originally published October 27, 2012

There was a time, long ago, when going to the circus meant more than eating questionable food from even questionabler vendors. More than cultivating the fertile ground of potential nightmares with the acts of deranged clowns, swallowing up the air around them and coughing them back out in maniacal, psychologically scarring laughter. In Victorian England, the circus entered a golden age. A night under the big top was about as thrilling as things got. Sure, there was theatre, but outside of London your selection became a lot more limited.

Not a lot of big names came from the circus – well, not names that have carried on to modern lore. P.T. Barnum was quick with the catchphrase, and the Ringling Brothers are still ringling their way around the world, or at least their brand is. England can boast one circus star who not only rose to national fame, but rose to own his own traveling show. Also, he was black. And though his fame may only carry on today thanks to a single lyric in a 1967 pop song, there’s still a lot of love in England for Pablo Fanque.

He was born William Darby in either 1796 or 1810 – records back then were sketchy, and you couldn’t always trust a person’s own account. Not wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a servant, Darby began his apprenticeship in 1821 with this guy:

Well… okay, that’s not a picture of the guy. But noted equestrian performer and circus proprietor William Batty never had a proper portrait made, or if he did he never uploaded it to the internet. Inconsiderate bastard.

Darby’s first stage-name was “Young Darby” – not exactly an exercise in cleverness, but it was enough to gain him a bit of attention. He brought some equestrian skills to the ring, as well as a willingness to strut his stuff on the high wire. As he became well-established within the circus world, he changed his name to Pablo Fanque. Why that name? Who knows?

Fanque became known as a master of stunts. After putting in his time with Batty he moved on to other shows, eventually starting up his own circus in 1841. He set up a home base in Wigan in the north of England, and along with his fleet of horses he became a local favorite. He married Susannah Marlaw, the daughter of a Birmingham button-maker. Fanque spent most of the 1840s at the top of his game.

Around this time, Fanque’s show hooked up with this guy:

Wow, I have to stop expecting to find images of these people. Alright, he started working with one of the foremost circus clowns of the era, W.F. Wallett. Wallett shared a number of stories about Fanque in his 1870 autobiography. Some of them border on the edge of quirky.

The problem is, they don’t quite fall over that edge and plummet into the well of great material. Honestly, a travelling circus in Victorian England should have garnered some better stories than the time Wallett and Fanque went fishing in the Thames and, seeing Fanque catch a bucket-load of fish, a local fisherman showed up the next day in black-face, hoping that was the reason Fanque had been such a success.

I want some dirt! I want a high-wire breaking and the rope-dancer swinging like Tarzan into the crowd. Maybe a horse explodes, or a tumbler is gored by an imported circus emu on opening night… but no, we get none of that. According to Wallett’s autobiography, the most unusual thing that happened to him during his tenure with Fanque was when an old woman died in the audience. Not an inspiring tale.

Okay, there was one. On March 18, 1848, there was a show in Leeds that went terribly wrong. It was a packed house, with thousands of would-be spectators turned away at the gates. In the middle of the performance, one of the bleachers collapsed, sending hundreds of people to the floor. No one was killed, apart from one ticket-taker who was underneath the mess.

Unfortunately, that ticket-taker was Susannah Darby, Pablo’s wife. Seriously, that is rotten luck. In a quick turn of fate – and I wish there was more written about how this came about – Fanque married Elizabeth Corker, a 22-year-old circus rider. Two months later. That was either the quickest grieving period ever, or Pablo and Liz had something going on beforehand.

One thing Fanque was known for was organizing benefits for friends and co-workers when they needed a little extra money for funeral expenses, illness expenses, rectal extractions, and so on. One of those people was William Kite, a tightrope walker and riding master who performed often with Fanque in the early 1840s. History has lost the reason for his needing a benefit, but his name achieved eternal notoriety when a poster for his benefit showed up in a Sevenoaks, Kent antique shop while John Lennon was in the neighborhood, shooting what would become the first ever high-concept (meaning bat-shit weird) music video, for the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Perhaps you’ve heard of the poster:

Lennon took the thing home and wrote the entirety of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” based on the ad copy. This song shows up on the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, for you young people, is considered to be the greatest album of all-time by a ridiculously large number of people. It’s even better than Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. No, I’m serious.

Pablo Fanque’s name also shows up in the song, and he has become more famous for this tribute than for spending decades as the first black circus owner in England, possibly in the entire western world. Well, fame is fame I suppose.

Fanque had two kids with Susannah, and another two with Elizabeth. His sons all took part in the circus, though Ted (known as Ted Pablo) eventually had a decent career as a boxer. Pablo succumbed to bronchitis in 1871, at either 75 or possibly 61 years of age.

While circus-folk generally don’t get a lot of posthumous respect, Fanque is considered to have been pretty special. He broke the color barrier and earned an impressive reputation around the nation. England tends to honor their noble dead with commemorative blue plaques; Fanque has two. One is posted in Norwich, where he is believed to have been born, and another sits by his final resting place in Leeds, beside his first wife.

Also, he’s referenced in a Beatles song. What could be cooler than that?

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