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Pablo Fanque – master horseman and first Black circus owner in Britain

Updated: Jan 31

Pablo Fanque was born William Darby on 30 March 1810 in Lincoln and was one of five children born to John and Mary Darby.

At the age of 10 or 11, he was apprenticed to circus proprietor William Batty and made his first known appearance as the ‘Young Darby’ in a sawdust ring in Norwich on 26 December 1821. His acts included equestrian stunts and rope walking.

Once established as a circus performer, William Darby changed his professional name to Pablo Fanque. He appears to be a prodigy and was a great juggler, acrobat, tightrope walker, and expert horseman.

Pablo left the William Batty’s travelling circus to join Andrew Ducrow, one of the most prestigious names in the history of the circus and remained with him for some time. There he developed his famous horse training skills – getting his horses to waltz (dance) in time to the music (now referred to as dressage), which was very difficult and rare to see at the time.

By the mid-1830s, Fanque was noted not only as a daringly acrobatic master of the corde volante (French for flying rope), but also as a superb horseman, billed in the press as “the loftiest jumper in England.”

Fanque was renowned for his showmanship and reputation for treating for his acts well. Consequentially, his circus grew to include a stable of 30 horses; clowns; a ringmaster; a band; an “architect” (someone who was charged with erecting the wooden “amphitheatres” in which they performed) and the regular services of Edward Sheldon, a pioneer in the art of billposting whose family would go on to build the biggest advertising business in Britain by 1900.

In the 30 years that Fanque operated his own circus (sometimes in partnership with others), he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland, but he performed mostly in the Midlands and the Northern England counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and what is now Greater Manchester.

Pablo married two times. His first wife, Susannah Marlaw was the daughter of a Birmingham buttonmaker. They had two sons, one of which was called Lionel. On 18 March 1848, Susannah tragically died when part of a circus building collapsed, killing her.

In June 1848, widower Fanque married Elizabeth Corker, a circus rider and daughter of George Corker of Bradford. Corker was 22 years old. With Corker, Fanque had two more sons, George (1854–1881) and Edward Charles "Ted" (1855–1937). Both joined the circus.

Fanque was a charitable man who often donated generously to local charities in the areas he visited, and sometimes discounted the ticket costs for those in need