Mary Ann Samwell (nee Fowler) 1832 – 1867


Mary Ann Fowler was born in Jersey in the Channel Islands, to Thomas Walter Walker Fowler, who was a hairdresser, and Mary (nee Kinver).  She had two sibling:  Thomas William who died aged two in 1836, and Jane Elizabeth, born 1838 who took up her father’s profession but never married and lived a long life in Jersey.

Thomas Fowler’s parents were originally from Devon and Dorset in England but they moved to Jersey around 1809 and he was born in St Helier in 1812.  Mary Ann’s mother, originally from Cornwall, was a pianist who, before her marriage, accompanied the violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini, frequently regarded as one of the most outstanding violinists of all time.  Mary Ann continued her mother’s passion and was recorded in Jersey census records as either a Music Teacher, Piano Teacher, or Professor of Music.

We do not know how Mary Ann met the circus equestrian William Samwell.  His sister Mary Ann and her husband Henry Cornwall moved to St Helier in 1844 when Henry opened a riding school.  Henry later took up other interests as a publican and then opened a circus amphitheatre.  Perhaps William met Mary Ann during a visit to the Cornwalls or maybe he was appearing in one of Henry’s circus shows.  However they met, they eventually married in Jersey in 1851.

Several children were born to William and Mary Ann:  Mary Jane in 1853 in St Helier, twins Adeline Gertrude and Maria Louise in St Helier in 1855 (Maria died in 1857), and son William Thomas Walker in Belfast in 1858.

By 1865 William had the children on the road performing as equestrians and advertising as William Samwell and Family, emphasising the youthfulness of his skilled children.

In 1867 Mary Ann died of consumption when she was aged 34.  One can only imagine the grief such an early death caused her young children who, considering they were travelling in circuses on the road at the time, probably did not find out for many months after her death.

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.