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  • Writer's pictureGranny Bonnet

Pablo Fanque and The Circus Royal

Growing up in Norwich in 1810, one of five children could not have been easy, more especially if one was of mixed race, so it's perhaps not surprising that young William Darby turned what might have been seen as a disadvantage, to his good fortune. Part African and part English, he joined William Batty's circus as a ten-year-old where he became something of a prodigy learning numerous acrobatic, juggling, tight-rope walking and equestrian skills.

Originally billed as 'Young Darby' he first performed in the sawdust ring in Norwich in 1821 before changing his name to Pablo Fanque, perhaps because it suited his exotic appearance and lent him a more dashing air at a time when minstrel shows were also popular entertainment. Pablo Fanque's horse-training skills were legendary and he had them dancing to music. 'The grace and facility in shifting time and paces with change of the air, is truly surprising.' Another of his famous acts was to leap from a speeding horse over a lengthwise carriage and pair of horses, diving through a military drum on the way!

In 1841 he became the first black circus owner in Britain, and over the next 30 years toured his circus extensively in Britain and Ireland, eventually settling in the north of England. Just imagine for the moment the logistics of moving his entourage around, and the impact of the circus coming to town! For the populace, in an austere world of hardships where slogging daily to stay fed and housed was tough, and with little free time, the sight of the glittering, gilded and colourful circus would have been magical. In an era when most people rarely left their towns and villages, they could enter for a hard-won penny or two into a world of gaudily-dressed tight-rope walkers, tumbling clowns and exhibitions of fisticuffs and horsemanship.

A master of advertising, Fanque used captivating posters to stir imagination ahead of arrival and sometimes drove 'Twelve of his most beautiful Hanoverian and Arabian Steeds’ through the principal streets, accompanied by his ‘celebrated Brass Band’. On one occasion a rope-dancer almost fell to her death when she slipped from a wire strung 30' in the air between two buildings in 1869. After losing her balance pole and clinging in fear, her eventually drop from exhaustion was broken by the piled jackets of men below which saved her from injury and made national news.

Pablo Fanque was a strong character who weathered highs and lows without losing his compassionate streak. Belonging to an association known as the Ancient Shepherds who specialised in helping impoverished families meet funeral expenses, he often organised benefit performances for local charities as well as retiring performers from his own and others' circuses.

In 1967, Pablo's fame was immortalised world-wide in the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the song For the Benefit of Mr. Kite with the line 'the Hendersons will all be there, late of Pablo Fanque's fair, what a scene!' written after John Lennon had bought an old poster for a circus performance in Rochdale from 1843. More recently, Norwich city centre has seen the erection of a fine new student accommodation block close to where the circus impresario was born and which has been named Pablo Fanque House in his honour.

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