An Afghan Evening at Astley’s

Circus image

Gosh, time flies. Three years ago I was deep in writing The Buddhas of Bamiyan. I’d reached my favourite part of it, the nineteenth century, when a motley bunch of spies, prisoners, missionaries and dreamers brought the giant Afghan buddhas to the attention of the European public for the first time.

It’s a close call, but for me the most charismatic and interesting of all these visitors to Afghanistan was Lady Sale, a tough, opinionated military wife taken to Bamiyan along with her widowed daughter and baby granddaughter as a prisoner of the Afghans in 1842: I’ve blogged here and here about Florentia Sale, her granddaughter, and the enormous celebrity she enjoyed as a result of her captivity. For a period in 1842-4 Lady Sale was the second-most-famous woman in the British Empire, and when her diary of her time in Afghanistan was published in 1843, A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841-2 was a bestseller.

Lady Sale

Lady Sale encapsulated a lot about the Western encounter with Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. But back in 2011 there was a detail about her I’d seen but ignored, because I didn’t appreciate its significance. In Punch (1845, p.236) a humorous review of the annual exhibition of paintings at the Royal Academy mentioned “No. 33”, “A Portrait of Lady Sale, with whom we had become familiar at ASTLEY’S.” The portrait in question is presumably this one in the Somerset Military Museum in Taunton: it forms a pair with another, by the same artist, of her husband Maj.-Gen. Sir Robert Henry Sale. Astley’s, I knew, was a circus in London, but that was really all I knew.

It was at this moment that I found myself being dragged, not entirely willingly, to a circus performance in a muddy field one Friday evening. It was Gifford’s, and the best night’s entertainment I’d ever had, a “traditional” circus taking its lead from early circuses like Astley’s. Inspired, I did enough reading to establish that, if somebody’s portrait was being exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and that person was also being featured in an Astley’s production, well, they really were a phenomenon. Lady Sale was the toast of the toffs in their salons at one end of Victorian society, and a 24-carat British heroine in the eyes of the very different demographic of the Astley’s audience: Marius Kwint, a scholar of the early circus, describes the “plebeian elite” of “artisans, governesses and small tradespeople” whose domain was Astley’s Amphitheatre (Past & Present 2, p.109).

So Astley’s circus got a sentence in my book. This year, though, my involvement with the circus reached a whole new level. Well, not really, but I did find myself in a rather giggly, star-struck state at Gifford’s HQ discussing circus-friendly classical myths, and how flexible Greco-Roman myth could be (answer: as flexible as you like). Last week the Morgan family went to see the finished product, Gifford’s funny, thrilling and also very beautiful show The Thunders, and I took away a programme containing something like my name for the scrapbook. To cut a long story short, there’s nothing like having a role in a circus production, albeit a vanishingly small one, to reawaken interest in the subject. As I watched the 2014 Gifford’s Circus, my mind turned back to Lady Sale. I needed to find out what Astley’s had made of the heroine of the hour in 1843.

Thunders E-shot

Our most detailed information about this show is in Punch again (Punch felt a strong affinity for circus, and it’s not too hard to see why). I’ll get to that account soon, but some background first. Lady Sale had been taken prisoner by the Afghan leader Akbar Khan in the course of a massacre of British forces retreating from Kabul, during the First Afghan War in early 1842. She and her fellow prisoners, including a daughter widowed in the retreat, and a baby girl born to her daughter in captivity, were finally rescued near Bamiyan in September 1842, but by that time “the Cabul Prisoners” had become a cause célèbre that has been compared to the US Embassy hostages in Tehran in 1979-81, their situation tracked minutely by newspapers, and sometimes illustrated by letters smuggled out from the captives themselves. In the plight of the prisoners the British public seemed to invest its profound anxiety about the Afghan campaign, culminating as it had done in one of the greatest catastrophes British forces ever suffered. When the captives were rescued, in turn, it was felt as a surrogate victory, and the family, Maj.-Gen. and Lady Sale, their daughter Alexandrina Sturt and granddaughter Julia, toured Britain amid great excitement in 1844.

