Mary Ann Samwell (nee Jones) c1792 – c1840

Circus Proprietress

Bolton Chronicle 13 January 1838Mary Ann Jones was born about 1792 and married William Samwell in 1813 in Yorkshire.  They were to have 11 children with 6 surviving to adulthood.  On the death of Stephen Samwell in 1816 William took over proprietorship of Samwell’s Circus.

Thomas Frost’s description of the circus’ 1825 visit to Bartholomew Fair describes Mary Ann as the ‘money-taker, a slender fine lady with three feathers in a jewelled turban and a dress of blue and white muslin and silver’ (from The Old Showmen and the Old London Fairs pages 270-272).  Circumstances for Samwell’s Circus abruptly changed with the death of William in 1834.  Mary Ann was now widowed with six children – the eldest was 17 and the youngest was only a few months old.

The show must go on and Mary Ann took over proprietary of the circus.  She promoted the circus through newspaper advertisements and expanded the stud.  She hired acrobats, slack and tight rope acts, and encouraged the nobility and gentry to attend.  The circus toured the usual travelling fair circuits in east England and also ventured to northern counties for the first time.

In 1835 Samwell’s Circus was patronised by King William IV and Queen Adelaide in Surrey.  The following year the circus was again visited by royalty, this time in Ramsgate before Princess Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent.  (Mary Ann’s grandson Roland Samwells would entertain Victoria when she was Queen 50 years later).

By 1837 Mary Ann had built up the circus to be a large company with 20 equestrians, 15 Arabian and Hanovarian horses, and an array of African ponies.  The Circus was at its peak and very profitable.  In a later interview, Mary Ann’s daughter-in-law Charlotte Samwells said Samwell’s Circus was so successful they did not have time to count their takings and simply threw the money on the floor of their caravans and “walked about in it”.

But such a successful venture did have ordeals.  What should have been a usual visit of the circus to Blackburn in Lancashire in 1838 resulted in the local Police Trustees destroying the circus buildings. They did so because there was a long-running dispute with the man who claimed to own the land where the circus was erected. Townsfolk and the local media rallied to Mary Ann (calling her ‘the spirited proprietress’) and her family, lamenting that she had been unwittingly used as a scapegoat in the feud. The circus was re-built and made a roaring trade.  Eventually the circus moved on but in months to come Mary Ann sued the man responsible for demolishing her circus.  She won the case but Samwell’s Circus never revisited Blackburn.

It would appear that Mary Ann died around mid-1840 and her son-in-law Henry Cornwall took over, giving the circus his name.  Thus Samwell’s Royal Circus and the ‘spirited proprietress’ ceased to be.  It was now up to her children to carry on the Samwell name.

(Advertisement from The Bolton Chronicle 13 January 1838.  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.