The Victorian era was the golden age of the circus. Popular entertainment for the masses, it embraced all classes of society; from the lowly paid factory worker to the aristocracy, and even royalty. Everybody seemed to love the circus. By the time that Queen Victoria became monarch of the United Kingdom, the circus had been in existence for almost 70 years. From its humble roots with Philip Astley on the banks of the river Thames in London, it had grown into a world-wide phenomenon. In fact, it was possibly Britain’s greatest cultural export.
With its roots in displays of military equestrianism, as presented by the patriotic heroic figure of Astley, one might have expected the circus to become a political vehicle for purely jingoistic equestrian performances. To a certain extent this was true, and many programmes did contain re-enactments of victorious British battles. But what was important was that the circus rapidly diversified to include a wide range of skills; acrobatics and balancing, juggling, wire-waking, clowning, feats of strength, stilt walking, and others. By becoming increasingly more diverse, it also became inclusive. The circus allowed women to compete, and often succeed, in a masculine world and it allowed a growing number of performers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to prosper. Perhaps the most well-known of these was Pablo Fanque. Born William Darby, in Norwich in 1810, Fanque had an African heritage. Starting out with William Batty’s Circus at the age of about 9-years-old, he soon became an accomplished performer, both as an acrobat and as an equestrian. Often referred to in the press as a “Gentleman of Colour”, by January 1842 he was set to establish his own company and in doing so became the first black circus proprietor in Britain.