Sam Roberts of Weston, Cowper’s faithful attendant



While researching family history in the 1980s, I made the interesting discovery that Samuel Roberts, often referred to merely as ‘Sam’, Cowper’s lackey or factotum, was a direct ancestor of mine. His son John James Roberts, a carpenter, married Elizabeth Robinson, from a local Baptist family; their son William Robinson Roberts, who moved from Olney to Ampthill, was my great-great-grandfather. I traced Sam’s will and saw that his date of death corresponded to that given in Thomas Wright’s biography of Cowper; Wright also notes that Sam was buried near the tower and porch of Weston Underwood church1. The stone, which once bore an inscription reading ‘for many years a faithfull attendant of the poet Cowper’2, has either been removed or has become illegible. Based on Sam’s age at his death I found a suitable baptism in the Weston register for 1754: son of Edward Roberts, a parish clerk. Sam’s mother was Susan(na), née Scriggington, probably his father’s second wife (married in Olney 1749). I also found Sam’s marriage in 17813 to Ann Wheeler, referred to by Cowper as ‘Nanny’. The Wheelers were a Roman Catholic family of Weston Underwood and Ann was christened at the Throckmortons’ chapel in 17584. In view of the fact that Sam appeared to have originated from Weston, I found it surprising that, according to many of Cowper’s biographers, he had supposedly been brought by the poet from Dr Cotton’s asylum in St Alban’s, where he had already been working as a servant. Thomas Wright seems to have been the first biographer (1892) to develop this story in detail, namely that Sam Roberts had attended to Cowper at the asylum and was taken from there to Huntingdon together with the boy Dick Coleman5. While in Huntingdon, Cowper certainly kept a servant as well as maintaining Coleman6,

While researching family history in the 1980s, I made the interesting

discovery that Samuel Roberts, often referred to merely as ‘Sam’,

Cowper’s lackey or factotum, was a direct ancestor of mine. His son

John James Roberts, a carpenter, married Elizabeth Robinson, from a

local Baptist family; their son William Robinson Roberts, who moved

from Olney to Ampthill, was my great-great-grandfather. I traced Sam’s

will and saw that his date of death corresponded to that given in Thomas

Wright’s biography of Cowper; Wright also notes that Sam was buried

near the tower and porch of Weston Underwood church1. The stone,

which once bore an inscription reading ‘for many years a faithfull

attendant of the poet Cowper’2, has either been removed or has become

illegible. Based on Sam’s age at his death I found a suitable baptism in

the Weston register for 1754: son of Edward Roberts, a parish clerk.

Sam’s mother was Susan(na), née Scriggington, probably his father’s

second wife (married in Olney 1749). I also found Sam’s marriage in

17813 to Ann Wheeler, referred to by Cowper as ‘Nanny’. The Wheelers

were a Roman Catholic family of Weston Underwood and Ann was

christened at the Throckmortons’ chapel in 17584.

In view of the fact that Sam appeared to have originated from Weston,

I found it surprising that, according to many of Cowper’s biographers,

he had supposedly been brought by the poet from Dr Cotton’s asylum

in St Alban’s, where he had already been working as a servant. Thomas

Wright seems to have been the first biographer (1892) to develop this

story in detail, namely that Sam Roberts had attended to Cowper at the

asylum and was taken from there to Huntingdon together with the boy

Dick Coleman5. While in Huntingdon, Cowper certainly kept a servant as

well as maintaining Coleman6, but there is no proof from his own words

that the servant in question was Sam. Wright assumes that Cowper is

referring to Sam in a number of early letters and in the autobiographical

memoir about his early life, but Sam is not named by the poet himself as

his lackey until much later; and when he is mentioned by name, Cowper

never says that Sam was the servant from St Alban’s. Wright was writing


almost a century after Cowper’s death and his assumption about Sam’s

origin has since been reiterated in a significant number of works. Curry’s

recent biography is no exception; he writes that when Cowper left the

asylum ‘[h]e took with him as his personal valet one of Dr Cotton’s

servants, Sam Roberts, who had been attending to him’7.

However, nearly all nineteenth-century biographies of Cowper do not

make the same assumption about Sam, who is not mentioned as having

been brought from St Alban’s by Corry in his 1803 Life, by Taylor in

his 1833 biography, or by Southey in his seminal work of 1835-7. More

importantly, no such indication is given by those writers who would

have known Sam personally: John Johnson, neither in his ‘Sketch’ of

Cowper’s life (in Poems, volume 3, 1815) nor in his volumes of Letters

(1817 etc.); William Hayley, neither in his Life and Posthumous Writings

of Cowper (1803 etc.), nor in his own writings8; or Rev. S. Greatheed in

Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Cowper (1814). It is true, however,

that a later edition of Hayley’s Works of William Cowper, edited by Rev.

