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Pablo Fanque (born William Darby 28 February 1796 in Norwich, England ; died 4 May 1871 in Stockport, England) was the first blackcircus proprietor in Britain. His circus, in which he himself was a performer, was the most popular circus in Victorian Britain for 30 years, a period that is regarded as the golden age of the circus. Today, Pablo Fanque is best known from his mention in The Beatles song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” on the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Little is known about Pablo Fanque’s early life. Church records suggest that he was one of at least five children born to John and Mary Darby (née Stamp) of Norwich. They were believed to have resided in Ber Street. Fanque reportedly declared his late father’s occupation as “butler” on his marriage certificate in 1848. John M. Turner, Fanque’s biographer, speculates that “his father was African-born and had been brought to the port of Norwich and trained as a house servant.”  Fanque was reportedly orphaned at a young age. Another account has Fanque born in a workhouse to a family of seven children.
Also, there is a legitimate question regarding the year of Fanque’s birth. While John Turner, his biographer, has popularized the belief that he was born in 1796, a birth register for St. Andrews Workhouse in Norwich reports the birth of a William Darby to John Darby and Mary Stamp at the workhouse on 1 April 1810. Also, a blue plaque commemorating Fanque’s birth installed by the city of Norwich near the purported location of his childhood residence also records his birth as 1810. Still, at the time of his death, the newspaper Era records that his coffin bore the inscription “AGED 75 YEARS” and Fanque’s tombstone records the same age. Another contemporaneous newspaper states that it researched the question of his age at death and concluded he was 75. Still, throughout his life, Fanque often reported himself to be younger, and of an age more consistent with an 1810 birth.
Fanque apprenticed to circus proprietor William Batty and made his first known appearance in a sawdust ring in Norwich on December 26, 1821, as “Young Darby.” His acts then included equestrian stunts and rope walking. Thomas Frost, in “Circus Life and Circus Celebrities,” wrote, “We find Batty in 1836 at Nottingham, with a company which included Pablo Fanque, a negro rope-dancer, whose real name was William Darby…” Once established, William Darby changed his name to Pablo Fanque. It appears that Fanque or his contemporaries often considered “Pablo” to be his surname.
Fanque made a highly successful London debut in 1847. Describing Fanque and his performance, The Illustrated London News wrote:
“ Mr. Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour, and his steed… we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled… Mr. Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. The steed in question was Beda, the black mare that Fanque had bought from Batty. That the horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque’s extraordinary horse training skills. ”
The Illustrated London News reporting on perhaps an earlier performance during Fanque’s 1847 run at London‘s Astley’s Amphitheatre, fills in many biographical details regarding Fanque:
“ …Mr. William Darby, or, as he is professionally known, Mr. Pablo Fanque, is a native of Norwich, and is about 35 years of age. He was apprenticed to Mr. Batty, the present proprietor of “Astley’s Amphitheatre,” and remained in his company several years. He is proficient in rope-dancing, posturing, tumbling &c.; and is also considered a very goodequestrian. After leaving Mr. Batty, he joined the establishment of the late Mr. Ducrow, and remained with him for some time. He again joined Mr. Batty; in 1841, he began business on his own account, with two horses, and has assembled a fine stud of horses and ponies at his establishment at Wigan, in Lancashire, in which county Mr. Pablo is well known, and a great favourite.” ”
This same edition of The Illustrated London News provides an example of how contemporaries regarded his performance: “This extraordinary feat of the manege has proved very attractive, as we anticipated in our Journal of last week; and we have judged the success worthy of graphic commemoration. As we have already described, the steed dances to the air, and the band has not to accommodate itself to the action of the horse, as in previous performances of this kind. The grace and facility in shifting time and paces with change of the air, is truly surprising.” Fanque is described as a “skilful rider” and “a very good equestrian.” Sounding almost as grand as the boasts of Fanque’s own broadsideposters, the paper said, “Mr. Pablo has trained [his black mare] to do the most extraordinary feats of the manege, an art hitherto considered to belong only to the French and German professors of equitation, and her style certainly far exceeds anything that has ever yet been brought from the Continent.”
