The Forgotten ‘Gentleman of Colour’ of the Victorian Circus; Joseph Hillier - CircusTalk

Circus News

The Forgotten ‘Gentleman of Colour’ of the Victorian Circus; Joseph Hillier

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 be...
Thanks for reading CircusTalk.News.
Support us by registering or subscribing!
To continue reading this article you must be logged in.
Register or login to unlock 2 free articles per month.
for unlimited access to all news content + job listing.

Steve Ward

Steve Ward has a background in theatre and clowning. He has created and directed many youth circus festivals in the UK, as well as in Germany and Brazil. He has a PhD in the social and cultural history of the circus, and is a member of the Circus Research Network and the Circus Arts Research Platform. To date, he has written seven books and many articles. Steve also lectures on aspects of circus history and has appeared on television and in many radio interviews. Steve is also available as a speaker on this and other circus topics. He also advises on educational and youth circus matters – and he still finds time to occasionally perform as a clown! Further information on Steve at