 20th. The declaration of war between France and England (end of the Amiens Treaty on May 18th, 1803) and  the subsequent Napoleonic wars no longer allow him to truly exploit his Parisian establishment. In short, Astley loses his two establishments in three months.

He rebuilds Astley's  for it to reopen the following season and, to benefit from the complementarity of a second location as used to be his Parisian establishment, he wishes to open a second place and settle in the heart of London. He writes to the Lord Chamberlain - who managed the theatrical licenses - in order to obtain the right to present a show dedicated to carousel riding: Haute École exercises accompanied by music. The support of the Duke of York allows him to obtain his license even though it is extremely difficult to open new theaters in the major theater district. Indeed, to avoid increasing competition in the vicinities of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, no new theatre is meant to settle in their district. So they say.

In September 1806, Astley inaugurates the Olympic Pavilion, first a relatively precarious building followed by a solid construction. Director of two establishments and authorized to settle in the central theater district, Astley operates a real move upmarket of his show which he has been able to operatre based upon what we can sum up as "the equestrian argument". In barely over twenty years, he has  gained legitimacy and respectability which not only put him as the sole protagonist of London horse shows and entertainment but set his place among the essential leisure and theatrical establishments of the capital. However, success is not so simple.




Philip Astley, Ecole de Mars, Olympic Pavilion 1808

As Astley expresses it in his request of December 3, 1804 to the authorities (doc. 1), his intention, in opening a second establishment, is to introduce equestrian exercises accompanied by music such as never practiced in England. He explains in particular that he has developed such a method, the virtues of which he praises in his treatise published in 1801 and of which he has just republished an abridged version  (Astley's System of Equestrian Education ). In 1804, France and Great Britain are at peace again. French fashion is in vogue in London and, above all, the traditional French equestrian art, although far from English practices, remains a major reference.

For lack of leaving a written trace in the reedition of his work, giving to see what he himself puts into practice allows to contribute to the diffusion of knowledge without risking to offend those who distrust the sempiternal enemy. To show the art in the French way is thus at the same time original and fashionable. This is exactly what he did from 1806 onwards. A print of 1808 represents, in the Olympic Pavilion, his famous minuet L'Ecole de Mars where horses and riders interpret a cotillion and a "country dance", a poorly adapted translation of the French "contredanse" exactly in the spirit of his project submitted to the Lord Chamberlain four years earlier.

The influence of the French Haute École and manège exercises is not the only continental imprint of his equestrian show. Ecole de Mars is a name probably inspired by the eponymous school created during the French Revolution (from June to October 1794), when Astley was in Paris. This school, located in the Plaine des Sablons, was intended to train young citizens in the newly born Republic values and above all to provide them with military instruction, particularly equestrian - explaining why the riding school was named after the Roman God of war. The Thermidorian Convention fearing that this experiment could be a pretext to feed and structure the forces of Robespierre, put an end to the experiment.


By orienting his London show primarily towards manège riding (riding inside) rather than theatrical riding, Astley made a distinctive turn, with Haute Ecole andmanège exercises giving his show a noble vocation. If it is a means of guaranteeing complementarity with its Lambeth establishment for operating two distinct registers of horse shows, these new exercises also influence in return the Astley's show:  the same performances are also represented on the other side of the Thames as Astley constantly alternates the performances of one and the other place. Complementary, the Olympic Pavilion is therefore an extension of Astley's Amphitrheatre. Philip Astley operated the Olympic Pavilion for seven years which actually turned out to be more or less flourishing. He decided to hand over the establishment in 1813 to Robert Elliston (doc.2), a few months before dying in 1814.

Key dates

1806 (Dec 1): Opening of the Olympic Pavilion , Wych street, Strand, also known as the Olympic Saloon

1807: Astley's New Olympic Pavilion

1808: Astley's Pavilion known as The Pavilion

1813: sale to Robert W. Elliston

1813 (April 19): opened edited by Elliston as  Little Drury Lane then The Olympic Theatre  (1814)  

1818: Elliston remains owner  The Olympic but sells the license while he himself was able to acquire that of Drury Lane. A series of directors follow one another

1826: Elliston sells The Olympic  to John Scott (then owner the  Adelphi Theatre) . Outstanding direction (success) of Mme Vestris (1831-1839)

1849: The Olympic fire

1899: definitive closure of The Olympic

Demande de Astley pour lancer un nouveau spectacle équestre à Londres, 1804.
Astley to the Lord Chamberlain Olympic Pavilion

See also about Astley...

Astley's Amphitheater
Philip Astley Publications 
Locations: map of circuses in London
Astley's Toy Theaters
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