Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ducrow, Andrew

DUCROW, ANDREW (1793–1842), equestrian performer, was born at the Nag's Head, 102 High Street, Southwark, Surrey, on 10 Oct. 1793. His father, Peter Ducrow, was born at Bruges in Belgium, and was by profession a ‘strong man;’ he could lift from the ground and hold between his teeth a table with four or five of his children on it. Lying upon his back he could with his hands and feet support a platform upon which stood eighteen grenadiers. He came to England in 1793, and gave performances in the ring at Astley's Amphitheatre, where he was known as the ‘Flemish Hercules.’ The son at three years of age was set to learn his father's business, and then proceeded to vaulting, tumbling, dancing on the slack and tight rope, balancing, riding, fencing, and boxing. His master in tight-rope dancing was the well-known harlequin and dancer, Richer. At the age of seven he was sufficiently accomplished to take part in a fête given at Frogmore in the presence of George III. From the strictness of his early training, under his father, he acquired the courage which so distinguished his after career. In 1808 he was chief equestrian and rope-dancer at Astley's, enjoying a salary of 10l. a week. Five years later his father took the Royal Circus in St. George's Fields (the site of the present Surrey Theatre), Blackfriars Road, and here he first won applause as a pantomimist as Florio, the dumb boy, in the ‘Forest of Bondy, or the Dog of Montargis.’ On the close of the Royal Circus and the bankruptcy of Peter Ducrow, Andrew returned to Astley's and took to acting upon horseback. His bold riding, personal graces, and masterly gesticulation attracted great attention. On the death of the father in 1814 the charge of the widow and family fell to the son. Accompanied by his brothers and sisters, and taking with him his famous trick horse, Jack, he joined Blondell's Cirque Olympique and made his appearance at Ghent. Subsequently he visited the chief towns of France. His success was almost unprecedented, and soon brought him to Franconi's Circus at Paris, where he secured unbounded popularity. He left Paris, accompanied by his brother, John Ducrow, who was clown to the ring, and his family, including his sister, who was afterwards known to fame as Mrs. W. D. Broadfoot, and travelled through France, meeting everywhere with extraordinary favour. At his benefit at Lyons he was presented with a gold medal by the Duchesse d'Angoulême. On 5 Nov. 1823, accompanied by his horses, he took part in Planché's drama ‘Cortez, or the Conquest of Mexico,’ at Covent Garden Theatre, but the piece was not a great success (Genest, English Stage, ix. 248–50). In the following season he was engaged for a part in the ‘Enchanted Courser, or the Sultan of Kurdistan,’ produced at Drury Lane on 28 Oct. 1824 (Genest, ix. 282). He next reappeared at Astley's, and soon becoming proprietor of the theatre in conjunction with Mr. William West, commenced a long career of prosperity. He was patronised by William IV, who fitted up an arena in the pavilion at Brighton in 1832 that Ducrow might there perform his feats of horsemanship and give his impersonations of antique statues which he was accustomed to introduce in his scene of Raphael's dream, to the accompaniment of William Callcott's music. In 1833, under Alfred Bunn's management, he produced at Drury Lane the spectacle of ‘St. George and the Dragon.’ This was followed by ‘King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table,’ the success of which was mainly due to the efforts of Ducrow, who received 100l. from Queen Adelaide. He was known as the ‘king of mimics’ and as the ‘colossus of equestrians.’ The majority of the attractive acts of horsemanship still witnessed in the ring are from examples set by him. He was five feet eight inches in height, of fair complexion, and handsome features, and as a contortionist could twist his shapely limbs in the strangest forms. The number of persons employed at Astley's exceeded a hundred and fifty, and the weekly expenses were seldom less than 500l. On 8 June 1841 Astley's Amphitheatre was totally destroyed by fire (Times, 9 June 1841, p. 5). Ducrow's mind gave way under his misfortunes, 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. He married, first, in 1818, Miss Griffith of Liverpool, a lady rider, who died in 1836; secondly, in June 1838, Miss Woolford, a well-known equestrienne. His brother, John Ducrow, the clown, died on 23 May 1834, and was buried at Lambeth.

[Gent. Mag. July 1834, p. 108, April 1842, pp. 444–5; All the Year Round, 3 Feb. 1872, pp. 223–9; Observer, 30 Jan. 1842, p. 1, 6 Feb. p. 3; Alfred Bunn's The Stage (1840), i. 143–7; Frost's Circus Life (1876), pp. 43, 322.]

G. C. B.