RN WORTH writes in his history of Plymouth in 1890: "Devonport claims that sterling actor of the historic school, Samuel Phelps, born in 1806, and originally apprenticed to a printer."
At that time, Phelps had only been dead 12 years, and Worth would doubtless have known a great deal about him. Richard Northsworthy Worth was also a Devonport boy – he was born in 1837 – and elsewhere he recorded that the printer Phelps had been apprenticed to was Edward Manicom, who was based in Tavistock Street (and later Fore Street, Devonport). Phelps didn't so much leave as simply abscond.
Curiously, 1837 was the year Phelps made his acting debut, as Shylock, in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, in London's Haymarket Theatre. It wasn't long before he started to carve out a fine reputation for himself. However, it was abolition of the Patent Monopoly on theatrical productions that really gave him a chance to establish himself and in 1844 Phelps took over the management of what was then the relatively unfashionable Sadler's Wells Theatre.
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There he set about staging versions of Shakespeare's plays that were truer to the original manuscripts than anything the theatre-going public had seen in almost 200 years. In all he produced over 30 of Shakespeare's plays at the theatre, including some (such as The Winter's Tale and Measure for Measure), which hadn't been performed since they had first been seen at the original Globe Theatre. His favourite role was Hamlet, but he also enjoyed Macbeth, King Lear and Bottom, and was generally considered the most versatile actor of his generation.