PHELPS, Samuel (1804-1878)
Plaque erected in 1911 by London County Council at 8 Canonbury Square, Islington, London, N1 2AU, London Borough of Islington
Theatre and Film
SAMUEL PHELPS 1804-1878 Tragedian Lived Here
The actor and theatre manager Samuel Phelps lived at 8 Canonbury Square in Islington at the height of his career in the mid-19th century.
SHAKESPEARE AT SADLER’S WELLS
Born in Devonport, Phelps made his London stage debut in 1837. His time in Canonbury – where he lived from about 1845 until 1867, soon after the death of his wife Sarah – coincided with his stint as the highly successful actor-manager of Sadler’s Wells Theatre (1844–62).
The venue – which is just over a mile down the road from number 8 – had traditionally been known for its low-brow entertainment. In the 1830s Charles Dickens described it as having ‘as ruffianly an audience as London could shake together’. But, against the odds, Phelps made a commercial success of a long run of Shakespeare productions. In all, he produced more than 1,600 Shakespeare plays at Sadler’s Wells, many of which had not been seen for two hundred years.
Their appeal crossed class boundaries, and the editor of the Theatrical Journal – an Islington neighbour of Phelps – paid tribute to the leading role he had taken in establishing the theatre ‘in public favour for the acting of the legitimate drama’.
ACTOR AND FATHER
As an actor, it was during this time that he finally emerged from the shadow of William Charles Macready, the pre-eminent actor of his generation.
Offstage, Phelps was noted for his ‘retiring manner and modest mode of living’, which did not prevent him suffering from the widespread contemporary prejudice against thespians when he found his daughter barred from admission to a nearby private school.