Yorkshire Circus

On the 16th of September 2023, Leeds Civic Trust unveiled a new plaque dedicated to the life and work of Pablo Fanque.  

Fanque is believed to be the first black circus proprietor in the country, credited as a high wire walker, acrobat and equestrian performer. With his circus touring across the country, particularly in the North of England with frequent stops along the corridor from Liverpool to Hull. 

Fanque – originally named William Darby was born to a workhouse family in Norwich, before apprenticing with proprietor William Batty. One of his first known appearances was a show in Norwich on 26th December 1821 – aged 11. 

By 1848 Fanque was a well-renowned circus proprietor, attracting large crowds across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Along with his family, including his son who became a high wire performer, and his wife who would handle tickets and entry. They were performing in the amphitheatre on King Charles Croft in Leeds, When the seating stand collapsed killing his wife. She was buried in what is now St Georges field. 

Over the years many posters and bills advertising shows were created, one found its way into an antiques shop in Sevenoakes in Kent and was picked up by none other than John Lennon. The song ‘For the benefit of Mr. Kite!’ was inspired by a playbill of Pablo Fanques Circus Royal, with Lennon directly quoting both Pablo Fanque by name and exerts from the playbill. 

Pablo Fanque is tied into this city’s culture, upon his death in 1871. He asked to be buried alongside his wife in Leeds, the procession was an extravagant affair as with many circus proprietors of the time, including a band leading the hearse, his favorite horse and 4 coaches of mourners followed behind. There remains a monument to the lives of both on the now disused cemetery field owned by the University of Leeds. 

Today we take a look at our past. As someone who is at the time of writing 28 years old and been in the industry for over 15 years, circus has become a huge part of my life. From producing and displaying new work across the country, to working with groups of children and young people in a creative and fun setting. I owe a lot to those who came before who paved the way for people like myself and the Yorkshire Circus team to carry on doing what we love and inspire more generations. Pablo Fanque has deeply connected roots with the city and his influence on the circus industry and wider pop culture cannot be understated. He will be in the hearts and minds of many for years to come and we thank those who dedicated their lives to entertaining and inspiring the public! 

If anyone would like to know more about the life and legacy of Pablo Fanque, the book: Pablo Fanque and the Victorian Circus: A Romance of Real Life by Gareth H.H Davies is available to purchase.