Stephen Samwell c1767 – 1816

Circus Proprietor

Hull Packet 24 August 1813Head of the Samwell family, Stephen’s original surname was Samuel and he was most probably Jewish.  In 1789 he married Rebecca Saunders, daughter of the great showman Abraham, in London.  Stephen wasted little time in getting his show on the road as one of the earliest travelling circuses in England.  He and Rebecca had at least three children during the 1790s.  Their first child William would eventually take over the business.

For almost two decades Stephen exhibited his show at London’s annual Bartholomew Fair offering tumbling, rope dancing, and ‘wild beast’ shows.  In the early 1800s Samwell’s was regularly visiting the annual fairs in eastern counties.  On at least one occasion he combined his show with that of fellow circuses.  The combined Samwell, Kite and Moritz circus in Hull which exhibited for only a few days in 1813 was a grand variety of entertainments – tight rope dancing, equestrian feats, slack-wire dancing, horses leaping through balloons, tricks by performing dogs, and Billy Button’s Wild Goose Chase which was a popular equestrian play.

Tragedy struck three years later when the circus visited Norfolk.  Aged just 45, Stephen died as a result of an accident in which an elephant that was part of the circus show had to be destroyed.  His wife Rebecca outlived him by another 19 years.

After Stephen’s death Samwell’s Circus was taken over by his son William who, along with his enterprising wife Mary Ann, would achieve remarkable success.

(Advertisement from Hull Packet and Original Weekly 24 August 1813. 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.