Cowell, Samuel Houghton (DNB00)

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COWELL, SAMUEL HOUGHTON (1820–1864), actor and comic singer, son of Joseph Leathley Cowell [q. v.] by his first wife (a sister of William Henry Murray of Edinburgh, and thus connected with the Siddons family), was born in London on 5 April 1820, taken by his father to America in 1822, and educated in a military academy at Mount Airey, near Philadelphia. He made great progress in his few years of steady education, but at nine years of age first appeared on the stage at Boston, U.S., in 1829 as Crack in T. Knight's ‘Turnpike Gate,’ for his father's benefit, singing with him the duet ‘When off in curricle we go, Mind I'm a dashing buck, friend Joe.’ From that time onward he earned his own living, was hailed as ‘the young American Roscius,’ and acted in all the chief theatres of the United States; some of his other characters being Chick, Matty Marvellous, Bombastes Furioso, and one of the Dromios, his father playing the other, and. declaring that ‘Sam is me at the small end of a telescope.’ He went to England, and appeared at the Edinburgh Theatre Royal and the Adelphi, under the management of his uncle, W. H. Murray. He became an established favourite, not only as an actor, but as a comic singer between the acts. On 5 Nov. 1842 he married Emilie Marguerite Ebsworth, daughter of a highly esteemed dramatist and teacher of music. Nine children were the fruit of the union, of whom two daughters, Sydney and Florence, with one of the six sons, Joseph, afterwards adopted the stage professionally, and with success. After remaining four years in Edinburgh he went to London on an engagement for three years, with Benjamin Webster, at the Adelphi, but soon abandoned this, and made his first appearance on 15 July 1844 as Alessio in ‘La Sonnambula’ at the Surrey Theatre. Before 1848 he removed to the Olympic as stock comedian under Bolton's management; then for two years to the Princess's, under James Maddox, playing second to Compton; next to Covent Garden, under Alfred Bunn, taking Harley's class of business; and afterwards to Glasgow, under his old friend Edmund Glover, with other engagements at Belfast and Dublin. Everywhere a favourite, flattered and tempted towards conviviality, and naturally restless, he grew tired of dramatic study, always arduous in the provinces, where a frequent change of performances is necessary, and determined to devote himself to character singing. His ‘Billy Barlow,’ ‘Lord Lovel,’ ‘Yaller Busha Belle,’ ‘Corn Cobs,’ ‘Molly the Betrayed,’ ‘The Railway Porter,’ ‘The Ratcatcher's Daughter,’ ‘Clara Cline’ (one of the sweetest and best of his own compositions), ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and the burlesque ditties of ‘Alonzo the Brave’ and ‘Richard the Third,’ &c., were embodied with so much dramatic spirit, in appropriate costume, with his rich voice and power of mimicry, that he virtually founded a new class of drawing-room entertainment, and gave such satisfaction that ‘Evans's’ of Covent Garden (‘Paddy Green's’) and Charles Morton's Canterbury Hall owed chiefly to him their popularity. He has been hailed as the virtual founder of the music-hall entertainment. He joined Conquest at the Royal Grecian, enacting ‘Nobody’ with a ‘buffo’ song in E. Laman Blanchard's extravaganza of ‘Nobody in London,’ playfully satirising the Great Exhibition excitement of 1851. He twice appeared at Windsor Castle before her majesty at her court theatricals. In August 1852 he was at St. James's Theatre. In 1860, after immense success in provincial towns, he returned to America. The vessel encountered such stormy weather that his health was permanently injured. He had been wonderfully robust, but the seeds of consumption became rapidly developed after his return to London in 1862. Always of singularly amiable disposition, devoid of jealousy or malice, and of domestic habits, although with such genial sociality that his company was sought and welcomed everywhere, he was invited to Blandford in Dorsetshire, to recruit his health if possible, by his friend, Mr. Robert Eyers of the Crown Hotel. He was kindly received, but soon afterwards died, on 11 March 1864. He was buried in the cemetery at Blandford on 15 March, and a monument has been erected by his friends. Few comedians have been better loved, or, on the whole, passed through life so successfully. Collections of ‘Sam Cowell's Songs,’ and photographic portraits of him in character, used to be enormously numerous, and popular. Wherever he went he was loved, and by all who had known him he was mourned. His only fault was improvidence. An excellent full-length portrait of him as ‘Billy Barlow’ was painted in oils by Richard Alexander, Edinburgh, 1842.

[Personal knowledge; Scotsman and the Era, chiefly of 1864; private memoranda; brief Sketch of the Life of Sam Cowell, prefixed to Sam Cowell's Collection of Comic Songs, Edinburgh, 1853.]

J. W. E.