John Henry Walker 1851 – 1883

Equestrian, Vaulter, Juggler

The Era 6 February 1876John Henry Walker was born to Henry and Nancy (nee Samwell).  With both parents in the circus industry no doubt he learnt his trade from early childhood as the family travelled throughout Britain and the Continent with father Henry’s work as a slack-wire artiste.

When Henry died in 1865 his mother posted a plea to fellow performers to take up her sons as apprentices.  The famous circus manager Pablo Fanque heeded the call and John and his brother William toured with Fanque until his death in 1871.  They went their separate ways in 1872 with John venturing to the Continent where he would establish a stellar career over the next few years.  In 1875 and 1876 he performed before the German Emperor, Crown Prince, and other Royal Family in Berlin.  By now he was specialising in a variety of acts, advertising himself as a Jockey Act Rider, equestrian juggler, champion Arabian vaulter, air diver, and twenty-horse driver.

Back in England in 1877 John was engaged with Hengler’s Grand Circus where he met fellow performer, his cousin Amy Samwells.  Two years later they married and performed in various circuses in England and the Continent. In 1880 John formed his own circus called Walker’s Grand Cirque.  It was a small cast comprising many of John’s former fellow performers but it did not attract the same level of acclaim that John received as a performer so it soon folded.

John and Amy’s successful careers were marred by tragedies in their personal lives.  Within a three year period Amy bore and lost three children. The tragedy continued as in early 1883 John fell ill with tuberculosis.  A few months later he died, aged 31.

John possessed great equestrian skills that were in demand from some of the top circuses of Britain and Europe.  His career lasted barely sixteen years until it was tragically cut short by death.  We are left to sadly ponder, if he had lived, what other fantastic feats and entertainments this very enterprising young man would have given future audiences.

(Advertisement notice from The Era 6 February 1876. 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.