Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Colossus of Equestrians; Andrew Ducrow (1793-1842) Kensal Green Cemetery


WITH the exception of Philip and John, the two Astleys, equestrian annals cannot, we believe, furnish a finer instance of a more consummate horseman than the late Mr Ducrow. Those who are familiar with the feats of this description , which are recorded in ancient pages as having been performed by the Centaurs of Thessaly, the horsemen in the Campus Martius at Rome - the equestrian heroes of Olympic days—and, at a later period , the Arabs of the desert have, witnessing his performance, unequivocally acknowledged that the former, however marvellous, found themselves altogether surpassed in the perfect and masterly powers of skill and display exhibited by Mr Ducrow in handling the reins,  taming his steeds , and managing them with a control as absolute as it was extraordinary. (The Scotsman - Wednesday 09 February 1842)

FUNERAL OF MR. DUCROW. The funeral of Mr. Ducrow took place to-day. An immense crowd collected to witness the procession, and as early as 11 o'clock the York-road, in front of the deceased's residence, was nearly impassable. Six mutes were stationed at the door during the morning. At half-past 1 o'clock, the mournful procession moved on in the following order:— Undertakers and men on horseback, six mutes on horseback, plumes of black feathers carried by men on foot, three of the deceased's favourite horses, nearly- covered with black cloth, the hearse drawn by six horses, four mourning coaches drawn by four horses each, and eight mourning coaches drawn by two horses each, containing the relatives and friends of Mr. Ducrow, amongst whom we noticed Mr. Macready, Mr. Webster, and several others of the most celebrated individuals in the theatrical profession. Several private carriages followed in the procession. It was rather a remarkable circumstance that the state carriage of the Speaker and the carriages of the members of the House of Commons, who were going to Buckingham Palace with the Address, should have arrived at the end of Bridge -street exactly at the moment the funeral was passing. The number of persons was very great in Parliament street at the time, and it was ludicrously supposed by some that the state carriage of the Speaker, which followed immediately after the carriages in the funeral procession, was the one that belonged to the deceased, and used by him at Astley's Theatre. On arriving opposite Whitehall the horses in the Speaker's carriage became very restive, in consequence of the noise in the dense crowd, and it was with some difficulty that the police could preserve order. No accident, however, occurred, and the assemblage soon afterwards separated. (London Evening Standard - Saturday 05 February 1842)


Andrew Ducrow’s Graeco-Egyptian mausoleum was supposedly designed for his first wife Margaret who died in 1837 but the famous equestrian fully intended the extravagant memorial to receive his own mortal remains in due course. He remarried in 1838 and it was his second wife Louisa who was responsible for the epitaph says that he lies "within this tomb erected by Genius/for the reception of its own remains." The exuberant mausoleum does its best to exhaust the whole range of Victorian mortuary symbolism. Wreaths and inverted torches form the iron railings around the tomb, there are draped urns, broken columns (including one with a hat and a pair of gloves draped across it), Egyptian columns, angels, winged horses, a beehive (masonic symbol of industry), military colours lowered over an infantryman’s cap, sphinxes, seashells, and melancholic females in figure revealing drapery. Even in 1856 it was considered to be over the top. A critic in The Builder called it “a piece of ponderous coxcombry."

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. Doctor Barker, lecturing in the School of Surgery at Edinburgh during visit of Ducrow to that city, recommended his pupils use all means to see the great equestrian, “as they would then be able form a judgment of what the human frame was capable of as regards development, position, and distortion.” With all his impetuosity of temper and speech, Ducrow was yet thoroughly kind-hearted and liberal. (Leinster Independent - Saturday 02 March 1872)

