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The Elephant in the Ginnel!

The History of the Circus

The way people spend their leisure time has changed over time. We now spend a lot of time online, watching films and television, listening to music, as well as going to festivals, gigs, the cinema, parks, sports events and the circus. Can you think of other ways people spend their leisure time now?


Poster for Fossetts Grand Circus printed in mainly red and blue ink on pink paper.  In the centre is a drawing of two men holding a Union Jack to catch a girl doing a summersault above, while a horse runs underneath the flag.
Poster for Fossetts Grand Circus

250 years ago, in 1768, on an abandoned patch of land in London, showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley drew out a circle in the ground and filled it with astounding physical acts. There were jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strong men, bareback riders and other performers. This was the world’s very first circus and ever since going to the circus has been a popular past time.

Philip’s amphitheatre used a 42 foot diameter arena, which is now the standard size of a circus performance ring.

Find out more about Philip Astley’s life, times, and the development of circus.


Circus themed Snakes and Ladders with a clown balancing a ball, a tight-rope walker, a pig in a barrel and a dog jumping through a hoop.
Circus themed Snakes and Ladders

The collection at Leeds Museums and Galleries include a range of circus themed toys, illustrating the enduging popularity of the circus through time, and especially with children.


1960s card game 'Old Maid' with circus theme, including acts such as knife thrower, rope walker and performing seal.  The back of the cards show  "Old Maid" with background of dots in red on white.
1960 Circus Themed card game 'Old Maid'