Meanwhile Astley’s Amphitheatre, the venue of this production, was having its own problems. In 1841 it burned to the ground, the third time this had happened since Philip Astley, the father of modern circus (with an unfortunate penchant for wooden construction), first established it beside Westminster Bridge in 1769. (For an interesting history of the building, see here.) On Easter Monday, April 17, 1843, Astley’s reopened under new management, and with a brand-new show. A report in The Times (April 18, 1843) describes the plush new venue, including drop curtains representing “the procession of the competitors and the glorious Olympians as they progress to the Greek city”, and the show that had been chosen to inaugurate it, “a new piece entitled The Affghanistan War.” The incidents depicted in the production, although “enlivened … by a few drolleries and a little love”, would be all-too-familiar to readers of The Times, but “afforded an excellent means of displaying those equestrian performances for which Astley’s has been so long distinguished, and … received the warmest plaudits of an admiring multitude.” The leading character in the show was obviously Lady Sale, who, according to The Era (April 23, 1843), “stormed through the night with irresistible fortitude at the head of her little band of more timid fellow-captives.” Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine (1843, p. 62) was very impressed, and indicates that the show was both spectacular and a big hit:

The grand military and spectacle of the Affghan war, which has been visited by thousands, continues to draw nightly crowds. It is got up in unparalleled grandeur, and the many scenes throughout the spectacle convey an excellent and true idea of the sufferings of the Caubul army, and the retreat to Jellalabad… [T]here can be little doubt that the heads of families will avail themselves of this great treat, for where do we expect to find amusement for juveniles if it is not at the Amphitheatre?

The equestrian scenes in the circle are novel, and the dresses and decorations are magnificent, exciting praise and admiration.

What The Times and Blackwood’s are describing here, the precise plot aside, is a pretty typical production at Astley’s: horsemanship predominates, as it had since the days of Astley himself, but trick-riding was interspersed with fairground acts like acrobatics, clowning, and tumbling, the classic circus recipe. Over time Astley’s had come to specialise in “swashbuckling melodramas on horseback, or ‘hippodramas’” (Kwint p.95), productions that knitted the various individual acts into a narrative, typically of recent events, and since Astley had been a military man, and his circus always retained a slight military flavour, recent military events fitted the bill nicely. Astley’s staged The Death of Tippoo Sahib; or, the Storming of Seringapatam in 1799, the year Seringapatam was captured, for example. One of the images here is of the staging of a battle during the Crimean War about a decade after The Affghanistan War, again more or less contemporaneously with the real events.

Punch‘s description of the Affghanistan War production appears in Punch’s Pocket Book for 1844 (pp. 128, 131), a diary for 1844 combined with humorous pieces on events of the previous year:


[We are enabled to extract the following highly interesting details from WIDDICOMBE’s Journal of the Astley’s Affghanistan Campaign; and offer no apology in bringing them before the notice of the reader.]


THEIR situation was exceedingly distressing. No sooner had they traversed the pass, than the dying English were obliged to throw a white tunic over their uniforms and climb up the ladders to the platforms at the back of the set pieces, whence, as Affghan chiefs, they fired blank cartridges upon their fellows: and when the curtain fell on this dismal tableau, the smoke was most overpowering. The paper snow fell without intermission during the whole of the scene, and the cavalry were sadly harassed by the unceasing volleys of oaths from the prostrate supernumeraries who had laid down upon the sawdust to die.


The behaviour of Akbar Khan, whilst in the green room, surrounded by our officers, was mild and courteous; but the instant he appeared on the stage of his exploits, he became savage and ferocious, offering a fearful example of Affghan treachery.


Amongst the auxiliaries provisions generally ran short and a penny was frequently given in exchange for a meat-pie brought by a camp-follower, who proved to be the emissary of a Feringhee confectioner, and was allowed the entry of the stage door and Khoord Cabool fort, between the acts, upon parole. Higher-priced luxuries were beyond the reach of the supers, who never got beyond the pies, for few could command the necessary sixpence to arrive (131) at Jelly-le-bad–from its indifferent composition very properly named.


The taking of Ghuznee was not that severe struggle that has been imagined. It was chiefly owing to the tact of General Broadfoot, who, whilst the Affghans were defending only the front ramparts of the first set piece, directed our troops to a ladder placed behind the side-scene at the left second entrance, by scaling which they gained the platform leading through the Canvas Tower direct to the Capital. At the conclusion of the contest, it was pleasing to see the English sharing their accommodations in their dressing-rooms with the Affghans, and drinking together.


The meeting between Lady Sale and her husband, for the first time after her imprisonment, took place in the prompter’s box, through the exertions of the call-boy. The interview is described as remarkably affective; but as there is a two-and-sixpenny fine for loitering in the first entrance, it was not seen by many. The heroic manner in which she fought the double sword combat with six Affghans, whom she put to flight, drew down the loudest praise; and her beautiful sentiment, that “the heart of the Briton, even amid the snows of India’s icy clime, still beats warmly for his native home upon the sea-bound isle,” threw an enthusiasm into the auxiliaries never before equalled.

