Before Roupell Street, there was Halfpenny Hatch – a handy cut through what were then fields. Here, on Easter Monday 1768, cavalry hero Philip Astley and his wife Patty, a talented rider herself, staged their first show of “activity on horseback”.
Newspaper adverts of the time boast daring feats, promising Mr Astley “sword in hand, as in real action” picking up items from the ground “at full speed” whilst Mrs Astley “leaps between the horses… she rides two horses with one foot in each saddle, she fires a pistol”.
This trick riding was popular and the Astleys had rivals, but their genius was to hit on the idea of adding other acts like acrobats and clowns – creating what we know as circus.
Admission cost 6d (2½p) to stand, a shilling (5p) for a seat, or 2 shillings (10p) for a seat under cover.
The Astleys were reputedly raking in 40 guineas a day – in today’s money, that would be heading towards £2 million a year.
Unsurprisingly, after just one season they had enough to build an amphitheatre a short distance away, where St Thomas’ Hospital now stands.
It remained for almost a century. And the showbiz tradition lives on in the many theatres, concert halls and other entertainments which dominate this part of central London.