Grimshawe and published in 1835 (after Sam’s death) does give such

an indication. Under the passage from Cowper’s memoir of his early

life (written shortly after moving in with the Unwins in Huntingdon in

November 1765) reading ‘the man, whom I have ever since retained in

my service, expressed great joy on the occasion’, referring to a servant

who had witnessed his recovery at the asylum, Grimshawe inserted the

footnote ‘Samuel Roberts’9. He may have been misinformed about the

servant’s identity or, being known for his incompetence, perhaps merely

jumped to a conclusion10. Southey does not include such a footnote

in connection with the same passage11. Later in that autobiographical

memoir, writing about his move to Cambridge, Cowper mentions the

servant again, saying that ‘[h]e had maintained such an affectionate

watchfulness over me … that I could not bear to leave him behind,

though it was with some difficulty that the doctor was prevailed on to

part with him’12. The man had only recently entered into Dr Cotton’s

service ‘just time enough to be appointed to attend me’, and Cowper

adds ‘I have strong grounds to hope that God will make me of use as an

instrument in His hands of bringing him to the knowledge of Jesus’ (a

conversion to which he later refers). The same man is mentioned once

more in a letter from Huntingdon to Joseph Hill (24 June 1765): ‘I am


not quite alone, having brought a Servant with me from St Albans, who

is the very Mirrour of Fidelity and Affection for his Master. … Men

do not usually bestow these Encomiums upon their Lacqueys, nor do

they usually deserve them, but I have had Experience of mine both in

Sickness and Health and never saw his Fellow’. In a subsequent letter

to Hill from Huntingdon (12 November 1766), Cowper writes about the

boy Dick Coleman as follows: ‘He will be about Nine Years of Age when

my Man leaves me, at which time I think of taking him into my Service

… This though not so cheap a way as keeping no Servant, will yet be a

considerable Saving to me, for I shall have but one to maintain instead

of two’. One further reference by Cowper to the servant in question,

again without naming him, can be found in a letter written shortly after

his arrival in Olney: ‘The Man Servant you may remember is the same

that attended me at St Albans’13.

It can be presumed that the servant from the asylum subsequently

left Cowper’s service – as foreseen in the letter to Hill – and that Dick

Coleman, who lived at Orchard Side, was one of those who served the

poet in Olney. In his 1803 biography Corry wrote that at Olney Cowper

and Mrs Unwin ‘kept only one maid servant, a gardener, and a footman’14,

perhaps in addition to Coleman. Cowper mentioned a number of

successive servants in his letters, not all by name: for example, in 1782,

he referred to a former servant who was then living at Northampton15.

Whilst he clearly appreciated some of those who worked for him, he

could be rather demanding. He dismissed a maid shortly after arriving in

Olney and had difficulty finding a suitable one locally; her replacement

sent by Mrs Madan was not satisfactory either16. In 1771 he complained

to Hill about a ‘blundering Servant’ who had packaged the wrong piece

of venison17. Cowper also dismissed, ‘for manifold good Causes’,

a gardener called Darlin, who was replaced by William Kitchener

(‘Kitch’), described as an Olney pauper who would cost one fourth of

Darlin’s wage18. Writing to Newton in that connection, Cowper laments

‘… for Man Servant in future we are resolved to have none, having

found those Gentry in Every Instance Expensive, and for the most part,

worse than Useless’. Kitchener, although berated by Cowper for his

lack of intelligence19, worked for the poet until at least 1792, performing

various tasks such as carrying messages to Weston from Olney, where he


apparently continued to live20. While at Weston, Cowper was unhappy

with an unnamed incompetent labourer – presumably not ‘Kitch’ – who

had been employed to transplant some laurels21.

It is thus submitted that Sam Roberts did not enter Cowper’s service

until after the move to The Lodge at Weston Underwood in November

1786. This would mean that Grimshawe – in his footnote – then Wright,

and many subsequent twentieth-century biographers, have been wrong

about Sam’s background. It is not until a letter of 4 September 1787 to

Lady Hesketh, from Weston, that we find the first mention of Sam by

Cowper himself. It reads: ‘Sam our lacquey, and Molly [Peers] our Cook

are never heard but when they answer a question. Sam’s Wife, by the

way, has long been engaged to officiate in the Scullery while you shall

be with us, and she is the very counterpart of her husband for quietness

and sobriety’. A subsequent letter of 7 February 1788 records that ‘our

lacquey’ is the ‘clerk of the parish’ (of Weston Underwood), while an

earlier letter of 11 December 1786, also to Lady Hesketh, had stated

‘the clerk of the parish has made a new pair of straps to my buckles’.

Wright, and later King and Ryskamp, in their corresponding footnotes,

assume that this earlier ‘clerk’ already refers to Sam; by describing him

merely as ‘clerk’, shortly after his arrival at Weston, Cowper implies

that he had only recently begun to employ the man who was to become

his new servant. If Sam had been in Cowper’s service since St Alban’s

it would also be rather strange for him to be described in this manner to

Lady Hesketh.

There is little doubt that Sam Roberts was a local man and St Alban’s

was far enough away from Weston to make his service there, at a very

early age, rather implausible. In 1764/5 Sam would have been aged only

about 10 or 11, so hardly a ‘man’ at that time. Moreover, it would have

been a coincidence for Cowper to have taken him back to his place of

origin (without even a mention in the letters). In fact Sam had already

married in Weston and his first three children had been christened

there while Cowper was still in Olney. Sam had witnessed a number

of marriages in the Weston register, presumably as parish clerk, going

back to 1776. It is possible that Cowper came into contact with Sam

through the Throckmortons, his wife’s family being Roman Catholic.

Samuel Teedon indicates that Sam’s mother also served the Cowper26

Unwin household in Weston; in his diary for 8 April 1792 he writes: ‘Mrs

Roberts came with an invitation for me to dine with Madam tomorrow.

