Charley Bowen c1837 – 1907

Circus Clown

The Era 20 December 1874John Charles Bowen was born in Birmingham, England.  He does not appear to have come from a circus family.  He performed as Charley Bowen, sometimes Charles, Charlie or just Bowen the Clown.  The earliest recording of his performing career was with the famous circus proprietor Pablo Fanque around 1855 in England.

Charley was most probably engaged with John Swallow’s Circus in the 1860s when he met his future wife, the equestrienne Alice Davies.  Swallow was Alice’s uncle.  Charley and Alice married in 1864 and 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.  Alice was at first billed as Mrs Bowen but later as Madame Elvira.

Charley and Alice had nine children but not all of them 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.  In the 1870s Charley introduced a somersaulting dog into his clown act and was perhaps the first person to do so.  For a short while he managed a hotel in 1871 but was soon back doing clown or jester performance with Madame Elvira frequently on the same bill.  He also co-managed his own circus with a fellow clown performer in 1884 but this appears to have been short-lived.

The father-daughter act was over when Mary Ann married ringmaster Roland Samwells in 1889.  Charley and Madame Elvira continued performing in various circuses with Charley adding ‘vocalist and comic orator’ to his list of services as he wrote and performed original comic songs.

By this time Charley and Alice had made Stockport, then in Cheshire, their home base between engagements.  They were still performing come the turn of the new century but the show was over for Alice who died in late 1901.  Charley died in 1907 in Stockport.

(Newspaper image from The Era 20 December 1874. Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive

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.