by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library
The following article was edited for publication as part of last Friday’s collaboration with the Norfolk Heritage Centre. This is the unedited version and forms Part III of a loose trilogy on (some) meanings in the study of local history. Part I is here; Part II is here; or you can see all three pieces together by clicking here.
Local history, it could be said, is a kind of communing with ghosts. Because – perhaps more than any other form of history – the gathering and the speaking, the writing and the reading, of local histories is the story of particular individuals living particular lives in particular places at particular times; those very same places we ourselves now inhabit. In no other form of history does the past rub up against the boundary separating ‘then’ and ‘now’ with such regularity.
And so, if we listen closely enough to their tales, if we are attuned enough to a sense of locality and a sense of place, we can still hear the echoes and the voices of those who lived and worked in the landscapes, the buildings, the streets and the spaces we pass each and everyday. Which is just another way of saying that “nothing human should be regarded as lost to history” (Walter Benjamin).
This is certainly true of William Darby, a man whose actual connection to Leeds is relatively tenuous – but whose ghost stalks the town even so; and that haunting of the historical memory came about – as hauntings generally do – because of a death.
The first recorded mention of 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 1848 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 where the earlier tragedy occurred.
Darby frequently returned to Leeds, with his circus, in the years following Susannah’s death and before his own. Did he remember her on his visits? Did he flinch when he entered the city? We can assume he did; but these are questions to which we will never truly know the answer, just as we’ll probably never know the truth of Darby’s origins: as with so many of those individuals submerged under the relentless river of time, Darby and his inner world remain tantalisingly out of reach: just another ghost in the machine of history.
But that history is always there, underneath the layers separating ‘then’ from ‘now’. Dormant, but always ready to come bursting through at the slightest prod; the ghosts of the past just waiting to speak to the living. You can make that prod yourself, today, in Leeds, just yards from the former King Charles Croft and the place where Susannah Darby died; you can visit HMV, in The Core shopping centre, in a now-very different environment to the dense network of gas-lit warrens and alleyways of a 150-years past. There, you can find a copy of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP and, opening the sleeve, read the following lyrics from “Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!”:
‘For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanques’ fair, what a scene…’
To read those words in that place is to feel the weight of the past crash into the present; an act of historical memory, erasing the distance between you and William Darby, a kind of seance that reclaims the past for the present.
But that act of reclamation is just one among many, many such stories – which, really, includes everything that has ever occurred: in the villages and the towns and the cities that people have lived and continue to live. The past and the present are, then, always juxtaposed and the former is never absent from the latter – even when, as in the Leeds of today, it can sometimes seem hard to read those signs.
And that is precisely why local history – and the archives, the libraries and the museums that support that work – matters: to remind us that the ‘now’ of today arises from an accumulation of yesterdays – each with their own vibrant and vital stories to tell. And that is just another way of saying that today’s present is also tomorrow’s past: we are all, in whatever we do, living a history that has yet to be written.
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