Tales of a circus star, a wild boy and ancient skeletons

Derek James takes a look at a new book which tells the stories behind Norwich's blue plaques

He was born William Darby in a Norwich workhouse. He died Pablo Fanque, England's first black circus proprietor.

During his life he was a rope-dancer, horse-rider, tumbler and businessman and after his death his circus was name-checked by the Beatles.

The fascinating life of the baby born in a workhouse, the seventh child of a butler, is revealed by one of the blue plaques which dot the streets of Norwich.

In his book The Blue Plaques of Norwich, Nick Williams tells a surprisingly cosmopolitan story of Norwich through the centuries.

As well as the black workhouse baby who grew up to become a circus proprietor, there is the man with Gypsy DNA who was buried near where the castle now stands, more than 1,000 years ago.

The remains of 189 people who had lived in Norwich before the Normans arrived were discovered during excavations for the Castle Mall. Just one skeleton was found to have a DNA marker found only in Romany people – who were originally from India, but were not previously known-of in England until the 16th century.

Most Read

Another plaque commemorates the 'wild boy' found mute and almost naked in Germany and kept as a curiosity by the German-born King George I.

The child was christened Peter, but never learnt to talk. He also preferred sleeping curled in a corner on the floor, although he was taught to wear clothes and to eat at a table.

When George I died, interest in Peter waned and a government grant was paid to the Hertfordshire farmer who cared for him.

One day, he turned up in Norwich. Because he could not speak English he was accused of being a Spanish spy and locked in the Bridewell Prison.

Whether neighing like a horse or making a strange low humming noises (the only utterances Peter is said to have mastered) were the preferred methods of communication for spies of the time, is not recorded!

However, after six weeks, news of the search for 'Peter, the wild youth,' reached Norwich and he was returned to his Hertfordshire home. But he was not forgotten in Norwich, where he is still commemorated in the name of the Wild Man pub – and a blue plaque in Bedford Street.

Another blue plaque, on the side of the John Lewis store, takes us back to William/Pablo.

He was born in 1810, the seventh, and final, child of John Darby, a butler of African or West Indian descent, and his wife Mary.

He was apprenticed to a travelling show and when he appeared with the show in Norwich as an 18-year-old he was billed as 'Young Pablo.'

Aged 31 he set up his own travelling circus. He married a fellow performer, called Susannah, but tragedy struck in the circus ring when the pit collapsed and she was hit on the head by several planks, killing her.

His second wife was also a circus performer and he had two children with her, plus a son from his first marriage, who all followed their parents into the circus. It was a poster for Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal which inspired the Beatles' song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite and the lines 'The Hendersons will all be there, late of Pablo Fanque's Fair, what a scene!'

The poster advertised a St Valentine's Day performance of the circus in Rochdale, Lancashire. Mr Kite was one of Pablo's performers and Mr Henderson was an acrobat, wire-dancer, vaulter and horse-rider.

The final performance of Pablo Fanque's circus was in Nottingham in December 1870. Britain's first black circus owner died in 1871 and is buried in Leeds – but remembered too, in his native Norwich.