She drank tea with us. Sam’s mother not his wife’22. Lady Hesketh also

refers in 1799 to some money she owes to Sam’s ‘mother and aunt’23,

who would have been elderly by that time. While still in Olney Cowper

refers to a Susan Roberts, who could be Sam’s mother, as being very ill

but recovering24.

There are various references to Sam Roberts in Cowper’s letters during

the Weston years, portraying him as a man of some intelligence and a true

factotum, rendering diverse services to his master. The Roberts family

apparently continued to live in their own house rather than moving into

The Lodge. Cowper writes on 4 September 1787: ‘Our Servant sleeps

always at his own house’. Teedon mentions that his cousins visited Sam’s

house in Weston and informed him who was preaching that evening in

Olney25. The maid Molly Peers and her daughter also lived in Sam’s

house at one point26. Cowper’s letters tell us much about his day-today

life and a number of anecdotal accounts concern Sam, sometimes

just incidentally, such as when he ushered in visitors, for example, a

parish clerk from Northampton27. On one occasion Sam tried to prevent

a Quaker preacher from seeing Cowper, having instructions not to admit

anybody28. Teedon seems to have appreciated Sam, who would visit him

in Olney and take his letters to Cowper; however, on one occasion the

schoolmaster was upset to find that his letter had not been delivered29.

Sam also delivered some of the poet’s letters to Teedon.

An insight into Sam’s role is provided by the writings of John Johnson,

whose first meeting with Cowper in 1790 was described in a poem

written 40 years later entitled ‘Recollections of Cowper’30. The day

after Johnson arrived in Olney, Cowper sent Sam to conduct him to the

Lodge31. Sam is portrayed in the account as the poet’s valet, engaged in

menial tasks such as bringing his master’s walking shoes and closing the

shutters as dinner was served, Cowper being ‘careful not to tantalise the

eye of his necessitous neighbours’. Johnson also describes the Sunday

evening service at Weston church, where Sam, as parish clerk, ‘pitched

the psalm’.

In some of Cowper’s anecdotes Sam plays a prominent and sometimes

amusing role: in 1789 he was sent to Gayhurst to bring back Cowper’s


spaniel Beau32, and in 1791 to Woburn to enquire about the shortcomings

of one of Lady Hesketh’s servants33. When the innkeeper there found

out that he was Cowper’s servant, Sam was given a free breakfast! In

several letters of 1792-3 Cowper mentions that Sam has been helping

to carry or support Mrs Unwin after her second stroke34. In a letter

to Hayley of 20 January 1793 Cowper relates how ‘Samuel with his

cheerful countenance appear’d at the study-door, and with a voice as

cheerful as his looks, exclaim’d – Mr. Hayley is come, Madam!’. It was

a disappointment, to Mrs Unwin in particular, to discover that he was

announcing the delivery of Hayley’s portrait, not the arrival of the man

himself. In 179335 Sam and a carpenter, putting their ‘foolish noddle[s]’

together, built Cowper a ‘shed’ (or arbour) in the ‘shrubbery’ at Weston

and it turned out to be more elaborate than the basic structure Cowper

had foreseen, ‘a thing fit for Stow-gardens’, thus prompting Cowper’s

proposed inscription (in the place of another verse he had ‘designed for

a hermitage’36):

Beware of building. I intended

Rough logs and thatch, and thus it ended.

Mrs Unwin persuaded Cowper not to ‘break Sam’s heart’ by his reproach,

however poetical. Shortly afterwards, during an after-dinner walk with

Mrs Unwin37, Cowper discovered a sundial ‘mounted on a smart stone

pedestal’. Cowper had suspected Sam ‘this Fac Totum of mine’ of being

responsible for placing it there, having often heard his master deplore

the absence of one, but Sam was then forced to tell him that it was a

surprise gift from John Johnson.

Nanny (Ann) Roberts is described in 179238 as ‘Cook and Housekeeper’,

replacing Molly Peers due to ill-health39. ‘Sam’s wife shall be

paid’ writes Cowper on 21 July 1792. Cowper refers to a visit by Sam

and his wife to an ‘uncle from whom they have expectations’ in Stowe40.

Nanny is complimented by the poet for bringing Mrs Unwin her shoes

but reproached for breaking a bottle of ‘good liquor’41! The Roberts

children are also mentioned a couple of times in Cowper’s letters: he

reports that Sam’s ‘eldest boy’ died of the smallpox in 178742, with two

other children suffering from the disease; and some time later that one of

Sam’s sons ‘bow’d’ in front of Abbott’s portrait of the poet43.


Sam’s sister-in-law, Susan(na) Wheeler (b. 1776), also known as

‘Sukey’, was another servant of Cowper. A piece of lace made by her

is on display in the Cowper and Newton Museum, and the handwritten

inscription states that she (‘Cowper’s servant who lived with him at

Weston’) was ‘Susan’ the ‘chambermaid’ who inadvertently shut up

Cowper’s cat in a drawer, as related in the poem ‘The Retired Cat’44.

