William Foley

William Foley in America

It seems that William Henry Foley was born in Washington DC, United States in about 1826, although further birth details have not been located.

The earliest reference to William Foley’s circus career, was as a rider in La Forest’s Equestrian Circus which visited Philadelphia in 1842, (Source: Thayers Annals, Vol II). In The Circus in Australia: Spangles & Sawdust Mark St Leon records William Foley’s involvement in the circus as a clown, and the opening of his own circus:

William H. Foley was J.A. Rowe’s premiere clown at the Olympic Circus in San Francisco in 1850. Rowe sustained a serious loss when Foley defected – apparently the comic could not live on his salary of $1200 a month – to open his own ampitheatre. In May 1850, San Francisco’s Pacific News carried the first advertisements for Foley’s Californian Circus. Foley presented himself as an equestrian in the piece by Ducrow ‘The Wild Indian’. Within a month a fire had reduced his establishment to ashes but by the end of the year he had rebuilt his amphitheatre so that ‘another equal to this place of amusement could not be found in California’.
(Source: Mark St Leon; The Circus in Australia: Spangles & Sawdust, Greenhouse, 1983, p. 41)

First Marriage

By the time William Foley arrived in Australia, he was accompanied by his first wife Mrs W.H. Foley. Currently, however, there is no record of their marriage, or even his wife’s own name. William Foley was accompanied by his wife when he arrived in New Zealand in 1855. Later in Australia, William recorded in 1860 that they had one child, Wilhelmina who was still living at that time, but there is no indication of when or where she was born, or that she travelled with them.

It appears that the Foleys led fairly independent lives. As her acting career expanded, she spent more time performing in the theatre, often in a different city from William’s circus performances. During this period Mrs Foley was associated with the actor Vernon Webster, and by September 1857 it seems that she had parted company from William Foley.

Foley Circus December 1855

Performing in New Zealand and Australia

Mark St Leon identifies William Foley’s first Australian performance as taking place in March 1854, as a rider at Malcolm’s in Sydney.

Foley’s Victoria Circus landed in Nelson from Melbourne on the 13th September 1855. It consisted of William Foley, his wife, specialty performers, four horses and four cases of animals.

By the 5th December 1855, the circus arrived in Auckland, and included performances with the mare “Lucy”.

William then returned briefly to Sydney. On the 29th January 1856, he returned on the “William Denny” with theatre performers, proceeding to open the Theatre Royal in Victoria Street East, Auckland, on the 3rd March 1856. Mrs Foley’s name headed the cast list for Othello, which is considered as almost certainly the first production of a Shakespearian play in New Zealand.

By August 1856, William Foley had moved to Wellington where he opened Foley’s Royal American Circus.

By February (or July?) 1857 the circus had shifted again to Lyttelton, followed by a nine month season in Canterbury.

By April 1858, William Foley had returned to Australia.

Foley Circus Aug 1856

Martha O’Neil

It seems likely that the original name of William’s second partner was Martha O’Neil, although she was also known as Maria Louise. Martha is recorded as being born in Sydney, New South Wales, in about 1839, but no birth registration can be found. Mark St Leon has confirmed that when she first appeared, in Sydney, as a rider in Malcom’s Amphitheatre in 1851, she was given the name of Maria Louise. About 1854, she was still performing at Malcom’s, but under the name of Mademoiselle Tournear – the real Mademoiselle Tournear was a famous french rider.

Peter Downes wrote that:

Madame Tournear, a circus artiste, accompanied Mr Foley on most of his tours (she was also apparently in charge of his children Kate and Johnny)…

(Source: Peter Downes; Top of the Bill, p. 27)

Mr W.H. Foley is recorded in the Daily Southern Cross as arriving in Auckland on the 24th March 1865 on the “Prince Alfred”, with Madame Tournear arriving on the “Tararua” a month later on the 25th April 1865.

Prince Alfred under construction
(source: State Library of South Australia PRG 1373/3/15)

Arrival of the Prince Alfred with the English Mail
The Daily Southern Cross March 25, 1865 Page 4 Column 1 The P., N,Z., and A.R.M. Co.’s s.s. Prince Alfred, Captain Machin, arrived in port at noon yesterday after a good run of six days. She left Sydney, with the English Mail on board, on Saturday, the 18th at noon, and was detained beyond her usual time of sailing in consequence of the non-arrival of the mail from home. During the early part of the passage, she experienced light variable winds, with heavy cross sea. For the remainder, strong winds from S.E., veering gradually from S. to N.W. At noon on the 23rd, passed the Three Kings; at 5pm rounded North Cape in thick weather, which continued along the Coast.

At 2 a.m. on the 23rd, Edmund Tye, aged eight years, son of Daniel and Eliza Tye, was taken suddenly ill with the croup, he having been subjected to it before; and although all possible means were used for his recovery he died at 4 a.m., his body being committed to the deep at 5 p.m. the same day.