This is Punch and satirical, so obviously a very distorted picture of the production. The basic joke is to present the difficulties of staging this ambitious theatrical production as if it were the Afghan War itself: the audience are turned into “auxiliaries”, and the whole account imitates the form of reports, based on letters or diaries of captives, Lady Sale especially, that had appeared in newspapers during and after the First Afghan War, often headlined “The Cabul Prisoners” or “The Cabul Captivity”. The role of Lady Sale, author of the definitive  eyewitness account of events, is given to John Esdaile Widdicombe, the ringmaster at Astley’s and a well-known London figure in the first half of the nineteenth century. Dickens recalls Widdicombe in the eleventh of the Scenes in Sketches by Boz, “Astley’s”: 

Everybody knows the man, and everybody remembers his polished boots, his graceful demeanour, stiff, as some misjudging persons have in their jealousy considered it, and the splendid head of black hair, parted high on the forehead, to impart to the countenance an appearance of deep thought and poetic melancholy.  His soft and pleasing voice, too, is in perfect unison with his noble bearing, as he humours the clown by indulging in a little badinage…


The episodes of the First Afghan War spoofed here are the retreat from Kabul towards Jelalabad through the Khurd Kabul pass in January 1842 (confused, as it often was, with the more famous Khyber Pass); the capture of Ghazni by the British “Army of Retribution” led by General Nott in August 1842 (W.D. Broadfoot was the name of the “Acting and Stage Manager” at Astley’s); and the rescue of the prisoners and reunion of Lady Sale with Maj.-Gen. Sir Robert Sale in September. The references to the prompter’s box and the call-boy seem to suggest that the performers playing Lady Sale and her husband missed their cues, and the description of the transformation of (the actor playing) Akbar Khan from friendly to savage plays off descriptions of the real Akbar Khan’s perceived hypocrisy, at times charming and hospitable, at others bloodthirsty. Lady Sale described an encounter in her Journal: “Mohammed Akbar Khan passed us; bowed, and smiled– ‘he can smile, and smile, and be a villain.'” The London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion (1843, p. 48) offers an intriguingly conflicted take on the representation of Akbar Khan, very much the villain in the dominant British narrative of the war and the massacre:

Akhbar [sic] Khan is the very beau ideal of a savage hero, and we could not but feel an agreeable self-congratulation that there is no attempt to represent him in a mean and degraded point of view. We very much doubt, small step as this may seem in liberality, if it would be the case on any other than an English stage.

Two things strike me as particularly interesting about this circus production and Punch‘s reaction to it. The first is what we learn about how the events of the First Afghan War were realised in a circus performance. One of the things I discovered in that meeting at Gifford’s was that, no matter how elaborate the plot of a production, circus is circus, and the individual acts always have priority over the wider narrative. At Astley’s the Afghan War, as The Times report tells us, provided lots of scope for the specialist skills of the circus performers: trick-riding, in particular, but we also get hints of acrobatics and maybe highwire acts. Lady Sale and her husband furnished a handy love motive. It’s harder to see where clowning might come in, but The Era talks of “two or three comic characters … introduced with good effect,” and they may have included that perennial butt of humour, the Welshman (see below). A review in the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine gives an impression of the elaborate scenery: “The Hall of Audience is a very splendid and gorgeous piece of grouping [the impressive tableau, or posed scene, was a stock-in-trade of Astley’s]… The Khyber pass with its rocks heaped on rocks, its snowy summits, and horrid rugged masses and its narrow defile brought forcibly before us the grandeur and romance of the place.” But the most vivid insight into how recent events became circus entertainment is Lady Sale herself, played (according to Theatrical Times 1848, p. 480) by Mrs H. Campbell: given her “double sword combat with six Affghans, whom she put to flight”, it’s clear that her role was acted by a performer specialising in spectacular sword play. I would love to have seen that.

