Slack Rope Artiste, Strongman, Vaulter & Equestrian
Henry Walker, who was of African descent, was born about 1817. His father, also Henry, was an equestrian in the early 19th century. Nothing is known of his mother.
Henry was apprenticed to William Batty’s Circus around 1830 but he was first billed as a somersault performer in 1837. By 1840 he was with Henry Cornwall’s circus. Cornwall had taken over Samwell’s Circus upon the death of his wife’s mother. No doubt this is where Henry met his future partner, Nancy Samwell whom he married in 1841.
Henry and Nancy had at least four children who were born in different places as the family travelled with circus engagements. Two of those children would later become performers – John an equestrian and juggler, and William who took the stage name of Reklaw as a slack-wire artiste.
Henry performed alongside the Samwell brothers and separately in various circuses in England, France and Germany. He expanded his act to include strongman feats and was often billed as The Herculean Iron Arm or The Earth-Spurning Aeronaut. His speciality was tourbillions, a dazzling display of scores of somersaults on the ground without using a spring board.
In 1855 Henry was amongst an exclusive selection of performers engaged for shows in Melbourne and Sydney in Australia in Astley’s Amphitheatre and Ashton’s Amphitheatre respectively. He then completed several engagements on the Continent in between managing his own Allied Troupe, which included his brother-in-law William Samwell.
Henry’s venture was not profitable and he returned to the Continent in successive tours. However, during his last journey he died of typhus in Hamburg. A short time later Nancy appealed to the circus community to take on her sons as apprentices. They continued the great legacy left by their father Harry Walker.
(Advertisement from The Hampshire Telegraph 24 August 1840. 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 email@example.com 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.