First black circus owner and Beatles inspiration has grave highlighted by Historic England


The grave of the Victorian circus owner who inspired a song by The Beatles has been relisted to mark Black History Month.

Historic England has created two Grade II new listings - including the grave of a liberated slave and the bust of a renowned playwright - and has added three amendments to existing listings to mark the annual focus on the contributions of black people to history and contemporary society.

The changes come amid increasing awareness of controversial statues and monuments, and as part of Historic England’s Strategy for Inclusion, Diversity and Equality which ensures its “commitment to ensuring that a diverse range of people are able to connect with, enjoy and benefit from the historic environment”.

However, as well as unveiling two new Grade II listings, the heritage body has also made amendments to existing listings, adding extra details, “to highlight and celebrate their historical significance” - including to the listed grave of William "Pablo Fanque" Darby and his wife, in Leeds, to showcase his “extraordinary story”.

Darby was more widely known under his professional name, Pablo Fanque. He was one of the most successful circus impresarios in Victorian England and the first black circus owner in Britain.

His skill with horses was renowned throughout Victorian society, and he had an early appreciation of the power of advertising. He also regularly held performances to raise money for fellow circus performers in need because of retirement or ill health.

It was one of his adverts, for one of the many charitable performances, that inspired John Lennon to write the 1967 Beatles song Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!, a song that featured on their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

That same year, when the Liverpool band were in Sevenoaks, Kent, making a promotional film for Strawberry Fields Forever, Lennon wandered into an antiques shop near their hotel where he bought a framed Victorian circus poster from the 1840s.


The poster announced a Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal show that would be for the benefit of Mr Kite, a performer and the son of circus owner James Kite, and would feature “Mr J Henderson the celebrated Somerset thrower” and Zanthus the horse. Some of the names and locations were changed, but the poster provided inspiration for The Beatles’ song lyrics.

Darby’s wife, Susannah, was born around 1801 and died on 18 March 1848 when the gallery seating at her husband’s circus collapsed on her during a performance.

Their grave was originally listed alongside three other graves. Historic England has now amended his listing, however, by splitting all four graves into separate listings.

Grave - James O. Davies
Grave - James O. Davies

The new Grade II listings unveiled by Historic England today include a bust of Black British playwright, Alfred Fagon, in Bristol. He was among one of the most notable Black British playwrights of the 1970s and 1980s.

The other is of the gravestone of Joseph Freeman, in Chelmsford, Essex, an enslaved African-American who fled New Orleans and sought refuge in England between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and its abolition in 1864. The gravestone also received a Grade II listing.

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said: “These new additions are part of our ongoing commitment to recognising and celebrating our diverse heritage.”