Amy Samwells 1851 – aft1927

Slack-Wire Artiste, Equestrienne, Costumier

Emily Samwells was born in Kent to equestrians John and Charlotte.  She changed her forename to Amy in her adult career.  She had seven siblings but only Roland survived to adulthood.

As expected of circus families, Amy was taught the art of equestrianism from a young age.  When she was 8 years old she made her debut in her uncle John Ginnett’s Circus in Sheffield as La Petite Amy on the tight rope.  During the 1860s she and her father performed in England and Scotland, touring with various circuses, until in 1867 John had an accident, thereby ending his career.

Amy continued her engagements in different circuses.  She was billed as Queen of the Wire due to her dazzling and daring act sometimes performed amidst a shower of fireworks. In 1871, whilst with Cooke’s Royal Circus, Amy appeared before the Prince and Princess of Wales in Scarborough.

In 1879 Amy married her cousin John Henry Walker, an equestrian.  John had a stellar career mostly on the Continent. Within months of their marriage Amy and John were with Circus Oroszy and Wulpp’s Circus touring Hungary and Austria for a few months.  Over the next few years they would re-visit Europe in between engagements in England.

Such successful careers were shadowed by tragedies in their personal lives.  In a period of three years Amy gave birth to three boys but all died as babies.  The sadness continued with the loss of her father in early 1883 followed five months later by John’s death from tuberculosis.

The show must go on and the remainder of the 1880s saw Amy and Roland collaborating their services in circuses in England, Ireland and Scotland, with Roland as ringmaster.

In 1893 Amy injured her knee whilst performing thus ending her slack-wire career.  She turned to costume design and was much sought after by circus managers.  She and Roland frequently offered their services together, and sometimes with Roland’s equestrian wife whose stage name was Miss Elvira.  For the remainder of the decade Amy worked mainly with John Henry Cooke’s Circus as a costumier and dance arranger.

Towards the end of the century Charlotte became unwell and Amy concentrated her work in London so she could look after her.  They moved to Edinburgh where Amy was working with Cooke’s.  After Charlotte died in 1907 Amy returned to London but her whereabouts after 1927 are unknown.

(Image: Playbill for Swiss Gardens, New Shoreham, August 24, 1874. Collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tibbals Digital Collection.)

Contact Caroline Cavanagh at 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.