This week on the Secret Library we welcome Orla Kennelly from the Norfolk Heritage Centre. Orla kindly agreed to write a section for our blog focusing on the circus manager and performer, William Darby – aka Pablo Fanque. Darby was born in Norwich, but is buried in Leeds; Orla’s section looks at Darby’s early years, while our part concentrates on a tragic event in his life. This is a longer piece than usual to reflect that joint authorship.
by Orla Kennelly, Archive Specialist, Norfolk Heritage Centre, part of the Norfolk Record Office
Pablo Fanque was the name that William Darby went by but William himself remains an enigma.
In early 2010 a local heritage organisation Norwich HEART appealed to the public for help in generating ideas for blue plaques in the city. Pablo Fanque was one of the names which came up resulting in a plaque to his memory being added to the wall of what is now the John Lewis shop. 1
Presumably this has now caught the attention of other residents of and visitors to Norwich who may be wondering who was Pablo Fanque. He was, of course, also immortalised in the Beatles song “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite”.
As you can see the Norwich plaque has William being born in 1810. However if I take my information from his gravestone then William was born in 1796. There is a record of a William Dorby born and baptised in Norwich in 1796. He was the son of John Dorby and Mary Dorby nee Stamp. The baptism took place in the parish of Norwich All Saints and the plaque to Fanques memory is on All Saints Green, near where he is said to have lived. This seems a good possibility!
A look at the burial register for this parish tells us however that this William died aged just one years old. There is also a theory that William who became Pablo was a younger brother of this deceased William hence the confusion over dates of birth. Having checked the parish baptism registers myself I cannot see record of another William baptised at Norwich All Saints. There is however a William born to parents of the same names in the St. Andrews Workhouse Norwich.
Pablo Fanque was obviously still in the minds of Norwich locals as recently as 2010 and so I was hopeful that the collections of the Library Service and Record Office may shed more light on him. Sadly we have only the one item on William, Pablo Fanque “An Artiste of Colour” an article by John M. Turner. 2 Here again we have a reference to William as being born in 1796 and we are told that he was one of four children who were orphaned at a young age.
So Williams’s exact origins remain a bit of a mystery but we do know he had a connection to Norwich. So what was the city like at the turn of the 19th century? Norwich was the second city of the country until the later 1700’s and the 1801 census gives a figure of 38,502 for the official population. 3 Norwich lies on the river Wensum and was a commercial port at this time. There are suggestions that the father of William had himself arrived to Norwich by boat from abroad for a new life.
Whatever his start in life in Norwich we do know William returned as Pablo. He came to the city in 1849 with an “equestrian spectacle” and rope dancers. 4 That must have been quite a sight!
- Norwich HEART http://www.heritagecity.org/news . Accessed 01.04.2016. Article: “New heritage signage unveiled in Elm Hill and Timberhill areas -Tuesday, 16th February 2010”. (Please note Norwich HEART ceased trading at end 2015.)
- King Pole Circus Friends Association of Great Britain Issue 89 December 1990 and Issue 90 March 1991. In the collections of the Norfolk Heritage Centre, Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, The Forum, Norwich.
- Norwich since 1550. Rawcliffe, C. and Wilson, R. Hambledon and London, London and New York, 2004. P. 245.
- The ERA, Sunday 18th February 1849.
You can read further articles about the history of Norwich and Norfolk through the Norfolk Record Office blog.
by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library
The first recorded mention of William Darby performing in Leeds was with the Batty troupe in 1838; by 1841/42 Darby had separated from that group and made a start at the management of his own circus troupe, one that would focus its attentions on the Northern circuit. In this, Darby demonstrated a startlingly independent approach, becoming the first black circus owner in Britain and, quite possibly, the world.
During this period, Darby made several appearances in Leeds. Perhaps the most interesting was during events held on Saturday the 1st of August, 1846, in celebration of the recent Corn Law repeals:
As can be seen from the Leeds Mercury article above, Darby and his troupe performed on Woodhouse Moor – a popular spot for summer gatherings in Victorian Leeds – owing to the lack of an alternative venue large enough to accommodate the spectacular feats Fanque and co. would be performing.
In early 1847 a tragic event occurred that proved the rightness of that decision. Darby’s team had elected to stage their performance in a temporary arena squeezed into the space between the 17th-century Red Hall – Leeds’ first brick building, the site of a curious encounter between John Harrison and King Charles I – and the narrow warrens beyond: that space known as King Charles’ Croft.
During a tightrope performance by Darby’s son – Pablo Fanque Junior – the gallery came crashing down under the weight of some six-hundred spectators. Among the vast confusion, horror and panic, one salient fact emerged: Darby’s wife, Susannah Darby, had been instantly killed in the incident. Not even the efforts of the Surgeon General, William Hey III – grandson of the celebrated man of the same name – could help.
Susannah Darby was laid to rest in St. George’s Field, also known as Woodhouse Cemetery. And there she remained, while her husband returned to the life of the travelling entertainer; until, in 1871, William himself died and was buried next to his wife, after a procession – attended by some 10,000 mourners – from that very same King Charles Croft.
William Darby, in life and in death: a man of two cities.