Billy Buttons, or the Tailor's Ride to Brentford

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Billy Buttons, or the Tailor's Ride to Brentford is considered to be the first circus clown act, created by Philip Astley in England in 1768, and later performed by a range of clowns.

The original text

The original circus act was based on a popular tale of a tailor, an inept equestrian, trying to ride a horse to Brentford to vote in an election. The tailor has tremendous difficulty mounting the horse correctly. When he finally succeeds the horse starts off so fast that he falls off. However, as David Carlyon (2016) points out, the "play" was in fact originally created as "a riding, not clown, act; relying on the popular assumption of tailors as physically inept or cowardly" (p. 175), and was created to utilize Astley's particular skills. Its use as a farce developed from this original, via its use in other circuses by other clowns, then into vaudeville and onto even more formal stages. It is thus often found as an interlude or afterpiece in 19th century productions, usually billed as a farce.

Translations and adaptations

This act has been performed under numerous names (and possibly incarnations) since the original Astley performances in 1768 - though often simply referred to by the name of the character ("Billy Buttons", or later "Billy Button"). Alternative titles used in South Africa include:

Billy Button

Joey Grimaldi's Trip to Brentford (Parker)

Performance history in South Africa

1828: Played in the African Theatre as Billy Button by the Gentlemen Amateur Company (probably a reference to the Garrison Players) during August, as afterpiece to The Poor Gentleman (Colman Jr).

1837: Brought to in Cape Town in 1837, when it was performed by the Automata of W.F.H. Parker as Joey Grimaldi's Trip to Brentford, along with Polander, the dramatic play The Enchanted Turk and The Children in the Wood (Th. Morton).


David Carlyon[1] 2016. The Education of a Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes. Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History, Springer:Appendix B, p.175.

F.C.L. Bosman, 1928. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel I: 1652-1855. Pretoria: J.H. de Bussy. [2]: pp.193, 231

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