The Leeds tragedy which killed wife of Britain's first black circus owner

Pablo Fanque was one of the most famous characters in the history of the British circus.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 11th May 2017, 5:08 pm
Updated Friday, 12th May 2017, 1:07 pm
Royal Exchange, Boar Lane
Royal Exchange, Boar Lane

The mixed race showman of African heritage was the first non-white man to run his own circus, and he often brought his performers to Leeds.

Yet it was in the city - where he was eventually buried - that he was to encounter family tragedy.

Born William Darby in Norwich, it is thought that Fanque's father may have been brought to the country from Africa as a household servant - although it is also rumoured that he was born in a workhouse. He later adopted the stage name Pablo Fanque after being apprenticed to a travelling circus.

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Coloured Cloth Hall

The 19th-century trailblazer is even mentioned in one of The Beatles' best-known hits. Fanque was a noted equestrian and his circus became the most popular in Britain during the Victorian 'golden age' of travelling entertainment.

In 1848, his wife Susannah was watching their son perform on the tightrope as part of the crowd in the King Charles Croft ampitheatre in Leeds. A gallery seating 600 people collapsed, and Susannah was killed when heavy planks hit her in the back of the head. She was treated by surgeons at the King Charles Hotel, but they could not save her life.

Susannah was buried in Woodhouse Lane Cemetery, now St George's Field on the University of Leeds campus. Although he re-married and lived for another 20 years, Fanque requested to be buried alongside his first wife in Leeds. His favourite horse led the funeral procession.

More than a century a later, John Lennon used an 1843 playbill for Fanque's Circus Royal, which he’d bought in an antique shop, to compose the lyrics for The Beatles' hit Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite! The song featured on the band's iconic album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Coloured Cloth Hall

Visitors to Leeds City Museum can learn more about Fanque a free local history fair this weekend. Actors will be entertaining visitors with a special production all about Fanque and his enthralling life at the event on Sunday May 14.

Patrick Bourne, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ assistant community curator, said:

“Pablo Fanque’s tale is one of the many beguiling chapters in the incredible story of Leeds which have had a lasting impact on the city and its people.

“Bringing those who have a passion for local heritage together emphasises just how absorbing and rich that story is and it’s always inspiring to see more people learning about the places where they live and the characters and events which have made Leeds the place we love today.”

Sunday’s event will include 20 stallholders, comprised of local history societies, family history experts and some selling reproductions of old Leeds maps.

Talks will also be given on subjects including Leeds Civic Trust Blue Plaques and the history of Aireborough.

An exciting performance of Irish music will open the event, which runs from 11am until 3pm, with talks until 5pm.