The Lee Family

Equestrians, gymnasts, clowns

The Lee surname is well known in the USA circus arena through Henry Charles Lee’s famous family of equestrians who performed extensively throughout that country, and some international sites, in the mid to late 1800s.

The Lee link with the Samwell family is through Sincer Roseler Lee who was born around 1826 in Lambeth.  Roseler, as she was known, was an equestrian and married Stephen Samwell in 1843 when she was 17.  She was mentioned only a few times in bills for circus performances but she was busy giving birth to eight children over the next 14 years although only three survived to adulthood.  Of those, only one continued in the circus business – Leon Samwells (apart from Harry Samwells‘ short career.)  Stephen died in 1859 when her youngest child was still a baby and Roseler later married Cedric Wright, an upholsterer, in 1871.  With Leon travelling the world with his own family, Roseler’s other two children took Cedric’s surname and followed his occupation.

The exact link between Roseler and the Lee circus family is not clear.  It is possible she was a sister of Henry Charles and Stephen Lee.  The latter took the stage name of Lavater Lee and performed as an equestrian alongside John and William Samwell, and Henry and Mary Ann Cornwall (nee Samwell) in the 1840s throughout England.  In 1848 Lavater and Henry Charles Lee travelled to the USA together with their respective families.  Henry remained in the USA, fathering many children who performed as equestrians in a variety of circuses until the late 1800s.  Lavater spent a few years performing in the USA but returned to England where his children branched out as acrobats, gymnasts, musicians, animal trainers, and clowns.  They performed mostly in England but also travelled the Continent, Ireland, and Australia.  Subsequent generations kept the stage name of Lavater Lee, as Henry had also named one of his sons.  The name Lavater was also given to a son of Roseler and Stephen Samwell, who in turn named his son Lavater.

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