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Cowell, Joseph Leathleylocked

(1792–1863)

Extract

Cowell, Joseph Leathley(1792–1863), actor, author, and painter, was born not far from Torquay in Devonshire on 7 Aug. 1792. His real surname was Witchett. He was of good lineage, his father having been a colonel in the army; his uncle was Admiral Whitshed, whose portrait is at Greenwich; his mother was indulgent to his every whim, and he had opportunities for mingling with seamen and of seeing Nelson and Earl St. Vincent. He has told how he first saw ‘Hamlet’ performed at Carey Sands, and how he interrupted the ghost by shouting ‘That's the man who nailed up the flags,’ and startled Hamlet when hesitating, ‘whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer,’ by suggesting, ‘If I were you I'd go to sea!’ He made up his mind that he would rather be an actor like the one who played Horatio ‘than be Horatio Nelson, though he had lost an eye and banged the French.’ He entered the navy when thirteen years old, served three years as a midshipman, and when turned sixteen got three weeks' leave of absence before starting on a twelve months' cruise to the West Indies. He had been educated strictly in the Roman catholic faith, but curiosity led him into a protestant church in London, and he fell in love with a Miss Anna Creek, made acquaintance with the family, and first saw good acting, Charles Kemble as Romeo, Miss Davenport as the Nurse, and Charles Murray as Friar Laurence. He was more than half ‘engaged’ before he rejoined his ship and went to the West Indies. In a quarrel with a superior officer he forgot himself, and struck his oppressor, thus rendering himself liable to a court-martial, with the probability of being shot. On the voyage home a French ship was met, and he begged to be allowed to lose his life honourably in action. He did his duty so bravely that on arriving at Plymouth the admiral obtained his ante-dated ‘discharge by sick-list.’ Hence the change of name from Hawkins-Witchett. He took to painting portraits, but on 11 Jan. 1812 he wrote to George Sandford of New York, at the Plymouth Theatre, a short letter telling of his wish to become an actor, content with a small salary, and gave his name as ...

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