Named after his father, William was born in Mildenhall, at that time in the English county of Norfolk, to William and Mary Ann Samwell. Of all the Samwell performers William spent the most time with circuses in Europe. As would have been expected of a travelling circus family, he appeared in his father’s circus from childhood billed alongside his brothers as an Infant Equestrian. The circus mainly travelled the southern and eastern counties.
When William’s father died in 1834, Mary Ann took over proprietorship of the circus and included the northern annual fairs in their route. Under her watch Samwell’s Circus achieved great success. In 1835 the circus performed before King William IV and Queen Adelaide, and for Princess Victoria (later to be Queen) and her mother the Duchess of Kent the following year. William was often noted as a spectacular performer as seen in this example from the Blackburn Gazette of 2 May 1838, when he was aged 11:
‘We cannot conclude their brief notice without adverting to the masterly performance of Master Samwell who, as a rider, is truly astonishing. His leap over a piece of canvas 10 feet wide, while the horse is going at full gallop, is at once a daring and masterly exploit.’
When Mary Ann died in 1840 the circus was taken over by Henry Cornwall, husband of William’s sister Mary Ann. Along with his sister Nancy and her husband Henry Walker, William left Cornwall’s Circus in 1842. Over the next few years they took engagements with various circuses in England and Ireland. Sometimes William performed with his brothers Stephen, John or Thomas. William gained notoriety for backward somersaults on a cantering horse, high flying leaps, and character equestrianism.
In 1851 William married Mary Ann Fowler, a pianist, in Jersey and they had several children: Mary Jane; twins Adeline and Maria (the latter died in infancy); and William. During the 1850s William performed in Europe and the UK sometimes with his brothers or other relatives, such as Henry Walker. The following decade he appeared in Thomas’ circus, and for a very short time was co-proprietor of a revived Samwell’s Circus. He also went back to the Continent for lengthy engagements. By now he had his three children with him and he promoted them as a family act.
William’s wife Mary Ann died in 1867. A few years later young Mary left the circus to live with her grandparents in Jersey. William continued on the road with his remaining children but the last we hear of him is in Spain in 1872. A later advertisement implied he had died sometime between 1872 and 1874. After her father’s death Adeline continued to perform as an equestrienne but son William joined the merchant navy.
(Advertisement from The Era 14 April 1872. Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
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.