Barber, Samuel (1783-1828)

A famous father

Samuel Barber was the son of the better known Francis Barber, the black servant of the famous literary figure and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson. Francis Barber had been born a slave in Jamaica. At the age of 15 he was brought to England by his owner, Colonel Richard Bathurst, whose son, also called Richard, was a close friend of Dr. Johnson. In 1756, Francis came to work for Johnson as his valet. Subsequently after working for an apothecary and a brief spell in the navy, he came back to Johnson and, after further education, became Johnson’s assistant. Johnson made provision for Francis in his will, and on his death in 1784, the Barber family, including Samuel, born in 1783, moved to Lichfield. Later Francis opened a small village school in Burntwood.(i)

Moves to Burslem

In about 1797, at the age of fourteen, Samuel came to Burslem to work for Gregory Hickman, a surgeon. Originally from Lichfield, Hickman was related Dr. Johnson, which connection presumably got Samuel the job. After Hickman’s death  Samuel was apprenticed to Enoch Wood, a pottery manufacturer, and became a potter’s printer.(ii)  At the time Reade was researching his book, there was in the museum then in the Victoria Institute in Tunstall  “a Dutch jug painted by him”.(iii)

Character and spiritual experience

The main source for the story of Samuel Barber’s life is John Smith’s ‘Memoir’ of him in the Primitive Methodist Magazine for 1829. As with many such memoirs and biographies in Methodist magazines of the period, this is very formulaic, and not the first of its kind to use an extended paraphrase of Charles Wesley’s hymn “And can it be” to describe its subject’s spiritual experience quoting the verse “No condemnation now I dread” in full.(iv)There are, however, some revealing insights into Samuel’s character. He does appear to have been at times very hard on himself and indeed others including his children.

He endeavoured to train up his little ones in the fear of the Lord; like the wise father mentioned by Solomon, he did not spare the rod: he appears to have followed the advice of the venerated Wesley; and though some of his friends thought he was strict to a fault, yet his wife has informed me, that since his removal, she has seen the fruit of his fatherly correction.

It would be interesting to know whether the following passage genuinely represented the view Samuel had of himself, or had been given of himself, or was merely supposition on Smith’s part.

The powers of darkness beset him around, hell was up against him, and the enemy suggested that there was no mercy for him, because he was of African extraction, and of the coloured tribe. The enemy of souls insinuated, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, which is by nature dark? or the leopard his spots, which are woven into the skin.” Jer. xiii 23.

Barber had been “strict in his attendance on the established church, to which he had no small attachment”, and apparently hostile to the Methodists, until he was caught up in the spirit of “a great revival of religion among the Methodists at Burslem in the years 1805 and 1806”. Sometime between 1805 and the summer of 1808 he became a member of the Burslem Society.(v) John Smith says

This was to Samuel the beginning of good days. He now began fully to lead a new life… He became useful in the Burslem Sunday School … He also every week visited the poor that were lodged in the workhouse; these outcasts he exhorted to flee from the wrath to come, and close in with the Saviour’s offer of mercy… Thus several years after his conversion, were employed in acts of kindness to the poor and needy, instructing the ignorant, and those that were out of the way.


Smith includes some fragments of Samuel’s diary, which he dates to 1808 or 9. However, for the 21 October to be a Sunday, the year would have to have been 1810. A couple of references to specific meetings and events are particularly interesting.

Sept. 11th.  Had yesterday an hour or two with that man of God, Wm. Clowes. I bless God for so precious an interview. O Lord, make me alike faithful. His words are marrow and fatness, attended with the Holy Ghost, and power; faithful to his master, he courts not the smiles, nor fears the frowns of men.

October 21st. The Lord’s day. I see myself far short of that religion. I think, more so to-day than ever, by a remark made by Brother Nixon, at Lane End lovefeast, respecting the patriarchs and prophets, longing for our day; but could not see it. I am fully satisfied that there is a full salvation in Jesus Christ, even deliverance from all sin. Bestow it on me, O Lord.

Presumably “Brother Nixon” was James Nixon. A lovefeast at Lane End [Longton] at that date would have been in the Wesleyan chapel. The association with Nixon and William Clowes ties in with the account in Clowes’ Journals of the events following the withholding of his class ticket in September, 1810.