The second thing that intrigues me is how rapidly, on this evidence, the British public processed and came to terms with a catastrophe on the scale of the massacre of 1842, often considered the greatest reverse ever suffered by British arms. Barely a year after the ghastly scenes in the Khurd Kabul pass they were the subject of a popular circus, complete with “drolleries”, making excellent amusement for juveniles. A year on again and Punch is getting a food pun out of the name Jelalabad, the destination of the ill-fated retreat, to which only one man from the whole army, Dr Brydon, succeeded in making it. The appalling privations suffered by the soldiers and camp followers during the retreat, struggling through snow and under withering fire from the heights above them, are turned into a circus audience’s quest for affordable refreshments in the interval. In this version of events, of course, the First Afghan campaign was not ultimately a disaster, because the British are vindicated: the full title of the show was apparently The Affghanistan War! or, the Revolt of Cabul! and British Triumphs in India. “Of course, the British arms are not suffered to be degraded in this national piece,” the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine explains. “Everything is done to maintain the honour of the nation, alike by a Welshman who fights with his toastingfork, and by Lady Sale, who cannot be affrighted into ignominious terror.”

Certainly, if by 1843 Britain was well on the way to converting humiliating defeat in Afghanistan into moral victory, what comes across clearly from the production at Astley’s (and Punch‘s satirical take on it) is the crucial role that Lady Sale played in that psychological process.

Lady Sale in the ILN

I’ve read some extremely interesting material on early circus in the last few days. I recommend anything by Marius Kwint, for example this, and for the images especially, M. Rendell, Astley’s Circus. Nell Gifford writes movingly about her life in the circus here, the director Cal McCrystal is interviewed about the current show here, and if you are anywhere near the Cotswolds, do please go and watch Gifford’s Circus, this year or someday. Tracy Chevalier’s novel Burning Bright recreates Astley’s circus at the end of the eighteenth century. There are still quite a few copies of The Buddhas of Bamiyan available, too, and they’re going increasingly cheap…


A nice surprise in my email inbox yesterday (July 29th). I had found a reference to an original playbill, or programme, of The Afghanistan War in the Harvard Theatre Collection at the Houghton Library, the special collections library of Harvard University, and I wrote to them, speculatively, to ask if they would send me a scan. An outrageous request, to be honest, but they did, bless them. It’s so well preserved, and the printed text still so vibrantly colourful, that suddenly the whole event seemed to me rather modern and familiar, rather than late-Georgian and strange.

Playbill tight

The playbill gives the cast, a sketch of the plot, and some hints as to how the events of the Afghan War were realized by circus acts. My suspicion that a Welshman provided laughs is confirmed by “Taffy a Tap”, played by Mr Robert Power, and it looks like the same applied with an Irish character Mahoney McHard, and three Afghan women Leola, Kela and Balascha. I’m intrigued by the “Captain Vincent” played by the producer/director of the show, W.M. Broadfoot, since one of Lady Sale’s fellow-captives, also the author of a bestselling journal of his captivity, was an officer called Vincent Eyre, an amateur artist who captured the portrait of Lady Sale above and this image of Bamiyan:


Naturally Widdicombe, the ringmaster, was cast as Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General of India.

The circus had three acts, and the playbill advertises, in BIG, COLOURFUL LETTERING, a string of visually impressive set-pieces, including “Interior of the Royal Citadel of Shah Soojah, the DEAN KHANEH, or SPLENDID HALL OF AUDIENCE”, “The CITY OF CABUL!!!“, “The SNOW STORM!” The uprising against the British occupiers was shown in Act 1, the retreat through the passes in Act 2, and Act 3 presented the reconquest of Afghanistan by the British in 1842, culminating in “Lady Sale the Heroine of Cabul with Fame guarding the Sovereign of Great Britain and Watching over her protectors forming a Last Tableaux of ENGLAND’S GLORY!” Needless to say, a very positive spin on a notoriously disastrous campaign, with the character and story of Lady Sale very crucial to that spin.

Astley’s introduces itself on the playbill as “This Established Temple of Equitation”, and there was obviously great scope in all this for performances with horses. The Afghanistan War was also followed on the programme by other acts. But the playbill offers more information as to how circus performers other than trick riders and clowns found a place in a historical hippodrama. A festival in the city of Kabul in Act 1, apparently staged by Kabulis to distract the British from the uprising, featured the “first appearance of the Belechee Tribe, in their Wonderful Jeux Gymnastiques and Incredible Feats, Messrs. Nunn, Honey, Walker, and Felix,” “Kyberee Tribe in their Extraordinary Wonders–Messrs. Twist, Steward, Baker and Boswell,” and (my favourites) “The Dancers of Bameean in their Bell Dance–Principal Dancers, Mdlle. Cromini and Mr. Lake.”

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

3 responses to “An Afghan Evening at Astley’s”

  1. lennartelfgren says :

    Very interesting. As I tried to write, but was interrupted, I have just finished “Return of a King” by William Dalrymple and got fascinated by Lady Sale and her family. You really add to the flavour of this time and persons

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