Andrew Ducrow: The Colossus of Equestrians

Andrew Ducrow was a British circus performer who because of his horsemanship was often called “The Colossus of Equestrians.” He had been trained by his father, Peter, an emigrant from Belgium, who had arrived in England in 1793 and was known for many years as the “Flemish Hercules.” Of him it was stated:

“He could hold between his teeth … from the ground a table upon which had been stationed four or five of his children. Lying upon his back he could with his hands and feet support a platform upon which stood no less than eighteen grenadiers fully armed and in marching order.”[1]

It was under his father’s tutelage that Andrew Ducrow learned tumbling, riding, and rope dancing. Also, because of his father, one of Ducrow’s earliest performances happened in the presence of George III. It took place at a fete given at Frogmore when Ducrow was seven. He was remarkable for his age and he continued to improve so that by the age of fifteen he was considered the “principal” rope dancer and equestrian at Astley’s Amphitheatre, which had been opened in 1773 by Philip Astley and was considered the first modern circus ring.

Interior of Astley’s Ampitheatre in 1808. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for Ducrow, his father died around this time and because of competition by an owner’s son at Astley’s, Andrew Ducrow left to pursue other opportunities on the continent. According to the Leinster Independent:

“Accompanied by his brothers and sisters, and taking with him his famous trick horse Jack, he joined Blondell’s Cirque Olympique, and made his first appearance in Ghent.”[2]

Ducrow was extremely popular with the public. They declared his style “original” and cited his daring “unequalled.” His performances in the ring were graceful, action-packed, and innovative. He therefore became known as the “Colossus of Equestrians” and was also called the “King of Mimics” or “Father of British Circus Equestrianism.” As to his physical characteristics it was reported:

“Ducrow was five feet eight inches in height, of fair complexion, and handsome features. Exceedingly muscular and of prodigious strength, his figure was yet graceful in outline and perfectly symmetrical. He was accomplished as a contortionist, and could twist his shapely limbs into the strangest forms.”[3]

Many people witnessed Ducrow’s talents as he toured the continent. His performances were heaped with praise and declared to be nothing that anyone had ever witnessed on the continent. Moreover, his originality was described jaw dropping and it was reported of him:

“He was the first to introduce into the ring an equestrian pageant or entrée, and his performances upon six ‘bare-backed steeds’… had not been previously attempted. ‘Animated, light, and graceful,’ wrote … a critic, ‘the horseman seduces and enchants us by his elegant agility. He absolutely sports with the rules of states, and gravity has no central point for him. Sometimes like an aerial being you would suppose him ready to take an easy flight. Sometimes stooping over the arena he remains suspended in space, a prodigy of equilibrium. His rapid courser is the pedestal on which he erects every form and assumes every attitude; the Mercury of Phidias, ready to take wing; the Gladiator of admirable proportions; the lover of Flora with Cupid in his arms disporting in a garland of flowers.’”[4]

With such praise, people couldn’t wait to witness his act in person. When visitors attended his performances, they were not disappointed. In fact, his act was so noteworthy it captured the attention of Antonio Franconi, who had started as a juggler and then became associated with Philip Astley. Franconi then founded an equestrian theater in Paris named the Cirque Olympique, which acquired an impressive reputation.

Andrew Ducrow - performance at Franconi's

Performance at Franconi’s Cirque Olympique. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Franconi made Andrew Ducrow an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he became an enormous hit in Paris. Everyone was talking about Ducrow and in fact “several journals teemed with panegyrics of the most flattering kind, [and it was reported] he left the theatre … nightly crowned with fresh laurels and laden with increased treasure.”[5]

Andrew Ducrow in Zamba role.

Andrew Ducrow in the role of of Zamba while performing at the Cirque Olympique. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Amidst such success, Andrew Ducrow married in 1818 a Miss Griffith, a female rider said to be accomplished and of “remarkable beauty.” He soon after decided to create his own circus group and left Franconi and Paris behind. With his wife, his brother John (who served as a clown), his sister Amelia (later known as Mrs. Broadfoot who functioned as a “graceful performer”), and ten horses, they traveled to Lyons, the birthplace of the famous French socialite Madame Récamier.

