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A black star of early circus in the ‘hardware borough’

Haymarket in Sheffield in 1900, taken by an unknown member of Sheffield Photographic Society
Haymarket in Sheffield in 1900, taken by an unknown member of Sheffield Photographic Society

Over the past 250 years, Sheffield has attracted countless major touring circuses, writes Prof VanessaToulmin.

In the early 19th century circus was presented in semi-permanent circular wood and stone buildings and during the 1830s Sheffield circuses were erected on Sycamore Street, Wicker and near Paradise Square.

Prof Vanessa Toulmin at the Circus! Show of Shows exhibition at Weston Park Museum

Prof Vanessa Toulmin at the Circus! Show of Shows exhibition at Weston Park Museum

In 1837, a new circus venue was built at Haymarket, becoming a popular base for circus companies during the winter.

Many esteemed showmen presented in Sheffield, including Buffalo Bill Cody, William Cooke and Andrew Ducrow, one of the foremost equestrienne directors of the period.

Ducrow’s time here was to end in a rather ill-natured experience though, as recounted by circus historian, Thomas Frost in 1881: “The Master Cutler and Town Council determined to patronize the circus officially, and appeared at the head of a cortège of between forty and fifty carriages, containing the principal manufacturers and their families.

“But, on the Master Cutler sending his card to Ducrow, in the anticipation of being personally received, Ducrow replied, through one of his subordinates, that he only waited upon crowned heads, and not upon a set of dirty knife-grinders”’

Part of the playbill that inspired John Lennon to write For the Benefit of Mr Kite

Part of the playbill that inspired John Lennon to write For the Benefit of Mr Kite

As you can imagine, the Lord Mayor did not respond well to this insult: “The astounded and indignant Chief Magistrate immediately ordered his coachman to turn about, and the entire cavalcade returned to the Town Hall, where a ball was improvised, instead of the intended visit to the circus. Thus Ducrow's prospects in the hardware borough were ruined by his own hasty temper and overbearing disposition”’

Despite Ducrow’s reaction, other circus proprietors found Sheffield a lucrative and welcoming place to visit and the semi-permanent Haymarket building became a popular fixture in the city.

Campaigners from the Chartist movement, the anti-Corn Law revolts and the early suffrage campaigns also gave regular speeches at the circus, placing the venue at the heart of radical politics in 19th century Sheffield.

By the mid-1800s, the circus was fully established and situated largely on the Castle Market in Castlegate. The recent identification of a collection of over 120 circus playbills from this period at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies has now shone new light onto this unknown part of the city’s entertainment history.

Circus owner Pablo Fanque

Circus owner Pablo Fanque

The highlights of the collection are 60 playbills dating from the 1840s and 50s relating to the legendary black British circus proprietor, Pablo Fanque. Fanque, has the honour of being the only circus owner to be immortalised in a Beatles lyric; the song Being for the Benefit for Mr Kite was inspired by a poster purchased by John Lennon relating to a circus presented by Pablo Fanque in Rochdale.

Born William Darby in Norwich in 1810 to John and Mary Stamp, Fanque apprenticed with William Batty’s circus at an early age. He originally trained as an acrobat, and is likely to have appeared in Sheffield in 1839.

Fanque subsequently become a celebrated equestrian, and went on to be one of the most successful circus proprietors of the age, returning to Sheffield many times. At the height of his fame, he was described ‘as an artist of colour… the hit of the evening…never seen surpassed, or even equalled’. This London review from 1847 is one of the very rare references to his race in contemporary accounts and his ethnicity is seldom mentioned in the hundreds of newspaper reports covering his circus.

Following the tragic death of his first wife Suzannah, his second marriage strengthened his links to the city, marrying Elizabeth, daughter of George and Martha Corker, who were licensees of the Bull and Yoke in Sheffield.

One of the rediscovered Sheffield Pablo Fanque circus playbills. Picture courtesy of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library

One of the rediscovered Sheffield Pablo Fanque circus playbills. Picture courtesy of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library

The great Pablo Fanque is just one the many figures in the story of circus in the ‘hardware borough’.

You can find out more in the current Circus! Show of Shows exhibition, at Weston Park Museum and in my upcoming talk, A History of Circus in Sheffield, on Saturday, October 6, 6-7pm at the Millennium Gallery.

Experience the sights and sounds of circus for yourself at the unmissable Circus Sunday event taking place in Weston Park, October 7, noon-4pm, as part of the Off the Shelf Festival of Words.

Part of a Sheffield poster for Pablo Fanque's farewell appearance in the city. Picture courtesy of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library

Part of a Sheffield poster for Pablo Fanque's farewell appearance in the city. Picture courtesy of Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library