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Pablo Fanque - part 2

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Pablo Fanque - part 2

Posted: 1005246275000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1055453211000
Reproduced with the kind permission of the Editor of

Spectacular finale to a glittering career

The immortality of Pablo Fanque, touring circus proprietor and son of a black slave in Norwich, was assured when one of his posters inspired Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, on the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

To John Lennon, who wrote the song (in fact the words are taken almost exactly from the poster), the people were just names on a fading piece of paper.

Thanks to Dr John Turner, formerly of Liverpool University, circus expert and author of the two-volume Victorian Arena (Lingdales Press, Formby, 1995 and 2000), we can put some fascinating flesh on these long-dead bones.

Pablo’s bones lie along with those of his first wife in St George’s Fields, Leeds, now part of the university campus, but once the Leeds General Cemetery.

Her death was a tragedy. Susannah Darby, nee Marlaw, was the daughter of a Birmingham button-maker. She was appearing at her husband Pablo’s circus at the Amphitheatre at King Charles Croft, in the Headrow in Leeds on the night of Saturday March 18, 1848.

Pablo’s son was entertaining a large crowd with his tightrope act when a wooden gallery collapsed.

There were 600 people seated on it, and they fell with the timbers. There were a few bruises and the odd broken bone, but only one fatality - Pablo’s wife.

She had been hit on the back of the head by two heavy planks. Pablo pulled her from the wreckage himself and carried her to the King Charles Hotel, but a surgeon pronounced her dead.

In the confusion, one of the locals pinched a cashbox with the £50 night’s takings in it.

Susannah was buried in the cemetery at the top of Clarendon Road after an inquest decided her death had been an accident.

Pablo mourned, but not for long. In June of that year he married Elizabeth Corker in Sheffield. She was a circus rider and a daughter of a licensee.

She was 22. Pablo, who gave his age as 30, was actually 30 years older than his bride!

He always had trouble with his memory when it came to his age. When the 1861 census was taken, Pablo was staying at the London Hotel, in Bermondsey - a vanished part of Bradford - and is recorded as being William Darby, an equestrian, aged 48. In fact he was a ripe old 65.

And with him is a woman described as his wife, Sarah, allegedly 25 - and an 11-month-old daughter, Eliza.

A bit of a lad, then, our Pablo…

He already had had one daughter by Elizabeth, but the child lived just 16 months, and was buried, oddly, in the grave of the first Mrs Darby in Leeds.

In 1859, Pablo had appeared in the Bankruptcy Court in Leeds over the disputed matter of some horses. But he recovered.

His next court appearance concerned that mysterious daughter. In Warrington in 1862, magistrates ordered him to pay half a crown (25p) a week to his erstwhile companion Sarah, to maintain his daughter Eliza. At the time Pablo was 66, though what age he was admitting was anybody’s guess.

Fanque’s last circus opened in Nottingham in December 1870. Dr Turner has yet to work out his movements between then and May 1871.

On the fourth of that month, William Darby, known to the world as Pablo Fanque, died of bronchitis at the Britannia Inn in Stockport at the age of 71.

His family remained with the show, which was bought by a roundabout operator called Toby Knight. Their stay was short, because Knight brought in some Japanese for his show, and the family link ended.

Pablo, meanwhile, was buried with his first wife after a spectacular funeral.

He might not have embodied the values of fidelity, but there was little doubt he was held in the highest regard.

Fully 30 years after his death, the chaplain of the Showmen’s Guild, wrote: ‘In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line [bar], for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession.

‘The camaraderie of the ring has but one test - ability’.

So that was Pablo Fanque, whose up-and-down, round-and-round life seems perfectly captured in that whirly-swirly music on Sgt Pepper.

This is the second part of the article by Jim Appleby of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus.

Dave Jassie - Board Administrator

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