In 1792 Cowper and Mrs Unwin, accompanied by John Johnson,

visited Hayley in Eartham, Sussex, and decided to take Sam and Nanny

with them. When planning the trip, Cowper reassured Hayley that

only one bed would be necessary for the couple, ‘being one flesh’, and

justified Sam’s presence by his usefulness45. Nanny was supposed to ‘jog

thither in the stage’ with Johnson, rather than travelling with Cowper,

Mrs Unwin and Sam, who would be ‘more useful by the way’46 than

Johnny. However, a subsequent letter from Johnson47 reported that all

five of them (plus Beau, the dog) had, in the end, ridden to Eartham in

the same coach, with Sam on the ‘Box’. According to Johnson, Cowper

was later to regret taking the servants to Eartham. In a letter to his sister48

describing the journey home, Johnson complained that they had doubled

the cost of the trip for Cowper, adding: ‘He is however resolved to take

them no more, as he found them only an incumbrance – and I am glad

his eyes are open on that subject’. Johnson also remarked that the couple

had felt ‘starved’ in Eartham in comparison with Weston where they

were ‘used to stuff their guts with every thing that they could wish’49!

Johnson was beginning to express a concern that Sam and Nanny were

too expensive for Cowper and were perhaps taking advantage of his

generosity; the poet, however, never complained in his letters that they

had not served him well.

A few years later neither Cowper nor Johnson appeared to question

the idea of taking Sam and Nanny on the next trip, this time to Norfolk,

and Nanny’s sister Sukey joined them. According to his ‘Memoir of

Cowper’50, Johnson himself had the sudden idea of taking Cowper and

Mrs Unwin to a ‘Summer’s residence by the sea-side’ and when he

mentioned it to Lady Hesketh she was of the same opinion51. There is

little doubt, however, that Lady Hesketh was the driving force behind the

move and saw it as a more permanent solution for Cowper52, although it

was not presented as such to the poet53. John Johnson speaks as follows


about the arrangements foreseen for the servants in Norfolk, in a letter

to his sister of 10 July 179554:

In your room will sleep the old Lady [Mrs Unwin], because of the fire place

– and upon a bed in one corner of it, our Sally and Sukey Wheeler must sleep

… In the ligh Closet will be Nanny Roberts. Our dear Cousin will be in my

room, and upon a small bed in the same room will be Samuel Roberts, who is

quite a treasure for his excellent behaviour to our dear Cousin.

Ultimately they all left Weston (Sukey travelled separately55) on 28 July

1795, stopping the first night at Eaton and the second at Barton Mills. In

Norfolk they stayed first at the Vicarage at North Tuddenham.

Sam Roberts thus continued to serve Cowper in Norfolk56 and his

presence was clearly appreciated by John Johnson, at least initially.

Johnson records in his diary that he spent part of the journey from

Weston talking ‘incessantly’ to Sam, who was in the same Post Chaise

with Cowper and himself, in order to ‘divert [Cowper’s] thoughts as

much as possible’57. It must also have been comforting for the poet to

maintain the connection with Weston through the presence of Sam,

Nanny and Sukey, who remained with him during his stay in Mundesley

from 19 August until early October 1795. Sam reassured Cowper that he

would visit his ‘beloved’ Weston again58, but of course he never did. Sam

notably accompanied his master and Johnson on a visit to Happisburgh

(31 August), going up the lighthouse with Johnson and reporting back

to Cowper what he had seen. In September, when Johnson had found

a house for Cowper and Mrs Unwin, Dunham Lodge, he discussed the

subject of the servants with Lady Hesketh, who felt it was best to send ‘all

the Wheeler crew away’59, for financial reasons (she had been concerned

for some time about the expense of ‘ye swarms who lived in [Cowper’s]

kitchen’60) but also because in her view they had too much influence

in the household. Lady Hesketh’s harshest criticism can be found in a

letter of 13 September 1795 to John Johnson61; she describes the Weston

servants, and ‘the female ones particularly’, as ‘non-descripts’, but with

the ‘Reins of Government’ in their hands. She did not categorically

reject Sam, however, remarking:

He is certainly capable of being an excellent Servant and this one cannot say

of every body – he is also doubtless a very usefull one on many ocasions


– and daily gains ground in the favour and opinion of his poor Master, but

whether he will be brought to be just the servant he ought to be after all the

Indulgence he has receiv’d is impossible for me to say at this distance.

Lady Hesketh told Johnson that he was right not to suffer the ‘young

Suckers to be transplanted to Dunham Lodge’, as they were ‘idle weeds’

who would ‘certainly take Root’ there! She agreed to let Sam have

five guineas, in addition to his wages, so that one of his sons could be

apprenticed, and also granted him some furniture from Weston Lodge.

This was clearly intended to appease Sam. While Sam had ‘behaved

so well in many respects and in some Instances with such attention to

his dear Master that one would wish to reward him and to give him no

real ground of Complaint’, she foresaw that Sam and his family, having

had ‘such lucrative places’ would be ‘extremely shock’d to lose such

Loaves and such Fishes as they have for many years rejoic’d in’. Lady

Hesketh concluded by instructing Johnson: ‘Pray take great care of this

letter, which if found wou’d let the cat out of the bag at once!’. She did

not want to give the servants the chance to ‘counter-act’ and Johnson

seems to have followed her advice by taking prompt action, even though

he undoubtedly had a certain respect for Sam himself62, in spite of the

difference in their social background.

On 15 September 1795 Sam travelled with Cowper and Johnson

to see Dunham Lodge and all three men spent the night at Dereham.

