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Billy Smart's Circus

Late Of Pablo Fanque's Fair.....don't be late

The man who gave flight to Mr Kite...
It  may not be the greatest rock album of the 20th Century - though it has  its champions for that title - but there's no doubting the influence of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

pablo fanque

Halfway through the fun comes that enchanting ditty Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.
Its common knowledge among fans that John Lennon wrote the song after buying a circus bill from an antique shop, and had to do little more than set the words on the bill to music.

What isn't quite such common knowledge is that Pablo Fanque, owner of the fair which gave the world The Hendersons (who would all be there), as well as Mr Kite, is buried  in Yorkshire.

He and his company had travelled from town to town in horse-drawn wagons, and in 1854 they arrived in Bradford, which was well on its way to becoming a boom town on the back of mass-manufacturing and a growing demand for quality cloth.

William Darby, alias Pablo Fanque, was not given to false modesty.

Here is how his advert in the Bradford Observer announced the event:


Under the Management of

From the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London

Will open in Bradford on Monday June 18th and during the Fair Week, in the Yorkshire and Lancashire Railway Yard.

The Greatest Combination of Talent in the World!

The Greatest Number of Ladies and Gentlemen of the First Equestrian Celebrity ever concentrated in one establishment.


For the first time conjoined with that of the world-renowned Pablo Fanque and Newsomes Troupe of first-trained Horses and Ponies. This combination of excellence will form the greatest attraction ever yet offered to the public.

Having effectively blown his very loud trumpet, the showman announced the prices - two bob, a shilling and a tanner (10p, 5p and 2.5p). The cheapest tickets meant you had to stand.

Fanque and company - Now billed as Pablos Royal Circus - were back in 1861 for Easter, in the old Market Place. And this time there was some new technology: To announce the opening of the doors, morning and evening, Madame Salvi will make her TERRIFIC ASCENT upon the electric wire, a quarter of an inch thick, from the ground to the top of the circus.

Another attraction was the giving away, by raffle, of a gold watch to a member of the audience. Every ticket sold went into the draw. Then there was a bit of excitement in the proceedings. Two lads picked from the audience were blindfolded and invited to draw the tickets from a hat.

The 20th ticket drawn was the winner - a neat way of cranking up the tension.

Pablo Fanques  life is as fascinating as anything the Beatles assembled on Sgt Pepper, or anywhere else.

For a start he was not christened Pablo Fanque. He was William Darby, from Norwich, son of a black man, John Darby, who had possibly been brought to England as a slave.

John had been a butler. His son William, born in 1796, aspired to greater things.

He was orphaned while young and found himself apprenticed to the owner of a travelling circus. The colour of the young lads skin made him exotic and this, in circus terms, was an advantage.

He became a skilled horseman, acrobat and rope walker and, in time, became, too, the owner of his own circus, travelling Britain and becoming popular and famous., as well as respected.

To John Lennon, who wrote the song (in fact the words are taken almost exactly from the poster), the people were just names on a fading piece of paper.

Thanks to Dr John Turner, formerly of Liverpool University, circus expert and author of the two-volume Victorian Arena (Lingdales Press, Formby, 1995 and 2000), we can put some fascinating flesh on these long-dead bones.

Pablo's bones lie along with those of his first wife in St Georges Fields, Leeds, now part of the university campus, but once the Leeds General Cemetery.

Her death was a tragedy. Susannah Darby, nee Marlaw, was the daughter of a Birmingham button-maker. She was appearing at her husband Pablo's circus at the Amphitheatre at King Charles Croft, in the Headrow in Leeds  on the night of Saturday March 18, 1848.

Pablo's son was entertaining a large crowd with his tightrope act when a wooden gallery collapsed.

There were 600 people seated on it, and they fell with the timbers. There were a few bruises and the odd broken bone, but only one fatality - Pablo's wife.

She had been hit on the back of the head by two heavy planks. Pablo pulled her from the wreckage himself and carried her to the King Charles Hotel, but a surgeon pronounced her dead.

In the confusion, one of the locals pinched a cashbox with the 50 nights takings in it.

Susannah was buried in the cemetery at the top of Clarendon Road after an inquest decided her death had been an accident.

Pablo mourned, but not for long. In June of that year he married Elizabeth Corker in Sheffield. She was a circus rider and a daughter of a licensee.

She was 22. Pablo, who gave his age as 30, was actually 30 years older than his bride!

He always had trouble with his memory when it came to his age. When the 1861 census was taken, Pablo was staying at the London Hotel, in Bermondsey - a vanished part of Bradford - and is recorded as being William Darby, an equestrian, aged 48. In fact he was a ripe old 65.

And with him is a woman described as his wife, Sarah, allegedly 25 - and an 11-month-old daughter, Eliza.

A bit of a lad, then, our Pablo

He already had had one daughter by Elizabeth, but the child lived just 16 months, and was buried, oddly, in the grave of the first Mrs Darby in Leeds.

In 1859, Pablo had appeared in the Bankruptcy Court in Leeds over the disputed matter of some horses. But he recovered.

His next court appearance concerned that mysterious daughter. In Warrington in 1862, magistrates ordered him to pay half a crown (25p) a week to his erstwhile companion Sarah, to maintain his daughter Eliza. At the time Pablo was 66, though what age he was admitting was anybodys guess.

Fanques last circus opened in Nottingham in December 1870. Dr Turner has yet to work out his movements between then and May 1871.

On the fourth of that month, William Darby, known to the world as Pablo Fanque, died of bronchitis at the Britannia Inn in Stockport at  the age of 71.

His family remained with the show, which was bought by a roundabout operator called Toby Knight. Their stay was short, because Knight brought in some Japanese for his show, and the family link ended.

Pablo, meanwhile, was buried with his first wife after a spectacular funeral.

He might not have embodied the values of fidelity, but there was little doubt he was held in the highest regard.

Fully 30 years after his death, the chaplain of the Showmens Guild, wrote: "In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line [bar], for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession".

The camaraderie of the ring has but one test - ability.

So that was Pablo Fanque, whose up-and-down, round-and-round life seems perfectly captured in that whirly-swirly music on Sgt Pepper.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. 1967

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