A few days after this, some of the members of my two late classes, that at Kidsgrove, and the other at Tunstall, came to my house, and… asked me if I had any objections still to instruct them, and lead them in the way to heaven. I told them… if they thought it was the will of God to come to my house, I should give them what advice and instruction I was able to impart in the name of the Lord. They therefore came accordingly; and James Nixon, Thomas Woodnorth, William Morris, and Samuel Barber, left the Methodist society, and came along with them.(vi)


In about 1811 Samuel married Frances (Fanny) Sherwin, born 5 November, 1786, daughter of Joseph and Ann Sherwin. Her father was probably the Joseph Sherwin who was sometime secretary of Bursem Sunday School.(vii) She became a member of the Burslem society sometime between 1805 and 1808. Her name appears on the class lists for 1808 and 1810, but not that drawn up in mid 1811, possibly because by then she had married Samuel Barber or had left the Burslem society for similar reasons to his. Some have assumed that the following entry in Hugh Bourne’s journal to refers to her.

Sunday April 21.[1811] I was at Brown Edge class; there is a beautiful work here. Fanny Sherwin led class. It was a glorious time; several were brought into liberty.

Reade said that “We can scarcely doubt that this would be the same Fanny Sherwin who became Mrs. Samuel Barber.”(viii) If he was right, this begs the question of why Fanny came to be at Brown Edge, which, in the absence of any other evidence, will for ever remain a mystery.

Local preacher

By 1815, the Barbers had moved to Tunstall, where a son, Abraham, was baptised at the Wesleyan chapel on 16 July that year. That year Barber’s name first appears on a preaching plan, that for 5 November 1815 to 28 January 1816, as a preacher on trial. On the next surviving plan, that for 5 May to 28 June 1816, he is listed as a preacher. According to Smith

As a preacher, his talents were not of the first order, yet there was something in him which might put to the blush men of superior abilities… Several places, where there are now good societies, were opened by him. Fifteen or twenty miles, sometimes more, has he gone on the Sabbath day, to preach Jesus, and returned the same evening to his family.

Smith makes no mention of Barber being the secretary of the Tunstall ‘New Testament and Religious Tract Society’. Formed on 6 April 1818, this was one of a number of such institutions whose object was

to attempt the reformation of the thoughtless or ignorant Poor, in places where they are not favoured with the Means of Grace; by distributing Testaments, Sermons, and Religious Tracts, from house to house, as occasion may require, instructing them as we are able in Christ’s stead to repent, and turn from Sin and Satan to the living God…

The first object of the Tunstall Tract Society, was to visit places where the inhabitants had no regular means of grace. And the visitors exhibited a course of laborious piety: and have continued to work with much diligence and perseverance. Nevertheless they have usually been obliged to relinquish the distant labours in the winter season, and have found many of the inhabitants of Tunstall stand in as much need of being visited and instructed as those in the more distant places, who have no means of grace (ix). 

At end of his life

Two points [Samuel] regretted – first that he had not lived in the glory of entire holiness of heart – second, that he had not been a little more open with his wife with regard to the dealings of God with his soul, as he now thought, in such a case, they might have been more useful to each other in the way to glory… After this he spoke but little, and at times was insensible. But in his reasonable moments he discovered no anxious fear; the enemy was fully conquered, and on Sabbath morning, the 6th of July, 1828, he

“Took his last triumphant flight, 
From Calvary to Zion’s height.”


i. John Smith, “Memoir of Samuel Barber, A Local Preacher”, in the Primitive Methodist Magazine (1829) pp.81- 90 and 118 – 128.

See also Aleyn Lyall Reade, “Francis Barber, The Doctor’s Negro Servant”, in Johnsonian Gleanings, Part II (1912)

ii. Inscription on ‘Dr. Johnson’s Knife Box’ illustrated in Frank Falkner, The Wood Family of Burslem (1912).

iii. Reade, op. cit. p.93.                                                                                                               Samuel’s occupation was given as ‘printer’ in an entry in the Tunstall Wesleyan chapel baptism register dated 16 July 1815.

iv. c.f. the ‘Memoir of Mary Dakin’ in Primitive Methodist Magazine, 1819, p. 121.

v. His name is not on the Burslem Wesleyan Methodist Circuit class lists for 1805, but is on the next list for 1808 and that for 1810 after which he joined the Primitive Methodists.

vi. The Journals of William Clowes (1844) p. 86.

vii. Annual Report of the Methodist Sunday School Burslem 1 October 1802 – Managers for the ensuing year: [inter alia] Mr. Joseph Sherwin Secretary.

viii. Reade, op.cit. p. 93. He took the journal entry from Walford.

ix.  Primitive Methodist Magazine, 1822, p. 280-1.

Comments about this page

  • My direct 3× great grandfather is a great inspiration to me. He lived in my home city of Stoke-on-Trent and all his children and further descendants were born in Burslem, including me.
    He was a born-again believer and ‘on fire’ for Jesus! Since discovering this ‘black heritage’ of mine, I have been encouraged beyond words. Today we need preachers like him to take the gospel into our nation and see souls saved.

    By Cedric Barber (13/04/2020)

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