Miss Barham Johnson speculates that Sam and his wife might have

been reluctant to move to such a big house as Dunham Lodge anyway,

thus saving Johnny the task of ‘dismissing’ them, but it is unlikely that

they would have left Cowper spontaneously for such a reason. After

receiving Lady Hesketh’s letter of 13 September, Johnson clearly put

the dismissal plan into action. In Miss Johnson’s words: ‘One wonders

whether Cowper and Mrs Unwin realised that they would never see Sam

and Nanny Roberts again, and whether there was a sad leave-taking’63.

Certainly none of them would have been aware of the extent of Lady

Hesketh’s hostile attitude towards the servants, without which they

might perhaps have remained in Norfolk. Nanny returned to Weston

first, because Cowper writes to Lady Hesketh from Mundesley on 26

September 1795: ‘Samuel desires me to present his duty to you. His

wife is gone to Weston …’. In the same letter the poet laments ‘I shall


never see Weston more’, having probably realised by that time that the

move had become permanent. Johnson had also gone to Weston without

telling Cowper, who writes: ‘Whither he is gone I know not; at least I

know not by information from himself. Samuel tells me that he thinks

his destination is to Weston. But why to Weston is unimaginable to

me’64. Cowper could not understand why Johnson would have returned

there, but it was clearly a necessary visit to deal with the ‘break up’

(Lady Hesketh’s words) at the Lodge and sort out the furniture, some

of which was intended for Sam’s family. Johnson did not record his

visit to Weston in his diary. His whereabouts were perhaps to be kept a

secret from Cowper and Mrs Unwin, so as not to upset them, but Sam

felt obliged to disclose it; the words ‘Samuel tells me that he thinks

…’ reveal a reluctance on Sam’s part to say what he knew. Sam was

perhaps still considering his own position, but Lady Hesketh was no

doubt correct in her letter of 13 September when she suggested that he

would not have wanted to remain in Norfolk without his wife.

According to John Johnson’s diary, it was on 7 October 1795 (when

Cowper and his party left Mundesley) that ‘the Weston Servants, by

Lady Hesketh’s Recommendation, [were] left behind, to return to Weston

Underwood’65. The word ‘Recommendation’ is certainly a euphemism!

Without their servants, Cowper and Mrs Unwin then went to Dereham,

where they stayed temporarily before settling at Dunham Lodge, as

planned, later that month. Wright erroneously implies that Sam remained

with Cowper until around October 1796. A couple (coincidentally)

by the name of Johnson were then engaged as servants66, joining the

Johnsons’ maid Sally and a young man, Sam Dent. On 17 August 1798

Lady Hesketh enquired of John Johnson as to how Dent was getting

on67. He was from Weston68 and had previously attended to Mrs Unwin

before being taken to Norfolk by Johnson as his own servant69. In the

last years of his life, Cowper was nursed by Margaret Perowne, a friend

of John Johnson’s sister, and she received a significant sum of money

(£200) from the poet’s estate70. In April 1798 Lady Hesketh expressed

veiled criticism of the fact that Johnson had sent Sam the poet’s ‘old

wardrobe’ when the clothes could have been given to someone in need

locally71. She appears nevertheless to have continued to pay an annuity

to Sam and his family even after Cowper’s death72.


Sam Roberts was a resident of Weston in March 1798 as he is listed

on the Buckinghamshire Posse Comitatus roll for the village, under the

occupation ‘laceman’73. Later that year a daughter of Sam and Nanny

was christened at Weston. Sam was to live for 32 years after Cowper’s

death and is known to have been a source of information and artefacts.

For example, he helped to retrieve a silhouette of Cowper from a shade74

and verse fragments from a shutter75 at The Lodge. The Cowper and

Newton Museum has some hairs from Cowper’s wig received from Sam

Roberts on 1 April 183176, the year before his death.

The most interesting item relating to Sam Roberts from that later period

is a letter written by Sam himself to John Johnson dated 5 December

180677. He was replying to a letter from Johnson enquiring about the

‘Yardley Oak’ tree, subject of Cowper’s poem first published by Hayley

in 1804, and begins by conveying the relevant information that Sam had

waited for George Courtenay to confirm. Sam had been given Johnson’s

letter by a Mr Wolseley, whom he had taken to visit Weston Lodge. Even

though Sam was the parish clerk, his letter contains numerous spelling and

grammatical mistakes. Reflecting the fact that Johnson had remained a

personal friend, Sam additionally provides information about his two sons,

emphasising how it has caused him financial hardship to help his eldest

son set up in business in London. Johnson was to keep Hayley informed

about his correspondence with Sam, which apparently continued for a

while thereafter. William Hayley, who had described Sam in his work on

Cowper as a ‘very affectionate, worthy domestic, who attended his master

into Sussex’78, wrote in April 1810 to John Johnson: ‘Now let me rejoice

with you on the discovery of the manuscripts found by the good Samuel

Roberts!’ adding ‘I have always intended to send to the said good Samuel

a copy of his master’s life, which he perfectly deserves’; and ‘I hope you

may visit Weston, and exhort the good Samuel Roberts to make yet more

discoveries. Remember me kindly to him.’79 One of the papers found by

Sam – inside an account-book which had belonged to Cowper – was the

fragment of a hymn ‘To Jesus the Crown of my Hope’, apparently given

by Sam to Rev. John Sutcliff and first published in the Baptist Magazine

and Literary Review a few months later (April 1810)80.

