Alice Davies was born about 1846 in Liverpool to John Davies and his wife Elizabeth (nee Swallow). Her father was a stone miner and dock labourer with no apparent links to the circus industry. Her mother’s brother, John Swallow, was a circus proprietor who was on the road in England by the 1840s. His descendants continued managing circuses until the 1930s (and perhaps beyond) in England and the USA.
The earliest reference to Alice’s career as an equestrienne was with John Swallow’s Circus when she was 18, billed as Miss Davies. Given the tendency for circus folk to train their youngsters from an early age, it is likely Alice was working with Swallow’s, or other circuses, in her younger years.
Charley Bowen, a circus clown and her future husband, was probably also with Swallow’s circus at this time. Alice and Charley married in 1864 then continued working with Swallow’s Circus for many years touring England, Scotland and Ireland. They also took short-term engagements with Pablo Fanque, Cooke and Ginnett. At first Alice was billed as Mrs Bowen but she later took the title of Madame Elvira as a scene and trick-act rider. She received positive reviews for her ‘remarkably fine dancing [and] her leaps through four balloons [which] have been nightly received with great applause’ (The Era 26 September 1869).
Alice and Charley had nine children but not all survived infancy. Only one, Mary Ann Frances, continued in the circus industry. In later years Charley and Mary Ann were billed as a double-act, with Charley as The People’s Favourite Clown and Mary Ann as Miss Elvira, the Graceful Tight Rope Artiste.
In 1868 the Bowens were on the bill alongside Thomas and Mary Ann Samwells performing in Cheltenham in Cirque Varieties. Charley, Miss Elvira, and Madame Elvira often performed in the same circus but the father-daughter double-act ended in 1889 when Mary Ann married ringmaster Roland Samwells.
By now Alice and Charley had made Stockport, then in Cheshire, their home base between engagements. They were still performing come the new century but Alice died in late 1901 in Stockport. Husband Charley died a few years later in 1907.
The stage name Elvira was in common use by female performers, particularly conjurors and palmists, towards the end of the 19th century, but perhaps the earliest use of the name was by Alice Davies as Madame Elvira and whose daughter, naturally, was known as Miss Elvira.
(Newspaper image from The Era 19 January 1879. Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.)
Contact Caroline Cavanagh at firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase a copy of Once a Famous Circus which provides much more detail on the Saunders and Samwell travelling circus families.
Text © Caroline Cavanagh 2017.