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Murrays in the Theatre

London, England

Maria Murray Cowell, Actress

Maria MURRAY was born sometime in the early 1780's.  She was a daughter of Charles MURRAY and Ann ACRES.

Without doubt influenced by her parents, Maria MURRAY became an actress.  Memorable among her performances was a benefit held in honor of her father in the City of Bath in Somersetshire on 11 March 1794.  On this night, Maria was Titania in a A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Joseph Leathley Cowell, from Lopes and Weymss Edition 1826
Joseph Leathley Cowell
abt 1826
(click for larger image)

Sometime during her career, Maria MURRAY was introduced to Joseph Leathley Sidney COWELL.  Born near Torquay, Devonshire on 07 August 1792 as Hawkins WHITSHED, Joseph COWELL entered the Navy at the age of 13.  While on leave from the Navy when he was 16, Joseph attended his first play.  It was Romeo and Juliet and playing the part of Friar Lawrence that night was Charles MURRAY.  Joseph described him as "silver-toned, serene, and beautifully-natural."  In the year 1812,  Joseph Leathley COWELL became an actor AND the husband of Charles MURRAY's daughter, Maria.

At right is an engraving of Joseph COWELL by A. B. Durand from a painting by J. Neagle.  It captures Joseph COWELL in his most famous character, that of Crack from the play Turnpike Gate.  The engraving appeared in Lopez & Weymss Edition in Philadephia and was published by A. R. Poole in 1826.  The engraving appears here thanks to the kind permission of the University of Illinois Library.

The offspring of Maria MURRAY and Joseph Leathley COWELL will satisfactorily enhance the theatrical contributions of the MURRAYs of Stanhope.

Children of Maria MURRAY and Joseph Leathley COWELL:

i.  Joseph Murray Sowerby COWELL, who was born on 25 September 1813 and baptised on 15 October 1813 at the Saint Mary Magdalen Church in Richmond-Upon-Thames, Surrey.  Maria and Joseph COWELL were living in the Manse in the churchyard at this time.  Young Joseph was a notable actor and, in fact, was so good at imitating his father’s mannerisms and voice that his father had to be referred to as "Old Joe COWELL".  Young Joseph was also a celebrated scene-painter.  All accomplished even though he died in early manhood.

ii.  Maria Sidney COWELL, who was born about September of 1814.  Maria Sidney COWELL died in December of 1819 and was buried in the St. Clement Danes churchyard on 26 December 1819.  In 1844, Joseph COWELL rememberd her death as "setting at defiance all forms, modes, shows of grief . , . Even at this distant period this recital is painful to me, and, for some years after its occurence, I dared not trust myself to refer to it."

iii.  Samuel Houghton Starkwood COWELL, who was born 5 April 1820 in London, England.  Sam started a very successful singing career at age nine (9).  Sam married Emille Margueritte EBSWORTH and had nine children including actresses Sidney COWELL and Florence Cowell TAPPING.  One of Sam and Emille COWELL's granddaughters was actress Sydney FAIRBROTHER.

There may indeed be more children of Joseph and Maria Murray COWELL, however the nature of their relationship makes documentation difficult.  If asked to describe their relationship in today’s terms, one could say, “It’s complicated.”

On 08 September 1821, Joseph COWELL left London to pursue what would be a very successful stage career in the United States.  He states he “was obliged to leave my two dear boys” behind but “myself and my wife were rejoiced at meeting our companions” who sailed with them onboard The Thames.  The good ship arrived in New York on 25 October 1821 and its manifest reveals Joseph COWELL and nineteen (19) year old Frances COWELL.  Was Joseph already married to his second wife Frances SHEPPARD?

Meanwhile, back in London, somebody was pregnant with the second daughter of Joseph Leathley COWELL.  Sophia COWELL was born in the Spring of 1822.

Little [four (4) months old] Sophia and her two brothers, Joe and Sam, were on the manifest of The Moss when it landed in Philadelphia in September of 1822.  The children were listed as the sons and daughter of Ann COWELL who was of the same age as Maria Murray COWELL.  Was this actually Maria?

