On 31 January 1967, while The Beatles were in Sevenoaks, Kent, making a promotional film for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, John Lennon wandered in to an antique shop close to their hotel. There he bought a framed Victorian circus poster from 1843.
The poster announced Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal, coming to Town Meadows in Rochdale. It grandly announced that the circus would be for the benefit of Mr Kite, and would feature “Mr J Henderson the celebrated somerset thrower” and Zanthus the horse.
Lennon set the words to music, which became ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’, which closed the first half of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Mr Kite was William Kite, a performer and the son of circus owner James Kite. In 1810 he had founded Kite’s Pavilion Circus and later moved to Wells’ Circus. It is thought that he worked in Pablo Fanques’ fair between 1843 and 1845. Fanque was Britain’s first black circus owner. He was born William Darby in Norwich in 1796.
Lennon hung the poster in his music room at his home in Weybridge, and began to use it as inspiration for a song. Some of the facts he changed – the circus was coming to Bishopsgate rather than Rochdale; the horse became Henry; the circus became a fair; Mr Kite was ‘late of Wells’s Circus’ rather that of Pablo Fanque (pictured below); and Mr Henderson, rather than Mr Kite, promised to challenge the world.
Minor changes aside, the words of the poster found their way almost unchanged into ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’, which closed the first half of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Lennon sat at his piano and sang phrases from the poster until he had the song, possibly with help from Paul McCartney.
Lennon was later dismissive of the song, as revealed in a range of interview snippets collated in the Anthology book.
I wrote that as a pure poetic job, to write a song sitting there. I had to write because it was time to write. And I had to write it quick because otherwise I wouldn’t have been on the album. So I had to knock off a few songs. I knocked off ‘A Day In The Life’, or my section of it, and whatever we were talking about, ‘Mr Kite’, or something like that. I was very paranoid in those days, I could hardly move.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
He also denied there were hidden drug references in the song.
The whole song is from a Victorian poster, which I bought in a junk shop. It is so cosmically beautiful. It’s a poster for a fair that must have happened in the 1800s. Everything in the song is from that poster, except the horse wasn’t called Henry. Now, there were all kinds of stories about Henry the Horse being heroin. I had never seen heroin in that period. No, it’s all just from that poster. The song is pure, like a painting, a pure watercolour.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Paul McCartney added ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’ to the setlist of his Out There tour in 2013. In a July 2013 interview with Rolling Stone he said he had co-written the song with Lennon.
‘Mr Kite!’ is such a crazy, oddball song that I thought it would freshen up the set. Plus the fact that I’d never done it. None of us in the Beatles ever did that song [in concert]. And I have great memories of writing it with John. I read, occasionally, people say, ‘Oh, John wrote that one.’ I say, ‘Wait a minute, what was that afternoon I spent with him, then, looking at this poster?’ He happened to have a poster in his living room at home. I was out at his house, and we just got this idea, because the poster said ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’ – and then we put in, you know, ‘there will be a show tonight,’ and then it was like, ‘of course,’ then it had ‘Henry the Horse dances the waltz.’ You know, whatever. ‘The Hendersons, Pablo Fanques, somersets…’ We said, ‘What was ‘somersets’? It must have been an old-fashioned way of saying somersaults. The song just wrote itself. So, yeah, I was happy to kind of reclaim it as partially mine.