Marking the end of Black History month this week we are sharing three playbills from our collections featuring Pablo Fanque, Britain’s first black circus owner. Born William Darby on 28th February 1796 in Norwich he joined the circus in 1810 as an apprentice to William Batty who owned a small travelling circus. He was known as ‘Young Darby’ for the first 15 to 20 years of his time at the circus before changing his stage name to Pablo Fanque.
This playbill from 27th February 1854 sees Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal performing on Boar Lane with ‘…one of the largest Companys of Equestrians!’ Amongst the artistes featured were: Henry Brown, ‘…the eclipse of all clowns’, Miss Smith in her ‘…daring and electrifying act d’equitation’ and The Milner family, ‘…in their unrivalled and beautiful Wreath Performances!’
Pablo Fanque had learned his profession well as he was known at various times in his career as an acrobat, a tight rope walker as well as a great equestrian and horse trainer.
A further playbill in our collection shows the circus a month later with the programme for the 24th and 25th March 1854. Here Pablo Fanque appears with his celebrated Arabioan stead ‘the mare Beda’. Leeds Intelligencier noted on 25th March that
‘Pablo Fanque’s Circus – This favourite place of amusement has
met with continued and deserved success during the week.
Several new features have been introduced into the entertainments
including the unrivalled performance of the celebrated black mare
Beda.This beautiful mare,which possesses great docility,has been
so ably trained that her dancing exercises are more like those
of a rational being than one of the equine race.She appears to
listen to the music and to step gracefully and tunefully to its
inspiring strains.Her performances this week have elicited very
warm applause.Mr Fanque liberally devoted the proceeds of
Thursday evening for the benefit of the wives and families of
the soldiers who have departed for the East.The performance was
under the patronage of Major Goodenough,Captain Hunt,and the
officers of the Leeds garrison.The band of the Leeds squadron
of the Yorkshire Hussars was in attendance,and played several
popular airs.The house on that evening,was crowded to over-
flowing,thus evincing the interest that is felt in the laudable
object of providing for the wives and daughters of our noble
Although Pablo Fanque was renowned at the time as a great circus performer and equestrian he also suffered a great tragedy which happened in Leeds. In 1848 while the circus was at King Charles Croft in Leeds his wife was killed in an accident. The circus was performing in a wooden amphitheatre and the floor collapse sending some of the 600 spectators into the lower gallery which was used for selling tickets, Susannah Darby was in the ticket booth and was the only fatality. The Leeds Intelligencier noted later
‘Several persons were more or less injured by the fall
of the timbers composing the part that proved too weak,and Mrs
Darby,the wife of the proprietor was killed.This event which
occurred on Saturday the 18th March 1848,excited much sympathy
throughout the borough.A neat monument with an impressive
inscription is placed above the grave of Mrs Darby,in the
Woodhouse Lane Cemetery’.
Our final playbill is from 1858 and shows the circus at the White Cloth Hall Yard in Leeds, the playbill states ‘Pablo is coming, with his world-famed Equestrian Wonders – a noble stud of highly trained horses and fairy ponies! The cleverest gymnasts, vaulters, rope-dancers, jugglers, tumblers, acrobats and best clowns in the world’.
Pablo Fanque is perhaps more well known now in popular culture when he was immortalised on the The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the track ‘ Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ with the line ‘late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair’.
Pablo Fanque died aged 76 in Stockport in 1871 but was buried with his first wife Susannah at Woodhouse Cemetery, now St Georges Field. It was reported that a vast crowd lined the route of his funeral procession in Leeds.