Mr. Foley has again arrived by this vessel with his unique troupe, consisting of ten first-class performers, fourteen horses, two African zebras, and one pony; also, his celebrated group of performing dogs and monkeys.

The Prince Alfred brings a full cargo of general merchandise and the following passengers.
Mrs. Guynneth, Ann Guynneth, James Guynneth, Mrs. Fitzsimons, Rupert Bedford, Mrs. Bing, Mr Havert, Mrs. Evans and three children, Mr. Ridings, Mrs. Ridings, Mrs. Stavely, Mr. McClear, Mr. W. H. Foley, Mr. Raphael, Mr. Christock, Mr. Falk, Mr. Turrell, Mr. Partington, Mr.Dilworth, Mr. Jenkins, Miss E. Murant Robert Giles, Mrs. Hogan, Mr. J.Clark, Mrs. J Clark, Alec Clark, Mrs. F. Moore, Michael Gallacher, R.Robson, A. Robson, Rupert Bell, M. Jones, Peter Lock, James McGraught, P. Owen, J. Peterson. Mr Rowley, John Macarthy, Daniel Tye, Eliza Tye, Thomas King, Selina King, Jane King, Edmund Tye, Kate Tye, Pearl Tye, W.M. Robertson, Victor Franck, M. E. Bryant, J. Waters, F. Williams, Mr.Shannon, Charles Sleth, Master Hart, Miss Hart, H. Mathers, Master McClear.
We are indebted to the purser for our usual files of Sydney Papers.

John Foley birth cert
Joel Foley birth cert
William Foley death cert

William Foley and Martha had nine children:

  • William Henry – born April 1859 in New South Wales, but died of whooping cough aged 7 months on the 10th October 1859, in Sydney.
  • John William Driscoll – born on the 12th July 1860 in Melbourne, and married Laura Bloom in 1886.
  • Joel Henry – born on the 3rd November 1861 in Beaufort, Victoria.
  • Catherine “Kate” Wilhelmina – (possibly born 1864 in Wellington; unconfirmed), married Francis William Seaton in 1878 in Coonamble, New South Wales, and died in 1919 in Randwick, New South Wales.
  • William Henry (again) – born 1866 in New South Wales.
  • Edward Alfred – born on the 28th January 1868 in Wellington, married Florence Louisa O’Neil on the 13th June 1891 in Bourke, NSW, and died on the 5th March 1928 in Sydney.
  • Martha Louisa – born 1870 in Sydney.
  • Another female and another male that died.
  • Martha Foley death certificate

    Judging by the inconsistent details recorded on their children’s birth certificates, it seems likely that William and Martha were not formally married. On their son John’s 1860 birth certificate, it is recorded that William married “Maria O’Neill”, in New Zealand in 1859. However, no official record of this marriage appears to exist. On Joel’s birth certificate, it is recorded that they were married in 1857, in Sydney.

    Martha Foley who was 13 years younger than William, died young, aged only 31, in Sydney on the 7th April 1871, and is buried at the Rookwood Necropolis, in the Roman Catholic section.

    Foley Magnet Troupe

    According to Mark St Leon, John and Kate toured with their father for a number of years:

    After 1866 Foley gave away the circus life and organised a variety troupe consisting of himself and his two children, Master John and Miss Kate. As the ‘Foley Magnet Troupe’ the family travelled the colonies extensively during the 1870s, was popularly received everywhere but after which time the name fades completely from the Australian circus scene.
    (Source: Mark St Leon; The Circus in Australia: Spangles & Sawdust, Greenhouse, 1983, Ch. 5 The Californian Connection p. 41)

    The shipping list for the “Hero” clearly identifies the Magnet Troupe arriving in Auckland on the 9th June 1874, “comprising Mr W.H., Miss Kate & Master John Foley, Madame Loimy, Mr Herbert, and Mr La Page”.

  • Page 1 Advertisements Column 6,New Zealand Herald, Volume XI, Issue 3944, 3 July 1874

    A Last Show?

    The last appearance by William Foley, for which a reference has been located, is in Wellington in July 1882, by which time he would have been aged about 56. The NZ Mail reported:

    Foley’s Amphitheatre and Circus in Taranaki Street was opened Monday evening, and we hear there was a large attendance, and that those present were well satisfied with the entertainment, which is in many respects a departure from the usual run of circus performances. Feats on the horizontal bar and Roman rings, a spade dance, and the wonders performed by a “Fire King” were varied by vocal selections and the performance of an educated pony; the programme concluding with a pantomimic burlesque.
    (Source: NZ Mail, 22nd July 1882, p.16d).

    William’s son Edward became the proprietor of Foley’s Circus, which was still operating in Sydney in 1914.

    Later Years

    As yet, there is only scanty evidence as to William Foley’s whereabouts beyond the late 1870s, or indeed when or where he died.