Rebecca Samwell (nee Saunders) c1770 – 1835

Rebecca Saunders was born about 1770 to the great circus showman Abraham and his wife Elizabeth.  When his father died, Abraham took over the family’s travelling show, visiting the annual English fairs.

Whilst Rebecca’s younger sibling Abraham and Sarah were circus performers in their father’s show, and later in their own careers, Abraham did not allow Rebecca to perform.  Instead, her role was at the ‘front office’ where her attractive looks lured visitors to partake of Saunders’ show.

So it was that Stephen Samuel, a London merchant, first saw his future wife out the front of one of Saunders’ shows and they married in 1789 in Holborn, London.  Stephen later changed his surname and established one of the most successful and earliest travelling circuses in England with Samwell’s circus.

There are no references to Rebecca in advertising for Samwell’s circus but undoubtedly she would have played an important role, if not as performer.

Rebecca and Stephen Samwell had at least three children.  The eldest, William, took over the circus upon his father’s death in 1816.

It is not clear when Rebecca left the circus but perhaps with William’s successful management of Samwell’s circus in the early 19th century her services were no longer required and she retired to Great Yarmouth to live with her daughter.

Rebecca died in 1835 and was buried in Great Yarmouth.

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.