An illustration closely resembling the one appearing in the 20 March 1847 edition of The Illustrated London News appears on an 1850′s poster advertising Fanque’s appearance inLeeds, with the headline, “M. Pablo Fanque, as he performed, by royal command, at Astley’s Amphitheatre, before her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen.”
While biographer John Turner cites Fanque’s 1847 performance at Astley’s as his London debut, the historical record documents an 1834 performance at The Lawns in Croydon, a borough of metropolitan London. A history of The Lawns records an advertisement that read, “16th September 1834 – A Grand Scottish Fete with a tightrope performance by Pablo Fanque, gymnastics, a leopardess with dogs, military bands, illuminations and fireworks.”
In the 30 years that he operated his own circus (sometimes in partnership with others), Fanque toured England, Scotland, and Ireland, although he performed mostly in the Midlands and the Northern England counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and what is now Greater Manchester. Among the many cities he visited were Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Bristol, Cambridge, Chester, Chesterfield, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Norwich, Oldham, Preston, Rochdale, Rotherdam, Sheffield, Shrewsbury, Wakefield, Wigan, Wolverhampton, and Worcester. In Scotland, his circus visited Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Paisley. In Edinburgh, in 1853, there was a Pablo Fanque’s Amphitheatre on Nicolson Street at the current site of Edinburgh Festival Theatre. In Ireland, Fanque’s circus performed at Dublin, Belfast, Cork (city), Galway, Ballinasloe, Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford, and Clonmel, among other places. In Cork, in 1850, Fanque built an amphitheatre on the site of the former Theatre Royal where the current General Post Office stands (built in 1877).  His circus also performed at the Donnybrook Fair in 1850, just five years before the discontinuation of the centuries’ old fair.
Fanque’s children joined his circus. One of his sons performed under the name Ted Pablo…” They performed with the most popular acts of the business, including Young Hernandez (1832-1861), the great American rider, and the clown Henry Brown (1814-1902).”
In the autumn of 1861, famous English prizefighter Jem Mace toured with Fanque’s circus.
In 1869, the front cover of Illustrated London News reported on a near-tragedy at a performance of Pablo Fanque’s Circus in Bolton. A tightrope walker, Madame Caroline, stumbled on the rope, and then hung suspended 60 feet in the air by her hands. The rope was lowered a few feet and then, at the exhortation of men who had amassed below, Madame Caroline fell safely into the hands of the crowd.
While some contemporary reports make no mention of Fanque’s African ancestry, some reports refer to Fanque as “a man of colour,” or “a coloured gentleman,” or “an artiste of colour.” In 1905, many years after Fanque’s death, the chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild, in commenting on Fanque’s success despite being black in Victorian England wrote, “In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour-line.
Pablo Fanque achieved fame again in the twentieth century, when John Lennon, in composing The Beatles‘ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” borrowed liberally from an 1843 playbill for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal. Lennon bought the poster from an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent, while shooting a promotional film for the song, “Strawberry Fields Forever“, in Knole Park. Tony Bramwell, a former Apple employee, recalled, “There was an antique shop close to the hotel we were using in Sevenoaks. John and I wandered in and John spotted this Victorian circus poster and bought it.” The poster advertises a performance in Rochdale and announces the appearance of “Mr. J. Henderson, the celebrated somerset thrower” and “Mr. Kite” who is described as “late of Wells’s Circus.” Lennon modifies the language, singing instead, “The Hendersons will all be there/Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair/What a scene!” Lennon’s pronunciation of “Fanque” rhymes with “Yankee.”
The title, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is taken literally from the poster. The Mr. Kite referenced in the poster was William Kite, who is believed to have performed in Fanque’s circus from 1843 to 1845