William Darby, also known as Pablo Fanque, is unusual in the fact he owned his own circus. Whilst Black circus performers were not unusual in Victorian England, Black circus proprietors were rare. Darby was born in Norwich (his father was a butler), he lost both his parents at a young age and as a result, he was sent to work and made an apprentice to the travelling circus owner William Batty.
He soon became known for his agility as ‘the loftiest jumper in England’. Around 1834 he married Susannah Marlow, the daughter of a Birmingham button maker, and started a family. A programme for Ryan’s Circus, Birmingham, 4th July 1836 advertised Fanque’s ‘agility’, and another, for Batty’s circus in Cork, referred to, ‘the Leaper and Rope Walker, Pablo Fanque from Africa’.
Darby is described as ‘a man of colour, short in stature, of Black and shining countenance, with luxuriant curly Black hair’.
By 1850, Darby had left William Batty and started his own circus company, which visited Birmingham that year. Fanque performed in Kidderminster, Worcester and Wolverhampton in 1854, but in 1859 went bankrupt.In 1864 when Burton’s Royal Alhambra Promenade Circus opened in Carr Lane, Birmingham, Fanque was its equestrian director.
Fanque died in Stockport in 1871 and was buried in Leeds.
Some 30 years after Fanque’s death, Rev. Thomas Horne, chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild, wrote: ‘In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line, for although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession… he was a genius’.
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band by the Beatles, includes the song- Being of the Benefit for Mr. Kite!, recorded on 17th February 1967. The song, inspired by a circus poster, was written by John Lennon and Mentions Pablo Fanque.
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