Arthur Nelson was engaged by Pablo Fanque (real name William Darby), the first black circus proprietor in Britain, on a number of occasions. It was while touring with his tented circus that Nelson was to tragically die on 27 July 1860 while at Burnley. Pablo and a few circus friends attended his funeral a few days later at Burnley cemetery.

Astley's. — Mr. Pablo Fanque, and his Trained Steed

Astley’s. — Mr. Pablo Fanque, and his Trained Steed
Illustrated London News, 20 March 1847, p.189.

In modern times he become synonymous with the Beatles song, “For the Benefit of Mr Kite” found on the Sergeant Pepper album. John Lennon stated that his lyrics were inspired by a playbill for Pablo’s circus which he bought in an antique shop.

John Lennon with Pablo Fanque playbill

John Lennon with Pablo Fanque playbill

The playbill referred to Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal appearance in Rochdale, dated 14 February 1843. William Kite was the son of a circus proprietor, and therefore brought up as an equestrian as well as a tight rope walker. He and Pablo, like many proprietors, provided tuition in horse riding and management to Ladies and Gentlemen when not performing.

Today, Pablo Fanque has become an icon of African-British history and is the “Keystone of the Heritage Corner” in Leeds where his grave can be found:

The website asks us to “Discover … the life, times and circus world of Pablo Fanque – and other African-Victorian personalities. These narratives intertwine with the pop-culture revolution of the 1960’s – highlighting migration, positive cultural exchange and the rich legacies of diversity today”.

However, there was a less savoury side to Fanque, that should not be forgotten.

Fanque seems, at best, to have been an irritable man, if not violent. In 1847, he attacked James Henderson (not the J. Henderson on the playbill), an employee which, although taken to court, was settled without full legal recourse. – “He [Henderson] was unable to keep the horse quiet, and thereupon the defendant, after one or two somewhat uncivil expressions of disapprobation, threw the comb and brush at him (complainant), and then (probably from the force of association) began ‘kicking’ at his legs. — John Leach and James Geary confirmed the complainant’s account …” – (Blackburn Standard – 13 October 1847 p.3.).

Another assault took place in 1849. – “CHESTERFIELD PETTY SESSIONS, SATURDAY, JULY 28
Pablo Fanque Darby, the proprietor of a travelling equestrian establishment, was charged with assaulting John Wright, of Walton, at Baslow, on the proceeding day.” – (Derbyshire Courier – 04 August 1849 p.2.)

However, a chronic problem was that Pablo was not good at keeping the finances straight. Nelson had a financial dispute over wages with him in April 1858 which went to court.

By October 1858 he was made bankrupt and in June 1859 he was refused protection from bankruptcy owing £2765 with assets of £165. It turned out that Fanque had fooled everyone into thinking he was “the owner of a large equestrian establishment”, but had in fact sold his business to William Batty some years before and hired it back. A creditor claimed that this sale was fraudulent and although the commissioner found that “the transactions with Battye … were of a singular character, and calculated to arouse suspicion … nothing fraudulent had been proved before him”. Even the fact that he had kept no books did not in law “call for punishment”. However, a charge of perjury was more serious. It was claimed that Fanque had sworn an affidavit that the circus was worth £1000 when it had been previously purchased by Batty for £500. “Unfortunately for the bankrupt’s character, it was too clear that the the affidavit was intended to deceive. The statement that the establishment was worth £1000, and was his property, was entirely untrue … the bankrupt had shown that no reliance could be placed on his word”. – (Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser – 4 June 1859)

Even after his death in May 1871, his propensity not to be honest with regard to the way he handled his debts caused problems for others. John Walker, a juggler in his circus had lent him £5, which he required to be repaid, but Pablo had died suddenly. As a result he sued Elizabeth Darby, his widow and administratrix of the estate. As a result, Elizabeth’s barrister in the case, “asserted that the defendant had not a rag, her husband having died hopelessly insolvent. Sometime before his death, the deceased assigned every particle of his property, in consideration of a sum of £150 lent to him by a Mr. Knight, of Manchester, who had now taken possession of everything”.  – (Huddersfield Chronicle – 13 May 1871 p.8.)

In order to settle the case, her barrister paid the £5 out of his own pocket.

Written by admatters