Mary Jane Kirby (nee Samwell) 1853 – 1947


The Era 11 March 1866Mary Jane Samwell was born in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, to William and Mary Ann (nee Fowler).  In childhood she toured with her father, younger sister Adeline and brother William in England and the Continent.

In 1868 Mary and Adeline made their London debut at the Royal Amphitheatre and Circus in Holborn.  Their mother had died the previous year and Mary wanted to leave the circus, which she did in 1870, to live with her grandparents in St Helier.  She became a milliner.

Growing up in Jersey, Mary was friends with Emile Charlotte Le Breton, whose stage name was Lily Langtry, a noted actress in the late 19th century.  Lily’s father, William Corbet Le Breton, was the rector of St Helier and had married Mary Jane’s parents.  Mary Jane sang at Lily’s wedding to Edward Langtry in St Helier in 1874.

Mary married Robert Kirby, a marine engineer, in 1876.  They moved to London and had several children.  None of their children followed a circus life although her daughter Adeline (obviously named after her sister) was an opera singer before her marriage.  Mary died in Kent in 1947.

(Advertisement from The Era 11 March 1866. 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.