‘An amphitheatre of enormous dimensions’: Batty’s Hippodrome
William Batty (1801-68) was an equestrian performer, probably the most successful circus proprietor in the Victorian age, and for a time the operator of Astley’s Amphitheatre (a highly popular performance venue in London, and a long-lived one too – it opened in 1773 and finally closed in 1893).
In 1850 he acquired land in Kensington Gardens and built a huge oval arena for equestrian and other events; it was just five minutes’ walk from the Crystal Palace, and Batty was hoping to attract at least some of the thousands of visitors to the Great Exhibition. Batty’s Hippodrome could seat 14,000 people in a roofed grandstand surrounding the arena.
Here is an account of some of the performances in 1851 from The Illustrated London News:
‘Mr. Batty has erected a novel kind of circus, calculated to be a rival to his own Astley’s, but for the difference of locality and aim. Opposite the Broad-walk, Kensington Gardens, an amphitheatre of enormous dimensions, under the title of “the Hippodrome,” attracts all lovers of horsemanship. It consists of a circle of boxes and stalls divided by two opposite orchestra stations, which are occupied by two brass bands, who continue playing during the performance and an hour previous. The seats for the audience are covered, but the arena for Equestrian exhibition is open to the air and sky. We are thus carried back to the ancient times of Greece and Rome, and our own Elizabethan era; and the entertainments are suitable to these classical associations. Tournaments, chariot races, Trojan youths and Thessalian steeds, and such reproductions from the days of old, are the prevailing amusements. We believe, indeed, that the bills attempt no delusion in stating, that these exercises are “on a scale of extent and grandeur hitherto unattempted in England.”
‘The artists have been drafted from the Hippodrome at Paris, the principal being M. Louis Soullier, equerry to his Highness the Sultan Medjid of Turkey and the Emperor of Russia, and “his numerous and highly-trained stud of horses” to whom may be added his company. The performance on Wednesday commenced with a pageant representing the meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I on the Field of the Cloth of Gold … The second part was not less interesting. The Brazilian coursers, performed by the three brothers Debach, on four horses each, was a highly exciting scene – presenting a trial of skill emulously carried out. But this was exceeded in interest by that exhibited by three female competitors, in a grand chariot race. The performances concluded with a monkey riding and driving four ponies; dames of the chase, in characteristic costume, on leaping palfreys; M. Frantz Debach, on the globe arienne, a well-known but difficult feat [he travelled up and down a narrow inclined plank balancing on a large ball], and in this instance executed with inimitable grace; and the Corso races by Barbary coursers, an exhibition at the Carnival of Rome. We have omitted to mention an exceedingly amusing race by two ostriches of the desert, with their Arab riders, one of whom was thrown in the experiment.’
Another attraction at Batty’s Hippodrome was the spectacular ascent of the balloon ‘Erin go bragh’, shown in our illustration LP233. This was the first balloon ever to be made in Ireland, and was reputed to be the second biggest balloon in the world.
Batty’s Hippodrome opened for two seasons. After 1852 it became a riding track and riding school, and was demolished after the 1860s.