Whoever it was, it must have been an interesting reception in Philadelphia that night!  Imagine Joe COWELL; new mother "Ann" COWELL; and newly pregnant Frances Sheppard COWELL; all in the same room.  (On 23 March 1823, Sidney COWELL was born to Joe COWELL and Frances Sheppard COWELL.)

Sam COWELL, the singer, son of Maria Murray COWELL, is known to have acknowledged that he had a sister named "Sophy".

Was Maria Murray COWELL the mother of a William COWELL?

The Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Volume 10 and 13, list an actor William COWELL as a son of Maria MURRAY and Joseph Leathley COWELL. 

An American seascape painter of some importance was William Wilson COWELL who died in 1898.  One of his paintings is in the collection of the Honorable Paul H. Buchanan, Jr. where the painter is described as being the son of Joseph Leathley COWELL and born in “Boston or New York” in 1819.  Interesting as Joe COWELL states his first trip to America was in 1821 and there is no evidence that Maria Murray COWELL was ever in America.


We do not know what became of Maria Murray COWELL from this point but we do know that her boys traveled from town to town with Joseph Leathley COWELL and his second wife Frances Sheppard COWELL.

We also know that Joseph COWELL’s portrayal of Crack took the audiences by storm at the Park Theatre in New York until he left there in July of 1824.  Joseph then enjoyed similar success in Charleston, North Carolina.

Late in 1826, Joseph COWELL began a successful theatre management career at the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.  The COWELL family lived in Philadelphia at this time and Joseph opened another theatre there on Walnut Street in September of 1827.  The 1827-1828 season may have been his most successful as his troupe included the magnificent Clara FISHER.  Performances always sold out, Joseph rented and expanded the Theatre in Washington, DC where even the President could not get a seat. Joseph writes:

"On the afternoon of the first performance I got a note from John Quincy ADAMS, then the President, requiring a certain box for that evening, directed to 'Mr. Manager of the Theatre; and I sent a reply, regretting that he couldn't have it 'till five nights afterward, directed to 'Mr. Manager of the United States.'  I was afterward told the kind old man was highly amused by the response."

At the close of the season in June of 1828, Joseph COWELL was on his way to Boston to manage the Tremont Theatre.  It was here in Boston in 1829 that the son of Maria MURRAY and Joseph COWELL was discovered and made his first stage appearance.  Nine (9) year old Sam COWELL showed the signing talent that audiences would be talking about for the next forty (40) years.  Of that night, Joseph COWELL said:

"He (Sam) certainly eclipsed anything in the way of juvenile prodigies which I had ever seen – and so an overflowing house said too."

Before the end of 1829, Joseph COWELL was in Cincinnati, Ohio traveling what was at that time known as the Far West Circuit.  Theaters in the towns of Frankfort, Lexington, and Louisville, Kentucky.  In about 1831, Joseph COWELL bought a small farm about eighteen (18) miles North West of Cincinnati in Whitewater Township, Hamilton County, Ohio.  In February of 1834, the COWELL family mailing address was "Clark’s Store" in Whitewater Township.

Joseph COWELL had intended to retire there on his Ohio farm, but by 1836, he was back in the theatre, this time at the Dramatic Temple in New Orleans, Lousiana.

In 1844, the autobiography of Joseph COWELL, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players in England and America was published by Harper and Brothers out of New York.  The book is sprinkled with anecdotes and reminiscences of the people that Joseph COWELL interacted with, either directly or indirectly during his theatrical life.  The book is also celebrated as one of the first references to the card game of Poker being played in America.

In 1846, Joseph COWELL returned to England and on 9 October 1847 he was married to Harriett BURKE in London.  Harriett was born about 1796 in Chichester, Sussex.  She was the daughter of Jacob BURKE, who was a Mariner.

Joseph COWELL spent the rest of his days painting portraits and performing on the stage occasionally.  In 1861, he and Harriett were living in Putney, Southwest of London.  Joseph traveled back and forth several times between England and America and probably arrived in New York for the last time on board the VillaFranca on 31 July 1862.

Joseph Leathley Sidney COWELL died in Putney on 13 November 1863.  He is buried in the Brompton Cemetery near London.