After Nanny’s death in 1809, the Northampton Mercury announced

Sam’s second marriage to Elizabeth Filby of Croydon in 1812,


describing him as a ‘lace dealer’. In 1815 a Moravian minister (Rev.

Samuel Connor) visited Weston and met Sam’s new wife: ‘… I made

enquiry for Sam Roberts, who had been [Cowper’s] Gardener [sic] &

soon found his place of residence, but only his Wife was at Home, who

was well acquainted with the [Moravian] Brethren, & with the greatest

pleasure showed me her Garden, into which had been transplanted from

Cowper’s garden at Weston a favourite Woodbine’81. Then in 1824

Charles Knight visited Weston and met a few individuals who had been

‘intimately acquainted’ with the poet, one of whom was ‘a favourite and

faithful domestic [who] lived [sic] with Cowper during the whole of his

residence at Weston’. The unnamed servant, most probably Sam, was

then living ‘in a beautiful cottage’ and had built in his garden a summerhouse,

‘in honour of his lamented master’, on which was inscribed the

verse Inscription for a Moss-House in the Shrubbery at Weston82. Sam’s

second wife pre-deceased him. By the end of his life he was a man of

property and in his will left a ‘freehold messuage and outbuildings with

the garden etc. together with the two cottages adjoining’ in Weston, and

also a ‘freehold cottage etc.’ in the parish of Emberton. The Mercury

reported his death in 1832 as follows: ‘At his son’s house, in London, …

in the 78th year of his age, much esteemed and regretted by a numerous

circle of friends, Mr. Samuel Roberts, of Weston Underwood, Bucks, for

many years faithful attendant on the Poet Cowper.’ Whether or not he or

his wife deserved Lady Hesketh’s ire, Sam certainly fulfilled his role as

an efficient valet or factotum and appears to have remained indispensable

to Cowper during the Weston years.


All articles are subject to copyright


The Cowper and Newton Journal includes scholarly articles, notes and reviews on Cowper, Newton and their contemporaries, as well as more general articles from the 18th century.

Joint Editors

Professor Vincent NeweyTony SewardDr William Hutchings

Editorial Board:

Dr Ashley Chantler (University of Chester), Dr Michael Davies (University of Liverpool), Kate Bostock (Museum Trustee), Professor Martha J. Koehler (University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PA), Professor Bob Owens (University of Bedfordshire).

Reviews Editor: Tony Seward

The predecessor to The Cowper and Newton Journal was The Cowper and Newton Bulletin.  Published in 8 volumes from 2002-2009, it contained museum news in each issue as well as one or more full-length scholarly articles and shorter notes.


1 T. Wright, The Correspondence of William Cowper, 1904, vol. 4: Sam was

buried (p. 259 footnote) ‘near the porch of Weston church’ or (p. 495 footnote)

‘close to the church tower’. A 1919 churchyard map in Weston church shows a

number of graves on the north side of the tower that no longer exist.

2 Manuscript in the Cowper and Newton Museum collection (I am grateful to

Elizabeth Knight for this information). Sam’s wives were buried in the same


3 Married by Thomas Scott, curate, at Weston.


4 I wish to thank my cousin Noreen Walker of Ontario, Canada, for tracing this

record (kept in Latin).

5 T. Wright, The Life of William Cowper, 1892, pp. 116, 122 (‘Roberts, a rather

prominent figure in this history’), 130 and 140.

6 Letters to Hill, 10 March 1766, and to Lady Hesketh, 2 January 1786. In this

article all references to Cowper’s letters can be found in James King and

Charles Ryskamp (eds.), The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper

(5 volumes), Clarendon Press, 1979-1986.

7 N. Curry, William Cowper, 2015, p. 55. See also, for example, C. Ryskamp,

William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq.: A Study of His Life and Works to

the year 1768, 1959; S. Malpas, Centenary Letters, 2000; and biographies by

H. l’Anson Fausset 1928, D. Cecil 1929, G. Thomas 1935, L. Hartley 1938,

M. Quinlan 1953, J. King 1986, and G. Ella 1993.

8 J. Johnson (ed.), Memoirs of the Life and Writings of William Hayley, 1823.

9 Rev. T. Grimshawe (ed.), The Life and Works of William Cowper, 1835, vol.

5, p. 293 (Memoir); and later editions, e.g. the single volume published by

Nimmo in 1876, p. 457. A similar footnote for this quotation in the ‘restored’

Adelphi is given by King and Ryskamp (op. cit., vol. 1, p. 38).

10 Grimshawe has been described as ‘a hopelessly incompetent editor’ (N.

Russell, A Bibliography of Cowper to 1837, 1963, p. 232); cf. ‘Grimshawe’s

fault was general incompetence’ (L. Hartley, William Cowper, the Continuing

Revaluation, 1960, p. 48). R. Spiller is also critical: ‘Grimshawe … so mangled

his sources as to make his revision of Hayley’s work almost worthless’

(‘A New Biographical Source for William Cowper’, PMLA, XLII (1927),

pp. 946-62).

11 R. Southey, Life of William Cowper, 1836, vol. 1, p. 154, and 1843, vol. 1,

p. 107.

