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Pablo Fanque
Pablo Fanque
Black Circus Proprietor

The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanque's fair

This quotation comes from Lennon and McCartney's track, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, on the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album. The lyrics were inspired by an old play bill that Lennon saw, but who was Pablo Fanque?

Pablo Fanque, born William Darby in Norwich in 1796, was in his time one of the most successful circus performers and proprietors. Orphaned at an early age, he was apprenticed to William Batty, the owner of a travelling circus. Under Batty's tutelage, he became proficient at horse riding, rope dancing and acrobatics, and soon joined the troupe of Andrew Ducrow, who ran one of the most famous circus troupes of the time.

He rejoined Batty in 1834, and performed at the Royal Amphitheatre, Liverpool. In 1836 he was described as the 'loftiest jumper in England'. In 1841 Fanque left Batty's circus to start his own show with two horses. WF Wallet, the famous clown, joined him and they travelled north, opening at Wakefield where Fanque had erected a circus. Over the next six years, "by his own industry and talent, he got together as fine a stud of horses and ponies as any on England". He married Susannah Marlaw, the daughter of a button maker, and started a family.

In 1847 Fanque made his London debut, which was a highly successful engagement. The London Illustrated News reported that "Mr. Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour, and his steed…we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled…Mr. Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. The steed in question was Beda, the black mare that Fanque had bought from Batty. That the horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque's extraordinary horse training skills.

After his success in London, he established his troupe in Manchester, outselling all his competition, which enabled him to remain there with Wallet the clown, always performing to full houses. In 1848, his wife Susannah died in a freak accident when part of the pit collapsed. Several planks hit her on the head and she died instantly. She was buried in Leeds' Woodhouse Cemetery.

Fanque continued to perform throughout the country, with his children, giving open air performances and working with the biggest names in the business, including Young Hernandez (1832-1861) the great American rider, and the clown Henry Brown (1814-1902).
Pablo Fanque died in Stockport in 1871, and was buried in the grave of his first wife. The hearse was preceded by a band, playing the 'Dead March', followed by Pablo's favourite horse, four coaches and his family and friends.

In an age when slavery had not yet been abolished, Fanque appears to have been accepted not only by the circus fraternity, but also by the general public. Given the attitudes of the time, however, it is difficult to believe that he didn't encounter racism, but no evidence has been documented. Thirty years after Fanque's death, the Rev. Thomas Horne, chaplain of the Showman's Guild, wrote:

"In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line, 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".


Text very kindly provided by Dr. John M. Turner



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