For the benefit of Pablo Fanque

I called in today to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, where they are showing an exhibition called “Melbourne Theatres in Transition: 1840 to 1940s An Idiosyncratic View”. This small exhibition at the RHSV has pictures, programs and clippings relating to Melbourne’s theatre industry from the earliest days of the Port Phillip settlement up to the war years.

In his book London, Peter Ackroyd described the palimpsest effect of multiple reincarnations of the particular urban functions found in cities.  Markets, eating places, theatres, charities often tend to be located in particular places, and are constantly renewed as older buildings and enterprises are replaced by newer ones, offering much the same wares. This is largely true of Melbourne’s theatre district.  Theatres particularly in Bourke Street and Exhibition Street were built, knocked down, burnt out, then replaced again.

My attention was attracted to a small scrap book that had press clippings about theatre in Melbourne.  One unattributed clipping looked back fifty years and described the entertainment at Cremorne Gardens in Richmond to celebrate the first anniversary of the Eight Hour Day.  Among the acts described was ‘Pablo Fanque’.

And all of a sudden, the Beatles’ song  ‘For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ began drifting through my head

For the benefit of Mr Kite

There will be a show tonight- on trampoline

On trampoline/

The Hendersons will all be there

Late of Pablo Fanque’s fair- what a scene

The original circus poster from which the inspiration for the song was drawn.

Pablo Fanque was the first black circus proprietor  in Britain.  He was born in England in 1796 and operated his circus for over thirty years. His own acts included rope dancing and equestrian feats. He toured England , Scotland and Ireland. But did he come to Australia?

He was certainly advertised as being here….

Advertisement ‘The Argus’ 8 January 1855

But, alas, it was not THE Pablo Fanque. Instead it was his nephew Billy Banham, who took his uncle’s name and toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1850s and 1860s.  This is the Pablo Fanque who appeared at the Cremorne Gardens (interesting article about the gardens here) and this is the Pablo Fanque for whom a benefit was held in March 1859.

Sydney Morning Herald 10 March 1859

Somehow I think that they really, really, wanted you to attend.

The Melbourne Theatres in Transition exhibition is on at the RHSV, corner a’Beckett and William St until 31 August.  Open 10.00-4.00 Monday to Friday, gold coin donation.

3 responses to “For the benefit of Pablo Fanque

  1. This man went by the name of William BANHAM and when he died in Sydney in 1869 the funeral notices named him as Pablo FANQUE but his death was registered as William BANHAM and record his parents names as William D. and Susan – so the informant (probably his wife) clearly believed that he was the son of Pablo FANQUE aka William DARBY. The google books researcher has him returning to England by 1870 but this was NOT the case. William BANHAM had married Martha ROLLINSON in Manchester in 1854 and the couple are recorded as having two children in Victoria (Annie BANHAM and John BANHAM FANQUE) and a further three in NSW (all as FANQUE). Only the marriage certificate for this couple (Sep 1854 Manchester Vol 8b p.370) where he provided the information, is likely to clear up this little mystery. I am tracking his daughter, Annie, who I believe was probably known as “la Petite Celeste” in his billing. (Visit for detailed references.)

    • Thank you.

    • There’s a fair amount of information about Bily Banham online. If you search carefully, you will find that an Australian newspaper published a death notice for him, as Pablo Fanque in 1869. There´s also some info online about the woman he left behind in Britain. I don’t remember the name. I believe she was a circus performer as well. I recall an account about her involvement later with someone else, who violently attacked her.

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