Pablo Fanque (28 Feb 1796 – 4 May 1871)
Even though there is much speculation about when he was born, many sources agree that William Darby was born in Norwich to an African-born father and English mother. He joined a circus as a horse rider and rope walker and became known by his stage name of Pablo Fanque. His performances in 1847 was very successful, with The Illustrated London News raving about this ‘artiste of colour’ and his ‘extraordinary horse training skills’. The circus historian George Speight said that ‘by his own industry and talent, he got together as fine a stud of horses and ponies as any in England’. He even performed in front of Queen Victoria in his run at London’s Astley’s Amphitheatre as well as employing Elizabeth Sylvester who was Britain’s first female clown. He went on from there to operate his own circus for 30 years, during which time he toured extensively through England, as well as Ireland and Scotland. Even the legendary Jem Mace toured with Fanque in 1861. His circus’ were regarded as the most popular in Victorian Britain for 30 years in spite of the fact that he was the first non-white circus proprietor in Britain.
It’s entirely normal to see reference to his African heritage, but unusual to see a Black man in such a prominent position in the entertainment industry not as a performer, but as a businessman. And well-respected at that. A quote in the Blackburn Mercury reads as follows:
I am sure that the friends of temperance and morality are deeply indebted to him for the perfectly innocent recreation which he has afforded to our population, by which I am sure hundreds have been prevented from spending their money in revelling and drunkenness
He seems to be one of the earliest examples of prominent Black entertainers in the Western world along with Ira Aldridge, who performed in London as an actor as early as 1825, albeit as a slave named Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam. Unfortunately, his wife died as a result of a structural accident at a show, and Fanque himself died penniless. His story becomes more incredible when noted that a funeral procession, band and four coaches and mourners marched ahead of his coffin when he died. On their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, the Beatles pay homage to Fanque by mentioning him in a song entitled Being for the Benefit of Mr.Kite!