Throughout the 19th century, few performers were more famous than the daring young men who put on public equestrian displays. These artistes were the equivalent of our Nigel Mansells and Damon Hills.
None of these heroes were more famous than... an internationally acclaimed legend of stage and sawdust ring... please step forward... Mr Andrew Ducrow.
Exactly: a case of `Who's he? Ed', Ducrow's name is remembered today only by students researching PhDs on Victorian entertainment. Yet in his lifetime Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens were among those thrilled by Ducrow's exploits as he careered around the ring standing on the back of one galloping horse and leading several others behind him.
Based at a venue called Astley's Amphitheatre in Lambeth, the very chance of an appearance by Ducrow brought out the crowds. He had a keen sense of his own importance and "horse dramas" were deliberately staged in order to display his considerable riding skills.
Plays were happily rewritten to give Ducrow and his horses the starring role. Even Richard III, by William Shakespeare, was altered so that the horse White Surrey took centre stage. But years of incessant work took its toll, as the highly strung Ducrow was not the first performer to resent criticism of his work.
In June 1841 Astley's Amphitheatre burnt down after cannons used in the previous night's performance ignited the wooden building. This calamity sent Ducrow over the edge. He died, hopelessly insane, on 27 January 1842.
Ducrow was buried with all the hype of a film star. His exotic Egyptian- style mausoleum in Kensal Green Cemetery, in West London, cost the huge sum of £3,000. And yet today Ducrow's name appears only in the learned footnote.
Such is the fickleness of fame.
Andrew John Davies
The Ducrow family vault can be found on the left side of the central avenue leading to the Anglican chapel, in Kensal Green Cemetery, NW10Reuse content