Our Century

The remarkable Mr D

Amazing Joseph Darby

He was the forerunner of the modern stunt-man. And in the early thirties the amazing feats of Dudley publican, Joseph Darby were still talking points over a pint in pubs and bars across the Black Country. Joseph, who was pulling pints behind the bar in Dudley in 1932, had been a world famous figure in his early days, having set up a string of incredibly bizarre records.

DarbyApart from being an internationally renown champion jumper, Darby (pictured right) was also regarded as the most remarkable trick jumper ever born. In his leaping days he would take a spring jump onto water in a tank, touch the surface with his feet and spring of again without wetting the upper parts of his shoes. Likewise he would jump onto a crate of eggs, touch them and spring off in an instant without breaking a single shell.

One death defying feat involved him jumping over the back of a chair onto the FACE of his little daughter, lying on the ground, and springing off again without hurting her in the slightest - but leaving on her cheeks the marks of whitening from the soles of his shoes.

Joseph's fantastic abilities reached the ears of King Edward who was apparently as baffled as everyone else as to how he did it. In fact the King was so intrigued a command performance was arranged at London's Covent Garden for the publican's abilities to be tested. The King was so bowled over by Joseph's jumping that he sent him a cheque for 25.

Joseph performed before most of the crown heads of Europe who would see him presenting one of his favourite freak jumps - leaping over a handsome cab. As his fame spread, Joseph was beset with challenges from all parts of Europe.

In fact the more he jumped the more daring his feats became. The stunt man was so at home in the air that he eventually became known as "the man bird", a name which greeted him everywhere he went from New York to Vienna, Warsaw to Paris and Berlin to Brussels.

The man bird's more picturesque feats were: clearing a full sized English billiard table lengthways, jumping over a chair placed on top of a table with his ankles tied together , springing from a brick, stood on end, over seven chairs without causing the brick to move, and leaping over ten chairs placed together in one jump.

But these were his fancy jumps. In his matches he performed real athletic feats, beat all-comers and smashed every existing record. He attracted huge crowds all across the Black Country where he became an idol among the sporting fraternity. He set record after record with backward spring jumps, high jumps with ankles tied together, leaping billiard tables, and a number of spring jumps of different kinds.

And during the 17 years he held the world jumping championship - from 1882 to 1893 - he was regarded as one of the fittest men in the world, although in later years he acquired a Pickwickian paunch.

Born at Windmill End, Dudley, on August 6, 1862, Joseph Darby, known for his modesty, was reluctant to discuss his feats. But in an Express & Star interview in the early thirties, he said he started jumping almost as soon as he could walk. "My first recollections, however, are of the days when, as a boy at school, I beat the masters who tried to jump further than I could,." he said.

He started working life as a horse nail maker, later moving to the coal pits. But his leap to fame came when he appeared at a charity gathering in London as a young man. About 80 agents besieged the Manchester Hotel where he was staying, all waving attractive contracts. He signed up with one of them to appear at the London Aquarium for 10 weeks at 25 a week. That was the beginning and from there his salary sometimes went as high as 100 a week.

In another five years, at the age of 75, the once champion jumper died. He had been a licensee in Dudley for nearly half a century. When he passed on he ran the Albion Hotel, Stone Street, giving him his final record - the oldest licensee in the town.

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Derek Shorthouse
... we realised that the aircraft had come down on his house...