Sarah Saunders c1790s – aft1828

Slack-Wire Artiste, Equestrienne

Liverpool Mercury 7 March 1817Sarah Saunders, who was always billed as Miss Saunders or, after she married, ‘Mrs Brown, late Miss Saunders’, was born to Abraham Saunders, the famous circus manager, and his wife Elizabeth but we know not where or when.

She made her public debut on the slack-wire, tight rope and on horseback in 1802 at her father’s circus in Dublin alongside her brother Abraham, a noted equestrian known as Master Saunders or Young Saunders.  The siblings quickly became a sensation as they performed together and in solo acts with the Royal Circus in London or with their father’s travelling circus.  Sarah also took occasional engagements at Astley’s. Besides equilibriums on a slack-wire her act included a Spanish sword dance with drawn swords tied to her feet as she descended from the stage into the pit.  She also performed equestrian tricks, such as leaping over garters whilst the horse was at full speed.

In 1804 Sarah was engaged with Jan van Moritz’s Phantasmagoria and Bird Show.  It was the beginning of a long association Sarah would have with Moritz for the next nine years, in between engagements with her brother, and in her father’s circus. As well as her performing talents, Sarah often attracted attention for her beauty.  One such admirer was Andrew Ducrow but her rejection of him motivated him to concentrate his efforts on eventually becoming one of England’s most famous equestrians of that era.

In 1819 Sarah married the clown and vaulter James Brown.  The Browns thereafter toured England and Scotland. Sarah now tended to perform mostly as an equestrienne with occasional slack wire acts.  At one stage she was billed as ‘The Oldest Equestrian Female Now Travelling’ (The Norfolk Chronicle 10 February 1821.)

There are no references to Sarah or James after 1826 until Sarah’s billing as Miss Saunders at her father’s booth at the annual Bartholomew Fair in London in 1828.  One wonders if perhaps she had left James, or he may have died. The last record of Sarah was in London in May 1838.

Many circus historians claim Sarah and James’ children carried on the circus tradition in the USA and England and that at least one of them changed their surname to 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 them or their children, if they had any, remains a mystery.

(Advertisement from The Liverpool Mercury 7 March 1817. Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive

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.

Caroline Cavanagh 2017.