Andrew and his brother John taking a pair of mares to dinner
Andrew Ducrow was born on the 10th October 1793 at the Nag’s Head in Southwark. His father Peter was a circus strong man from Bruges known as the Flemish Hercules who could “lying on his back…with his hands and feet support a platform upon which stood eighteen grenadiers.”  Andrew and his siblings were brought up to be performers (his brother John became a celebrated clown); they started learning the trade at the age of 3 moving from vaulting to tumbling, dancing on the slack and tight rope, balancing, riding, fencing, and boxing. By 1808 at the age of 15 Andrew was already chief equestrian and rope dancer at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre at a salary of £10 a week.  His rope dancing might have been good but it was for his innovative equestrian acts that he became famous. At the age of 19 he was performing the ‘Flying Wardrobe’; dressed in rags and behaving like a drunkard he cantered around the ring making false falls from the horse and gradually removing ripped jackets and torn waistcoats until he revealed himself as the star rider of the show. The frisson detectable beneath the laughter as Andrew removed his clothes perhaps inspired the later development of the act where Andrew and his sons would dress in flesh coloured body stockings and strike poses known as ‘plastiques’, designed to show off their physiques, whilst balancing on the rump of white stallions. Even the Queen was a fan; in the weeks preceding the coronation Ducrow had saved her life after her horse bolted in Hyde Park according to a quite possibly apocryphal story.


HOW DUCROW SAVED THE QUEEN. A SCENE IN HYDE PARK. According to a story told in the "Live Stock Journal," Andrew Ducrow, the circus performer, and proprietor and once leasee of Astley's, is credited with having saved her Majesty’s life, or at any rate with having rendered her valuable assistance. All the horses in the Royal stable destined to carry ladies are regularly ridden and schooled by a lady rider, and are never supposed to be used unless they are quite tractable and have had plenty of exercise. About a couple of months before her coronation, that is to say about May, 1837, the Queen was riding in Hyde Park, and so it happened was Andrew Ducrow, who was very fond of going there. On this particular occasion, the story goes, he was mounted on a very fine horse which he had just purchased, and proposed to use for circus purposes, and he was just riding it to see what its temperament was, and in what department it was likely to shine. Ducrow was going along, when his ear —accustomed to the beat of a horse's hoofs—at ones recognised the sound of a horse galloping behind him, and looking round he saw that a lady's horse had bolted with her. To guide his own horse into the line of approach to leap from his saddle and to seize the bridle of the runaway was but the work of a moment, and then the equerries and grooms came up. Ducrow "gentled" the horse, which remained quite quiet, while the lady, who was none other than the Queen, was assisted to dismount, and was taken away in a carriage to Buckingham Palace, as Ducrow subsequently discovered. After the Queen had been driven off Ducrow was, for the first time, made acquainted with the fact that the lady whose horse he had stopped was none other than the Queen of England. Ducrow, who was quite a cockney, having been born in Southwark towards the close of the last century, though his father, Peter Ducrow, was a Belgian, was in no wise disturbed by the information, but simply said, "Lawks, if the Queen wants a perfect hack, why don't she let me find her in 'osses?" A little later he was much astonished and gratified at receiving a scarf-pin representing a courier, while within a few days there arrived an order for Mr. and Mrs. Ducrow to witness the Coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey. (Blackburn Standard - Saturday 09 April 1898)

After travelling and working in France and Belgium Ducrow returned to England to create the spectacular horse shows that led to him being dubbed the Colossus of Equestrians. At Astley’s he staged equestrian dramas like his famous version of ‘Mazeppa’ and novel routines like ‘the Courier of St Petersburg’ (“A rider straddled two cantering horses while other horses bearing the flags of the countries through which a courier would pass on his way to Russia passed between his legs.”)

Miss Woolford was almost as accomplished an equestrian as her husband 

Mr Ducrow's most celebrated and best acts of horsemanship were the "Moor defending his Standard," a "Tar’s Vicissitudes," the " Courier of St Petersburgh " the " Wild Indian," the "Peruvian," the "Tyrolean Shepherd and Swiss Milkmaid," which last character was performed on all occasions by Miss Woolford, who indeed, before she became Mrs Ducrow was for a long time the chief attraction of his theatre, and drew crowds by the accustomed gracefulness of her action, and the skilful management of her steed. The deceased has two children by her. Miss Woolford was very early a  debutante at Astley’s, and many theatrical people of about thirty years standing will remember her at the Amphitheatre under Astley s management as a little girl with a long crop, and of intelligent and pretty manners. She had two brothers also at the same time with her on the stage, who have since died in America; she hears an amiable and good character; her age is about twenty seven, and she had been married to Mr Ducrow about four years. (The Scotsman - Wednesday 09 February 1842)

