Mary Ann Frances Samwells (nee Bowen) 1869 – 1920

Equestrienne, Tight Rope Artiste

The Era 7 April 1900Mary Ann Frances Bowen was born in Northumberland to circus performers John (known as Charley) and Alice Bowen.  She was known by the stage names Mdlle (Mademoiselle) Marian or Miss Elvira.  She had eight siblings, although not all survived to adulthood, and she was the only one to pursue an entertainment career.

The first recorded appearance of Mdlle Marian was alongside her father in 1881 when she was aged 12.  The father-daughter act was billed as the People’s Favourite Clown and the Graceful Tight Rope Artiste.

Over the next few years father and daughter worked together in different circuses, travelling throughout the UK.  Mother Alice sometimes appeared on the same bill as Madame Elvira.  By 1886 Charley had upgraded the self-promotional advertisements calling his daughter England’s greatest tight rope artist and trick art rider, and himself, King of the Clowns.

In 1888 Mary Ann joined Cooke’s Circus in Scotland where Roland Samwells was ringmaster.  The next year they married in Edinburgh.  They had nine children but only four survived to adulthood and none of them worked in the circus business.

During the 1890s Mary Ann, now exclusively using the stage name of Miss Elvira, advertised her services alongside Roland who was now specialising in circus property management as well as being a ringmaster.  They performed the usual circuit of England, Ireland and Scotland but made Stockport, then in Cheshire, a home-base.

The turn of the new century undoubtedly brought difficult times for Mary Ann.  Her mother died in 1901 then three of her babies were born and died between 1902 and 1905.  Charley died in 1907.  Nine months after the birth of her last child Roland died in 1908, leaving her with four young sons.  Some years later Mary Ann married music hall manager James Watson.  She died in 1920 in Stockport.

(Newspaper image from The Era 7 April 1900. 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.