12 King and Ryskamp (op. cit., vol. 1, p.42 (Adelphi)).

13 Letter to Mrs Madan, 1 March 1768.

14 J. Corry, The Life of William Cowper, Esquire, 1803, p. 20. M. Quinlan

(William Cowper: A Critical Life, 1953, p. 66) refers to two servants at Olney,

identifying one as Sam Roberts, but without referring to any evidence for this


15 Letter to Unwin, 3 July 1782. Cowper also had a servant living with him in

Olney called William Peace (or Pearce), who left when he got married, i.e.

before December 1784 (criticised in a letter to Newton, 18 March 1792; see

also the letter to Newton of 24 December 1784). Around that time, Cowper

describes a servant called Tom in Truth (1782); and ‘footman Tom’ is

mentioned in Tirocinium (1782-84).

16 Letters to Mrs Madan, 11 June 1768, 18 June 1768 and 9 July 1768.

17 Letter to Hill, 1 January 1771.


18 Letters to Newton, 24 September and 11 November 1780.

19 Described as a ‘lump of dough’ etc. in a letter to Lady Hesketh, 11 December


20 Letter to Teedon, 20 October 1792: ‘William Kitchener is here and will attend

you home’; Kitch is mentioned several times by Teedon as his messenger, see

T. Wright (ed.), Diary of Samuel Teedon, 1902. Kitchener appears on the 1798

Buckinghamshire Posse Comitatus for Olney (listed as ‘gardener’).

21 Letter to Lady Hesketh, 26 September 1793 (with more general reflections on


22 Teedon’s Diary, op. cit., pp. 19-20.

23 C. Bodham Johnson (ed.), Letters of Lady Hesketh to the Rev. John Johnson,

Concerning Their Kinsman William Cowper the Poet, 1901, p. 82; letter to

Johnson of 28 March 1799: ‘… I could not find any thing in your Accounts my

good Johnny, relative to the Cash which I owe to Saml. Roberts Mother and

Aunt – perhaps indeed they may be both in Heaven by this time …’.

24 Letter to Newton, 25 August 1781: ‘Susan Roberts has been supposed dying

for some time, was speechless for a Week, then grew better, was seized with

violent Convulsions, and is again grown better’.

25 Teedon’s Diary, op. cit., 18 March 1792.

26 Letter to Lady Hesketh, 11 August 1793 (also Letters of Lady Hesketh, op. cit.

p. 25, 27 September 1793).

27 Letters to Lady Hesketh, 27 November 1787, and (about a later clerk) to

Hayley, 25 November 1792.

28 Anecdote dated 1795, cited by J. King, William Cowper, 1986, p. 264.

29 Teedon’s Diary, op. cit., 2 February 1794.

30 The poem, interspersed with prose notes, is cited by King (op. cit., p. 185)

and by Rev. Grimshawe (op. cit., vol. 4, p. 147); extensive quotations from it

can be found in an unpublished typescript by Miss Catherine Mary Barham

Johnson (John Johnson’s great-granddaughter, 1895-1996) entitled ‘Cowper’s

Norfolk Connections’ (Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury, file 37,

copy in Cowper and Newton Museum).

31 Johnson’s message had been carried from Olney by ‘Kitch’.

32 Letter to Rose, 5 November 1789 (Cowper was unhappy with Sam for letting

the dog escape).

33 Letter to Lady Hesketh, 13 February 1791.

34 Lady Hesketh writes later, in May 1794, that ‘even Samuel can scarce support’

Mrs Unwin, after a further attack (Southey, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 175).

35 Letters to Hayley, 24 July and 15 August 1793. See also T. Wright, The Town

of Cowper, 1893, pp. 183-4.


36 Inscription for the Hermitage, May 1793 (see John D. Baird and Charles

Ryskamp (eds.), The Poems of William Cowper, vol. 3, pp. 193, 342).

37 Letter to John Johnson, 6 September 1793.

38 Letter to Lady Hesketh, 5 April 1792.

39 Teedon’s Diary, op. cit., 17 March 1792: ‘Mrs U. told me that this day she

had hired Nanny Roberts instead of Mrs Peers’; the fact that Nanny ultimately

‘succeeded’ Molly was not confirmed by Cowper to Lady Hesketh until

11 August 1793.

40 Letter to Lady Hesketh, 6 June 1792. It is not known whether it was Sam’s

own uncle or his wife’s.

41 Letters to Hayley, 14 June 1792, and to John Johnson, 29 September 1793.

42 Letters to Lady Hesketh of 10 December 1787 and 1 January 1788; the

burial of Sam’s son George Michael is recorded in the Weston register for

1 December 1787.

43 Letter to Hayley, 29 July 1792.

44 Poem dated 1788 according to Baird and Ryskamp, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 309;

see also Wright’s Life of Cowper, op. cit., p. 545.

45 Letter to Hayley, 22 July 1792.

46 Letter to Lady Hesketh, 21 July 1792.

47 Letters of Lady Hesketh, op. cit., p. 20.

48 Letter of John Johnson to his sister Kate, 23 September 1792, Barham Johnson

Collection (OLNCN:2649/30/3).

49 Quoted in ‘Cowper’s Norfolk Connections’, op. cit., p. 84.

50 J. Johnson, Poems by William Cowper, 1815, vol. 3, p. 51.

51 See also Southey, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 176.

52 See King’s biography of Cowper, pp. 264-65.

53 Johnson suggests that it would have proved fatal to Cowper ‘had the measure

been suggested under the idea of a final separation from that endeared residence’,

insisting that this was not the intention (Poems, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 52).

