Visitors can make sloppy slime, build magic lanterns and even take a spin on our vintage carousel. But the most popular event, a perennial family favourite, is the Cotton Mill Circus: an interactive, fun, high-energy story time for our younger visitors that shines a spotlight on some local heroes.
Visitors are challenged to help the kids of the cotton mill turn their grim jobs into colourful circus acts. Lap carriers become strongmen, cotton doffers become magicians, and brave scavengers – poking their heads into the mouth of dangerous machines – become our lion tamers.
Their inspiration, in the story as in real life, is a man called Pablo Fanque.
Pablo’s story is incredible, inspiring, and remains relevant today. Details of his early life remain vague, but we do know that Pablo was born William Darby in 1796. He grew up in Norwich, the son of a black father and a white mother.
Darby Snr’s story is particularly vague, but researchers suggest he was born in Africa and came to Norwich as a household servant. Most records point to Pablo being orphaned by the age of 10. The odds were stacked against him – 19th-century England, still years from child labour laws and the Abolition of Slavery Act (1833), was an unforgiving place for a mixed-race orphan.
However, this didn’t stop Pablo, a man who built a life on defying expectation.
At 11 years old, Pablo was apprenticed to circus proprietor William Batty. A surprising direction to head, perhaps, but Pablo thrived. He made his first known appearance in Norwich on December 26, 1821, as “Young Darby.”
He dabbled in tightrope walking, amongst other things, before finding his real calling – equestrian stunts. Changing his name to Pablo Fanque, eventually he became widely regarded as the finest horse performer in Britain.
In 1847, with Pablo at the peak of his powers, The Illustrated London News wrote:
Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour, and his steed… we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled… Mr Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. The steed in question was Beda, the black mare that Fanque had bought from Batty. That the horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque’s extraordinary horse training skills.”
In 1841, Pablo became the first black circus owner in Britain, a truly amazing achievement in Victorian England. For the next 30 years, he toured his circus throughout Britain, performing mostly in the Midlands and across Yorkshire, Lancashire, and especially Greater Manchester. He performed for royalty and working classes alike, often organising benefit performances for numerous local charities and for retiring performers.
It’s no stretch to imagine that Pablo would have been a hero to the children of the mills – a man born into hardship and orphaned like them, but, through resilience and determination, graduating to become a hero of the people and an esteemed and respected business owner.
In 1967, Pablo was given the biggest spotlight imaginable, from an unlikely source. That year, John Lennon wandered into an antiques shop and happened upon an old poster for a circus performance in Rochdale from 1843. The performance, for the benefit of a retiring performer called Mr Kite, advertised somersaults, tightrope walking and a man who could stand upside down, on his head, on a pole. That travelling circus belonged to Pablo.
Lennon took the words of the poster and put them to song. For the Benefit of Mr. Kite provides Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with one of its more surreal moments (at the top of a lost list!) and added another strand to Pablo’s incredible legacy.
Here at the museum, we’re still following his inspiration, passing it on to our visitors. Our story, like Pablo’s, doesn’t shy away from hardship and suffering, but chooses to tackle it head on with a positive, surprising and fun resolve.
Pablo would’ve been proud.
The Cotton Mill Circus, as part of Steam, Sweat and Spinners, runs from 11 – 26 February.