Samuel Phelps (born 1804 Plymouth Dock (now Devonport), Plymouth, Devon-died 6 November 1878, Anson’s Farm, Coopersale, near Epping, Essex) was an English actor and manager. He was early thrown upon his own resources, and worked in various newspaper offices. Shortly after his marriage in 1826 to Sarah Cooper (d. 1867), he accepted a theatrical engagement in the York circuit at eighteen shillings a week, and afterwards appeared in south of England towns in prominent tragic roles, attracting sufficient attention to be spoken of as a rival to Kean.
He made his first London appearance on the 28th of August 1837 at age 33 as Shylock at the Haymarket. After a short season there he appeared under the management of William Charles Macready at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, who recognized Phelps as a potential rival and gave him little opportunity to display his talents, although Phelps did gain popularity in the roles of Captain Channel in Douglas William Jerrold's melodrama The Prisoner of War (1842), and of Lord Tresham in Robert Browning's A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (1843).
After the abolition of the patent monopoly, which enabled theatres to monopolize plays, Phelps was able in 1844 to take over the management of the then-unfashionable Sadler's Wells Theatre with Thomas L. Greenwood and Mrs Mary Amelia Warner (1804-18J4). Greenwood supplied the business capacity, Phelps was the theatrical manager, and Mrs Warner leading lady. He revolutionized the production of Shakespeare's plays by restoring Shakespearean performances to the original text of the first folio and away from the adaptations by Colley Cibber, Nahum Tate and David Garrick that had been favored by the theatre-going public since the English Restoration.
In this position Phelps remained for twenty years, during which time he raised the Sadler's Wells house to an important position, and appeared in a very extensive and varied repertory. Thirty-four of Shakespeare's plays were presented there under his direction, with great educational effect, both on public and players. In 1861 Greenwood retired from the partnership, and Phelps, unable to cope with the business of management, retired from it in the following year.
For the next fifteen years he acted under various managements, achieving considerable success in some of Halliday's dramatic versions of Scott's novels, such as The Fortunes of Nigel and Ivanhoe. His last appearance was in 1878 as Wolsey in Henry VIII, and he died on the 6th of November 1878. He was a sound and capable actor, rather than one of any marked genius; and, in spite of his predilection for tragedy, was most successful in such characters of comedy as called for dry humour. Perhaps Sir Pertinax Macsycophant in Charles Macklin's The Man of the World was his finest impersonation. He published an annotated edition of Shakespeare's plays (two volumes, 1852-1854). A definitive biography, Samuel Phelps & the Sadler's Wells Theatre, was written by Shirley S. Allen in 1971.