54 Letters of Lady Hesketh, op. cit., p. 43 (Johnson’s plan was then to reside at

Dereham, but Cowper begged him to stay in a village instead).

55 Lady Hesketh in a letter to John Johnson of 1 August 1795 (Southey, op. cit.,

vol. 3, p. 182) says that ‘Susie’ would bring to Norfolk the key to the box of

Cowper’s papers from Weston.

56 Letters to Lady Hesketh, 27 August, 5 September and 26 September 1795.

57 For John Johnson’s diary from the relevant period, see R. Spiller, op. cit.

Johnson writes that Mrs Unwin travelled with Nanny and Hannah Wilson in

the other chaise; see also ‘Cowper’s Norfolk Connections’, op. cit., p. 123.


58 Letter to Lady Hesketh, 27 August 1795.

59 Letter from John Johnson to his sister, 6 September 1795 (Letters of Lady

Hesketh, op. cit., p. 46). The ‘Wheeler crew’ presumably just consisted of Sam,

Nanny and Sukey (there is no evidence that another Wheeler sister was present).

60 Letters of Lady Hesketh, op. cit., p. 26 (27 September 1793). She particularly

disliked Hannah Wilson, who did not actually return to Weston but was

apprenticed in Norwich.

61 Quoted in ‘Cowper’s Norfolk Connections’, op. cit., p. 133. Original letter in

Barham Johnson Collection (OLNCN:2649/32/11).

62 Johnson once wrote for Cowper a ‘poetical Dialogue … between Homer’s head

and the head of Samuel’, the latter presumably being Roberts (see Cowper’s

letter to John Johnson, 20 November 1792), implying that he was making fun

of Sam for his lack of education. Cowper felt obliged to say that the poetry

was ‘kindly intended, I know well, for my amusement’.

63 ‘Cowper’s Norfolk Connections’, op. cit., p.135.

64 Southey, op. cit. (vol. 3, p. 191) writes: ‘Mr Johnson was probably absent in

preparing for their removal to Dunham Lodge, when Cowper … supposed him

to be gone, whither he himself would fain have returned, to Weston’.

65 See R. Spiller, op. cit. Nanny Roberts had in fact already left some 10 days


66 See J. King, op. cit., p. 271, and ‘Cowper’s Norfolk Connections’, op. cit.,

p. 135.

67 Letters of Lady Hesketh, op. cit., p. 61 (‘I … doubt not that he is now an

excellent Servant’), and p. 62 footnote (‘Sam Roberts was succeeded by Sam


68 Christened in 1781 at Weston, Sam Dent is referred to by Johnson as a ‘boy’

and as ‘little Sam’.

69 See ‘Cowper’s Norfolk Connections’, op. cit. p. 116; Dent had been replaced

at Weston by Sam’s eldest son (Samuel junior) and Johnson commented in

a letter to his sister that ‘the old Lady is quite guided by [Sam]’, who had

efficiently arranged for his son to take over.

70 T. Wright, Unpublished and Uncollected Letters of William Cowper, 1925,

p. 85; Sam Roberts is not mentioned here as a beneficiary.

71 Letters of Lady Hesketh, op. cit., p. 61.

72 Note by C. Bodham Johnson in Letters of Lady Hesketh, op. cit., p. 62; see also

p. 84 (reiterating the error that Sam had served Cowper since 1765).

73 See I. Beckett, ‘The Buckinghamshire Posse Comitatus 1798’,

Buckinghamshire Record Society, 1985.

74 Described by Lady Hesketh, in a letter to Johnson of 28 May 1800, as a

‘horrid likeness’ (Letters of Lady Hesketh, op. cit., p. 106), this was the profile


drawing by John Higgins first mentioned by Cowper on 18 May 1791

(see N. Russell, op. cit., p. 286).

75 Lines Written on a Window-Shutter at Weston (on the poet’s departure from

The Lodge). See Baird and Ryskamp, op. cit., vol. 3, pp. 208, 352-53 (Sam

found and copied both fragments and gave them to William Wilson, Cowper’s

barber). The original shutter can be seen in the Museum with only the first


76 Item 78B, presented by Mr J. Taylor of Northampton. The Museum also has

Cowper’s coffeepot, which was passed on to Sam and ultimately purchased by

Helen Higgins. (I am grateful to Kate Bostock for this and other information

about the Museum’s collection.)

77 Barham Johnson Collection (OLNCN:2649/21 (e)).

78 Hayley’s Life of Cowper, 1803 edition, vol. 2, p. 113 (footnote to above-cited

letter of 24 July 1793); the same footnote is reproduced in Southey, op. cit.,

vol. 3, p. 218.

79 See Memoirs of the Life and Writings of William Hayley, op. cit., vol. 2, pp.

168 and 170.

80 See Baird and Ryskamp, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 137-38 and 479; also N. Russell,

op. cit., pp. 27-28.

81 Cowper and Newton Bulletin, vol. 7, no. 3, Winter 2008, p. 15.

82 Knight’s Quarterly Magazine, vol. 3, Aug-Nov 1824 (‘Visit to Cowper’s

favourite village’), p. 47.

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