Anyone who has ever listened to The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band–and that’s a few hundred million people at the last estimate–will know the swirling melody and appealingly nonsensical lyrics of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” one of the most unusual tracks on that most eclectic of albums.
For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair—what a scene
Over men and horses, hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire!
In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world!
But who are these people, these horsemen and acrobats and “somerset turners” of a bygone age? Those who know a bit about the history of the circus in its mid-Victorian heyday–before the coming of the music halls and the cinema stole its audience, at a time when a traveling show could set up in a mid-size town and play for two or three months without exhausting demand–will recognize that John Lennon got his vocabulary right when he wrote those lyrics. “Garters” are banners stretched between poles aloft held by two men; the “trampoline,” in those days, was simply a springboard, and the “somersets” Mr. Henderson undertakes to “throw on solid ground” were somersaults.
While true Beatlemaniacs will know that Mr. Kite and his companions were real performers in a real troupe, however, few will realize that they were associates of what was probably the most successful, and almost certainly the most beloved, “fair” to tour Britain in the mid-Victorian period. And almost none will know that Pablo Fanque–the man who owned the circus—was more than simply an exceptional showman and perhaps the finest horsemen of his day. He was also a black man making his way in an almost uniformly white society, and doing it so successfully that he played to mostly capacity houses for the best part of 30 years. (more…)