Andrew working with the beguiling Miss Louisa Woolford before she became the second Mrs Andrew Ducrow
So successful was Ducrow that eventually he became co-proprietor of Astley’s; it was the responsibility of ownership that killed him. With a staff of 150 and weekly expenses of £500 when “on the 8th of June, 1841, the Amphitheatre was totally destroyed by a fire which broke out at five in the morning... Ducrow and his family narrowly escaped with their lives; a female servant perished in the ruins. The stud at this time consisted of some fifty horses, two zebras, and a few asses and mules; of these scarcely any were rescued. The total loss was estimated at thirty thousand pounds. Ducrow was ruined, or believed himself to be so. His mind gave way under the pressure of his misfortunes.” (Leinster Independent 1872).  According to the 1900 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography “Ducrow's mind gave way ...and he died at 19 York Road, Lambeth, on 27 Jan. 1842. His funeral, attended by vast crowds of people, took place on 5 Feb. in Kensal Green cemetery, where an Egyptian monument was erected to his memory. Notwithstanding his losses he left property valued at upwards of 60,000l.”



WILL OF ANDREW DUCROW. The testator appointed Mr. Oscar Byrne, Mr. Serle (boatbuilder), and Mr. Anderton (common-councilman), his executors, bequeathing to each £100. Amongst the legacies are, to Mr. D. W. Broadfoot, his brother-in-law, £300; to Mr. Joseph Hillier, £300; to Margaret and Louisa, his sisters, £200 each; to Master Chafe (commonly called Le Petit Ducrow), £200; there are a few other and smaller bequests. The residue of his property, consisting of £47,560, three-and-a-half percent’s, his household furniture, pictures, articles of vertu, and his stud and paraphernalia, to Mrs. Ducrow for life; after her death, to his son and daughter, Peter Andrew and Louisa. The will makes no provision for the possibility of posthumous issue; but as all is left in the power of Mrs Ducrow, the omission is immaterial. The sum of £800 is left for the decoration of the family tomb at Kensal Green; £200. in the three-and-a-half per cents, to remain, the interest being dedicated to the purpose of purchasing flowers to adorn his monument. It is a singular fact that Mr. Ducrow has not mentioned his mother, to whom he was devotedly attached, in his will, he has, in fact, relied upon the affection of his widow. The elder Mrs. Ducrow received a liberal annuity from her son, and that will continued. The stud are now at the Amphitheatre, Liverpool; it is understood that Messrs. Grisell and Peto will rebuild the theatre in the Westminster-road, and that Mr. Batty becomes the lessee; but the rumour that the stud of the deceased equestrian will be sold is wholly unfounded. On the contrary, it may confidently relied upon that the horses and company, under the direction of Messrs. Hillier and Broadfoot, will appear the metropolis on Easter Monday. Every groom has been given a suit of mourning; and Mrs. Ducrow has presented each executor with a splendid diamond ring. The melancholy anecdote connected with the parting between Ducrow and Le Petit Andrew: the boy bade him goodbye last October ere he started to join the company Liverpool. Mr. Ducrow gave the child a crown, kissed him, and said, Attend to your duty, be a good boy; you’II never see your papa again.” The prophecy was verified; the adopted son was summoned to town to attend the funeral. The number of individuals employed in the Amphitheatre, including actors, musicians, scene-painters, equestrians, grooms, helpers, &c., exceeded one hundred and fifty; the weekly expenses were seldom less than £600. How enormous, then, must have been the receipts that, in a few years, enabled the deceased to accumulate a property to the value of nearly £60,0001! The situation of Mrs. Ducrow renders it probable that her accouchement will take place in June. It understood to be her intention not to resume her professional exertions. The Amphitheatre has, therefore, lost, at one blow, its two brightest ornaments. A few days before his death, Mr. Ducrow's health appeared re-established; he determined to visit Liverpool to play for the performers’ benefit, and announced his intention of representing The Dumb Man of Manchester. He was persuaded to abandon this idea and appear in the Grand Russian Entree. The 7th instant was fixed for his debut; his dresses were packed, and everything prepared for the journey, but a few hours before the fatal blow came, the day which he had selected, he was a corpse and a tenant of the tomb.— Observer. (Dublin Morning Register - Tuesday 15 February 1842)

Reflections in the mausoleum's eye