There Andrew Ducrow joined with a dramatic company and found immense success. In fact, he was praised by critics, with one stating:

“To these prodigies of agility and address is united a grace which constitutes the highest merit in the eye of all who entertain a proper sense of the genuine principles of art, and who know that in feats of dexterity and even of strength the chief merit does not lie in surmounting of difficulty. But what exalts the exercises of M. Ducrow to the honourable rank of the imitative art are the scenes, I might almost say the dramas, which he performs in mute language. The truth, the animation, all, in short, which comprehends the beauty of pantomime, are rendered still more astonishing by being exhibited, as it were, in the air, and in the midst of the rapid motion which hurries along both the courser and his guide. Here, indeed, the difficulty overcome renders the perfection of talent sill more admirable. … He has now appear[ed] as a worthy rival of Madame Sacqui, Revel, Foriso, Cabanel, and all the boldest funambilists we ever beheld.”[6]

Unfortunately, despite all the praise for his performance, soon after his arrival a fatal accident happened with his show. Authorities then forbid his circus to appear for three weeks. According to the Leinster Independent:

“[During a military spectacle] one of the soldiers had fired away his ramrod, and fatally wounded a woman in the gallery. Further, the manager of the Royal Theatre, finding his entertainment neglected, threatened to close his doors if Ducrow’s displays persisted. … Matters, however, were accommodated upon Ducrow’s consenting to pay one-fifth of his receipts to the Royal Theatre, and to devote one-tenth to the poor.”[7]

Ducrow found that there were other performers competing against him and he was not about to beaten in the ring. He began to think about creating a show that would counter an attraction staged by a Monsieur Mazurier, a “famous man-monkey” whose agility was well known and who mimicked an ape by “evincing the most perfect knowledge on his original.”[8] Furthermore, Mazurier did not allow his audience to think that they were seeing anything but a real ape and Andrew Ducrow decided he could mimic Mazurier’s ape movements and create something spectacular.

“Ducrow forthwith announced that he would perform on horseback, riding at full speed, every feat that Mazurier was accustomed to accomplish on a stationary stage. His benefit attracted an enormous crowd [and he was a tremendous success]. He was presented with a gold medal by the Duchess d’Angoulème, and with numberless silver spurs, decorated whips, and a sets of harnesses by his other admirers.”[9]

Andrew Ducrow - his competition Monsieur Mazurier

Monsieur Mazurier in the character of Punchinello. Courtesy of V&A Collections.

In 1823, Drury Lane featured “The Cataract of the Ganges” a romantic equestrian melodrama. Covent Garden therefore decided that they needed a similar horse spectacle and hired Andrew Ducrow and his horses to appear in their production, “Cortez, or the Conquest of Mexico.” It was contrived by British dramatist James Robinson Planché but was unable to compete against “The Cataract” partly because Planché prided himself on his “fidelity to history.”

Andrew Ducrow as a Spanish bull fighter

Andrew Ducrow as a Spanish bull fighter. Courtesy of V&A collections.

Andrew Ducrow then soon reappeared at Astley’s where he became a proprietor and helped Astley’s to rise in popularity. His shows were also patronized by King William IV, who soon enabled Ducrow to perform in private by creating an area in the pavilion at Brighton where he could witness Ducrow’s ability first-hand and up close.

Ducrow was said to be fearless in the ring. It was reported that he would not ask any of his performers to do something that he wouldn’t do himself. In fact, because he lived in a private house next to the theatre, he would often show up in his dressing gown and slippers to supervise preparations for the evening’s performance. Accordingly:

“On one occasion a rope-dancer, who was announced to ascend from the stage to upper gallery, declined to perform the feat, alleging that the rope was insecure. ‘You’re afraid of hurting yourself, I suppose,’ said Ducrow. ‘Well, I am not pretty and I’ve nothing to fear. Give me the pole.’ And ‘accountred’ as he was he ascended and descended the rope in safety. After this exploit … the performer could no longer hesitate.”[10]

Like Madame Tussaud and others, Andrew Ducrow also believed in marketing himself and his show. One way he did this was through handbills that touted the benefits of his act while at the same time bashing his competitors. Indicative of this is the following handbill Ducrow generated:

