Calls for black Victorian circus owner to be included in national curriculum

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He was one of the most famous circus owners and great showman of 19th century England.

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Pablo Fanc donned some of the most gorgeous glasses of the era in some of his most massive tops. As an acrobat and horseman, he was considered unmatched. “We have never seen his prowess in horseback riding surpass or equal,” wrote Illustrated London News in 1847.

This entertainer was so loved, that when he died in 1871, thousands lined the streets of Leeds for his funeral. Almost a century later, the Beatles’ song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” His name will be checked in


Yet there was something more remarkable about Fank’s success in Victorian Britain: he was a man of colour.

The Norwich-born performer – believed to be the son of an African or Caribbean servant and an English mother – was the world’s first black circus owner.

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Now, as Black History Month begins, a group of top academics are calling for his remarkable life to be included in the national curriculum.

He believes that his story should be used as a vivid and engaging starting point for a new course field, exploring the often overlooked diversity of working-class British history.

“Fanke’s life was absolutely fascinating,” says Dr Richard Maguire, senior lecturer in history at the University of East Anglia and leader of a new research group, reviewing how black history can be better integrated into the curriculum. Huh. “Her story is full of triumph and tragedy, and I think it will be very appealing to young people. But she is also an example of the rich diversity that is inherent in British communities dating back at least to medieval times.” Is. “

It is argued that ignoring such people, the present curriculum paints an incomplete picture of the national past. Fixing this, so the theory goes, will not only help boost the attainment of today’s students of color, it can also help reduce institutional racism of the future by broadening our collective understanding of the nation’s heritage.

Stop. All that from the circus boy?

Certainly so, says Vanessa Tolmin, professor in entertainment history at the University of Sheffield, who has spent years researching FanKe and who is backing the new call.

“It is someone who overcomes great barriers and prejudices to become an amazing innovator and artist in their field,” she says. “He is just an inspiring figure to learn and explore, while also giving us a greater understanding of the multiplicity of our heritage.”

Potential photo of Pablo Fanc next to a plaque in his hometown of Norwich

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Potential photo of Pablo Fanc next to a plaque in his hometown of Norwich

Undoubtedly, Fank’s life was a lot.

Here there was fame, admiration and, at one point, a show in which a woman dressed in “full bloom dress” danced on horses. He himself was described as “the tallest”. [horse] Jumper in England”; while the big tops of his travels – which he took in England, Scotland and Ireland – were noted for bright colours, slender chandeliers and tiered seating.

But along with the devastation there was distinction: in 1848, Susannah, his first wife, died after a wooden amphitheater collapsed during a performance in Leeds. Contextually, despite a lifetime of acclaim, this circus king will die a virtual pauper, passing into a rented room at a Stockport tavern.

“It is very sad, because it is he who spent his career bringing happiness to others,” says Toulmin.

Fank was born William Darby in 1810 at the Norwich Workhouse (a hall of residence in the city is named after him today).

While details about his childhood are few and far between, we do know that, by the age of 11, he was an orphan and working with Betty’s traveling circus. There, over two decades, he became a crowd-pleaser renowned for his equestrian skills and tight running. At age 31, he hit on a new venture, founding his own touring company with his great friend, clown William Wallet.

Exactly how much discrimination he faced is unknown. Of the more than 300 newspapers compiled by Toulmin, she says that only three mention her complexion—and they’re only by chance. Far more often, they are shining in his praise. He married two white women and fathered six children without any apparent scandal.

Still, as someone whose career is intertwined with both the end of slavery and the early start of the colonial “scramble for Africa”, it seems unimaginable that he would not have faced some prejudice.

A storytelling account in Wallet’s 1870 autobiography recounts how, during a fishing day at Oxford, a student was convinced that Fanck’s success on the river was somehow less than his “colour”. The next morning, Wallet writes, “we were amazed to see the experimental philosopher Engler blackening his face following the most accepted style of Christie Minstrels.”

It is not noted how Fanek reacted.

“It doesn’t seem like they would have faced some discrimination,” Maguire says. “But it’s hard to predict how it would have played out because none of the primary material actually touched on it. There are no current interviews of Fanque. To some extent it has to be guessed.”

Pablo Fanek Poster, 1847

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Pablo Fanek Poster, 1847

Whatever the odds, his own company continued to perform, in one form or another, for the best part of three decades. “Mr. Pablo Fanque’s character for honesty and respect is such, that wherever he has been, he can go again,” said. blackburn standard during one of his stints in the city.

He died in 1871, aged only 61, while living with his second wife, Elizabeth Corker – herself the daughter of a circus artist.

By then, the couple had fallen into poverty—a fate that, while seemingly unjust, was not entirely unusual. Such artists lived their lives on the financial knife edge in Victorian Britain. Finally fell.

Still, rich or not, Fanck’s reputation as one of the great showmen of the era was secure.

After being buried in Leeds – in a plot next to his first wife – the clergy of the Showman’s Guild will pay a fitting tribute. “There is no color line in the great brotherhood of the equestrian world,” he wrote. “There is a test in the cordiality of the ring: ability.”


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