Equestrian, Animal Trainer
Born in Kent to William and Mary Ann Samwell, Thomas would later add the extra ‘s’ to his surname in a career that led him all over the world achieving the greatest accolades of all the Samwell family. At one stage of his long career Thomas was the highest paid animal trainer of the day yet his first years were tinged with tragedy as his father died when Thomas was only four months old followed six years later by the death of his mother.
Thomas was first billed as equestrian Master Samwell with his brothers John and William in 1851. Later he joined Pablo Fanque’s Circus which combined with Madame Newsome’s Circus. Amongst Newsome’s cast was Mademoiselle Rosalie, real name Mary Ann Whiteley, whom Thomas married in 1856.
Thomas and Mary Ann had six children but only one, named after his father, survived to adulthood. After their marriage they continued taking engagements with various circuses in Britain. In 1860 Thomas was engaged with Lord Sanger’s International Circus for a two year tour of Europe. On their return to England Thomas formed his own circus playing in Scotland. It was the first time in almost three decades that the name Samwell’s Circus was used, and it featured gymnasts, clowns, and the usual equestrian trick and pantomime acts. William and Thomas’ brother-in-law Henry Whiteley were also in the cast. But it was a short-lived venture and Thomas and Mary Ann continued engagements with other circuses.
In 1868 Thomas turned to performing dogs and toured extensively through England. Although dog acts were common, his was unique and in great demand. He and the canines played London non-stop for over a year. The centrepiece was the Clown Dog, routinely applauded by crowded houses every night.
In 1870 Thomas went into partnership with Pablo Fanque, advertising Fanque and Samwell’s Circus in northern England for a few months (with John and Willie Walker, Thomas’ nephews, also on the bill). This was another short-term venture for by the end of the year Thomas had his own business with Samwell’s Cirque de Variete displaying equestrian tricks, performing dogs and monkeys, and clowns. The act also included the Equestrian Goat that rode a horse. Despite receiving good reviews the circus folded and Thomas returned to London where one of his performances was before the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and the Princess of Wales.
In 1871 Thomas was engaged by American theatrical producers Jarrett and Palmer for exhibitions in the USA. The family moved to New York and within days Thomas and his performing animals were exhibiting with much praise from reviewers. The following year Thomas, using the moniker Professor Samwells, partnered with the Conklin Brothers for the Great Commonwealth Circus and Samwells’ Troupe of Trained Animals. For the next few years they toured USA, South America, Mexico, the West Indies, and South Africa. Thomas’ nephew Leon Samwells appeared as a gymnast with the show in South America. By 1877 Thomas was back in the USA and led his own enterprise for two years before joining John Robinson’s Circus for extensive tours through the USA and Mexico. In 1885 Thomas teamed with the American circus manager William Forepaugh to produce Forepaugh and Samwells Circus which toured the USA for some years. Despite the circus playing to packed houses it was often marred by internal problems such as accusations of not paying performers and fire outbreaks. In 1888 whilst in San Francisco, Mary Ann was in an accident involving a horse and buggy where she received serious head injuries and it is likely that she died from her injuries. Shortly afterwards Forepaugh and Samwells closed.
Not surprisingly, Thomas never again went into a business partnership and he opened his own Professor Samwells’ Carnival of Novelties and Trained Animals. Amongst the ‘novelties’ was Viola Grace, the Tattooed Lady, with over a thousand tattoos over her body. She would soon become Thomas’ wife.
For the remainder of the century Thomas and Grace toured their Equine-Canine Paradox through the USA and in the early 1900s he exhibited with the Parker Amusement Company. In early 1906 he proudly announced he was the oldest animal trainer in the business as he commenced another tour. However, some months later he suffered a stroke and died in Shreveport. His obituary stated he ‘enjoyed an international reputation second to none in his day as an animal trainer’.
Grace continued managing the animal show and married Jack Wallace, an acrobat, in 1907. She died in 1910 and Jack took over the show, by now consisting solely of birds, and called himself Professor Wallace. The last to be heard of Wallace’s Educated Birds was in 1915. What became of Jack beyond that year is unknown.
Thomas achieved great fame as an animal trainer who was still performing in his 70s. That he was paid the highest salary for an animal trainer by Lord Sanger is testament to his skills. His life in the USA was the usual expected of a circus – constantly on the move following the circuits. There was tragedy, too, for all but one of his children died young, a reflection of poor living conditions of circus folk in those times. His name and talent was inherited by his son who continued the Samwells circus tradition.
(Conklin Brothers Commonwealth Circus bill 1872.)
Contact Caroline Cavanagh at email@example.com 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.