History Centre Heroes: Samuel Phelps

Plymouth has a great reputation for theatre – but did you know this is something that dates back centuries?

Samuel Phelps was born on 13 February 1804 in Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) and initially worked in newspaper offices. Shortly after marrying in 1826 he accepted a theatrical post.

Dock-born Samuel Phelps had a long career in 1800s theatre, and enjoyed success as both an actor and a theatre manager.
Dock-born Samuel Phelps had a long career in 1800s theatre, and enjoyed success as both an actor and a theatre manager.

He spent a few years ‘cutting his teeth’ in provincial theatre. He then made his first London appearance on 28 August 1837. He played the character of Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Haymarket Theatre. After a short season there, he spent six years performing at Covent Garden, the Haymarket and Drury Lane.

In May 1844 he became co-lessee of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. He took on the role of Theatrical Manager. A man called Thomas Greenwood dealt with the business side of things and Mary Amelia Warner became the leading lady.

Phelps would stay in his Theatrical Manager’s position for 20 years. During that time he raised Sadler’s Wells to an important position, revolutionised the production of Shakespeare’s plays and appeared in many varied roles himself.

Under his direction, 34 of Shakespeare’s plays were presented at the theatre. As a director it’s been said that his handling of Shakespearean plays had a great educational effect both on the public and on the players. He published an annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays in two volumes from 1852–54.

An illustration of Samuel Phelps in the role of Macbeth on the Sadler's Well stage, 1850 © Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College.
An illustration of Samuel Phelps in the role of Macbeth on the Sadler’s Well stage, 1850 © Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College.

In 1861 Thomas Greenwood retired from the partnership and Phelps, unable to cope with the business management side of things on top of his existing commitments, retired the following year.

He continued to act regularly for the next 15 years however and achieved considerable success. His last appearance was in 1878 as Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

Phelps was described by one critic as ‘a sound and capable actor‘. He had a preference for tragedy but was most successful in comedic roles that called for dry humour.

This particular portrait from our permanent art collection captures him in the role of Hamlet. This famous tragedy was written at some point between 1599 and 1602 and is set in the Kingdom of Denmark. It’s Shakespeare’s longest play and is ranked among the most powerful and influential tragedies in English literature.

Samuel Phelps (1804-1878) as Hamlet, painted by Nicholas Joseph Crowley (1819–1857) © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)
Samuel Phelps (1804-1878) as Hamlet, painted by Nicholas Joseph Crowley (1819–1857) c.1835-40 © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

Hamlet was Phelps’ most frequently played role. This portrait was painted by a Dublin-born artist called Nicholas Joseph Crowley. We believe he painted it at some point between 1835-40 – possibly just after Crowley arrived in London to work and fairly soon after Phelps undertook his first leading role as Shylock at the Haymarket.

Phelps passed away on 6 November 1878 in Essex at the age of 74. He left Plymouth to find the fame and fortune he was destined for. Despite this, we will always be able to lay claim to the fact that we were the birthplace of one of the 1800s’ most famous actors and theatre managers.

A plaque dedicated to Samuel Phelps to mark his former home at 8 Canonbury Square, London.
A plaque dedicated to Samuel Phelps to mark his former home at 8 Canonbury Square, London.
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