James Brown

Clown, Vaulter, Equestrian

Caledonian Mercury 6 February 1819Nothing is known of the origins of the man who would later marry equestrienne and slack-wire artiste Sarah Saunders.  There were many male performers with the same surname around the time of James and it is probable he came from a circus family.

In his early career he specialised in trampoline tricks as well as the occasional clown act.  An advertisement for his performance reveals his varied skills:
‘The Grand Trampoline by Mr Brown who will leap through a Hogshead of Real Fire.  Antipodean Equilibriums, And Wonderful Geometrical Ladder, Mr Brown will stand on his head on a ladder 12 feet high, and in the same position, drink a glass of wine…’ (The Liverpool Mercury 10 March 1815.)

In June 1815 he made his debut at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre in London.  Sarah Saunders was also at Astley’s in the same shows.  Whilst Sarah moved on to other circuses, James remained at Astley’s for the next four years, perfecting his role as clown and his trampoline somersaults and vaults.  He also took on short engagements in Edinburgh, now adding equestrian acts to his repertoire.

On his return to London in 1819 he married Sarah Saunders.  During the early 1820s Sarah and James performed in various circuses in England and Scotland, such as John Cooke’s New Olympic Circus.  They would work with Cooke for some years.  Cooke got into legal strife when trying to set up a new circus in Liverpool in 1826 and James stepped in, hiring most of Cooke’s cast in his own Brown’s Olympic Circus which exhibited during the fair at Glasgow in early July 1826.  But his own show was short-lived and we hear no more of James.  Sarah next appears under her maiden name with her father’s circus in 1828, and she is sighted again in London in 1838.  Beyond that, nothing more is known about her.  It could be that James died sometime between 1826 and 1828.

Circus historians have claimed that Sarah and James’ children carried on the circus tradition in the USA and England using the surname Brown and Tournaire.  There was a family of Tournaire French equestrians touring England from the 1840s but no links can be established with James and Sarah.  What became of James and Sarah, or their children, if they had any, remains a mystery.

(Advertisement from The Caledonian Mercury 6 February 1819. 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 samwellcircus@tpg.com.au 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.