“Extraordinary Equestrian and Gymnastic Arab Feats! Surpasses anything of the kind ever produced! The public are respectfully informed that these are not the four black men who play without their shoes and stockings at the west-end of town, but upwards of forty British artists that challenge all Europe, for talent, variety, extraordinary feats of manly skill and activity, and who nightly receive thunders of applause from crowded audiences, and do not play to a dozen of daily loungers. The union of talent and Arab spectacles of this establishment does not confine itself to the tumbling of four great ugly blacks, who have been refused an engagement at Astley’s because there are so many superior and extraordinary men of our own country nearly starving, and compelled to perform on an open race-course for a penny, whilst those four men can get one hundred pounds per week because they are black and foreigners!

The reader, no doubt, has witnessed boys running alongside of a coach, doing what is termed cat-in-wheels, and turning forespinings with one hand and then the other, or throwing summersaults from a sand bank. Such is the grand performances of these saunters … Of course no lady or respectable persons can sit and see this!

These blacks, with the men who take half their money, applied at Bow-street to ask if they could prevent Astely’s from using the word ‘Arab exercises,’ for that the public went every night and filled Astley’s and never came to see them at all! Why of course, the public are the best judges, and know the difference between seeing a spectacle in character, produced with splendour, to introduce the talents of the flying man, the equilibrists, elastic tumblers, the antipodeans, jugglers, dancers, men and horses, tableaux, the groups of trained horses and other novelties! But come, see, and judge for yourselves for this is only a small part of Astley’s entertainments.”[11]

In 1834 Ducrow’s brother John died and two years later Ducrow’s wife died at Newcastle. Ducrow was lonely and soon married a famous equestrian at Astley’s, a Miss Woolford, with whom he had three children ― Peter, Andrew, and Louisa. Things were good for time, but on 8 June 1841 Astley’s Amphitheatre was destroyed by a fire. It broke out early in the morning and attempts to subdue it failed. Although Ducrow and his family narrowly escaped, a servant perished in the flames as did some “fifty horses, two zebras, and a few asses and mules.”[12]  

Andrew Ducrow, who “had been long subject to violent nervous attacks,”[13] suffered a mental breakdown afterwards, and although he had periods of lucidity, he died on 27 January 1842 in York Road, Lambeth. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, where his deceased wife was also buried. In addition, he left the sum of eight hundred pounds to be expended on a monument designed by a Mr. Danson to his memory. The epitaph was written by his widow. He also left two hundred pounds with the interest from it to provide for the perpetual purchase of flowers to adorn his grave. Of his monument the Leinster Independent reported:

“This monument, one of the most remarkable contained in the cemetery, is a curious Egyptian-looking structure of large size and lavish ornamentation. Plants encircle it, and do something to screen and to relieve its excessive embellishments. The inscriptions runs: ‘Within this tomb, erected by genius of the reception of its own remains, are deposited those of Andrew Ducrow, whose death deprived the arts and sciences of an eminent professor and liberal patron; his family of an affectionate husband and father; and the world of an upright man.’”[14]

Andrew Ducrow’s monument in Kensal Green Cemetery. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Leinster Independent, “Andrew Ducrow,” February 24, 1872, p. 7.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Leinster Independent, “Andrew Ducrow,” March 2, 1872, p. 7.
  • [4] Leinster Independent, February 24, 1872, p. 7.
  • [5] Yorkshire Gazette, “The Late Mr. Andrew Ducrow,” February 5, 1842, p. 3.
  • [6] Leinster Independent, February 24, 1872, p. 7.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Belle Assemblée: Or, Court and Fashionable Magazine; Containing Interesting and Original Literature, and Records of the Beau-monde (London: J. Bell, 1825), 272
  • [9] Leinster Independent, February 24, 1872, p. 7.
  • [10] Leinster Independent, March 2, 1872, p. 7.
  • [11] All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal v. 7 (London: Chapman & Hall, 1872), p. 227.
  • [12] Leinster Independent, March 2, 1872, p. 7.
  • [13] Waterford Mail, “Will of the Late Andrew Ducrow,” February 26, 1842, p. 1.
  • [14] Leinster Independent, March 2, 1872, p. 7.

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