This British actor-manager was born on 13 February 1804 in St Aubyn Street, Plymouth Dock, in Devon, the seventh child of Robert M. Phelps and his wife Ann (née Turner). His younger brother Robert Phelps (1808-1890) was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and became master of Sidney Sussex College. Samuel worked several years as a journalist in Plymouth and London and engaged in amateur theatricals before he turned professional on the York circuit. After touring in Ireland and Scotland and to Exeter and Plymouth, he appeared at the Haymarket Theatre under Webster for a short summer season, making his debut on 28 August 1837 as Shylock. That summer he also acted Hamlet, Othello and Richard III. That autumn Phelps began an engagement with Macready at Covent Garden, appearing on 27 October 1837 as Jaffeir in “Venice Preserv’d”; he next played Othello to Macready’s Iago. Over the next eight years Phelps was seen in a number of leading roles. He was an estimable and powerful actor, but his major contribution to the English stage was to be made in managing and producing.
Phelps’s took over the lease of Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1844, opening his management on 27 May with “Macbeth”; he acted the leading role and Mrs Warner played Lady Macbeth. Until 1861 Phelps acted in and directed almost the entire Shakespeare canon, including the first production of “Antony and Cleopatra” since Garrick’s production in the middle of the eighteenth century and the first production of “Pericles” since the Restoration. He did away with the singing witches in “Macbeth” and abandoned Cibber’s text of “Richard III” for the Bard’s.
His productions were admired for their imagination, integrity and scenic beauty. With these productions Phelps raised the Wells to a position of importance. He played leading roles in many of them. Among his best parts was Bottom, which he first played in October 1853. He also appeared in a number of non-Shakespearean roles, including Lord Ogleby in “The Clandestine Marriage”, Penruddock in “The Wheel of Fortune” and John Thornberry in “John Bull”.
Phelps’s distinguished tenure at Sadler’s Wells came to an end in 1862, a year after his indispensable business manager, Thomas Greenwood, retired. He then played on for another 15 years, under various managements; his last performance was as Cardinal Wolsey in “Henry VIII” at the Imperial Theatre in 1878.
Phelps had long resided in his house at No 420, Camden Road. He died on 6 November 1878 at Anson’s Farm, Coopersdale, near Epping; he was buried in Highgate Cemetery. Phelps became a member of the Garrick Club in 1874. The portrait by Forbes-Robertson of him as Cardinal Wolsey (G0665) is one of the best of him. Biographies include Shirley S. Allen, “Samuel Phelps and Sadler’s Wells Theater” (1971) and W. M. Phelps and John Forbes-Robertson, “The Life and Life-Work of Samuel Phelps” (1886). See also Dennis Arundell, “The Story of Sadler’s Wells 1863-1977” (1978). (DNB, EB, OCT)