Sir Samuel Hellier

Samuel Hellier was baptized in St Clement Danes, London on 18 Nov 1736, the son of Samuel Hellier, a Staffordshire landowner, barrister and antiquary. He was knighted in 1762, after serving as High Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1760 and making a well received speech on the birth of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. His father, who died in 1751, had accumulated estates across Staffordshire and Worcestershire, including the new family seat of the Wodehouse, Wombourne. Sir Samuel was also the heir, through his mother, of the Huntbach’s family estates at Featherstone, but did not inherit until his dowager grandmother died in 1782. He himself died two years later bequeathing everything to Rev Thomas Shaw.

Sir Samuel Hellier painted by James Shaw

Sir Samuel Hellier painted by James Shaw

Sir Samuel Hellier’s grandfather and great grandfather had been merchants in London and through his grandfather’s marriage to the heiress Penelope Harris in 1698 had staked a claim to build and become part of the Staffordshire landed gentry, pursuing a range of cultural activities. Sir Samuel, the fourth Samuel Hellier in a row, was thus put in the position to finally accomplish the culmination of this idyll, built up over four generations.

He is renowned for his avid collecting, most notably musical instruments. but he also indulged himself in fossils, coins and books. Some of these collections were left by his will to the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. A number of his letters have survived in which he discusses his collections and passion for music and musical instruments.

The Huntbach side of the family had a deep and abiding interest in history, genealogy and what was generally known at the time as ‘antiquarianism’. This ‘fashion’ is described in Rosemary Sweet’s book Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. His father, who had started many of these collections in the 1720’s, died when Samuel Junior was fifteen. Sir Samuel’s further education seems to have been supervised by his guardian Charles Lyttleton, another noted antiquary.  Richard Gough, another leading member of the nascent Society of Antiquaries, was a cousin. His great grandfather was John Huntbach (1639-1705), yet another noted collector of manuscripts.  John Huntbach’s uncle was Sir William Dugdale, Norroy appointed by Charles II. All this gave Sir Samuel impeccable credentials as an antiquary.

Samuel clearly had a difficult childhood with his mother dying when he was 10 and father when he was fifteen. He is said to have learnt little at the Free School at Birmingham but clearly gained much from Charles Lyttleton in terms of Oxford and connections to the highest in Society. The relations with his stepmother, his father’s third wife, were apparently good but the arguments over wills, money and property after his father’s death were at best unseemly.

Samuel Hellier senior’s will was a disputed affair and probate was not granted until 1755. The will was written in 1735, before his son was even born, whilst he was married to Sarah Huntbach. The dispute centred over a 1751 codicil, found unexecuted in the deceased’s pocket, and the role of John Harris, his uncle and attorney, and whether the original will had been cancelled. This inheritance included property in Broome, Chaddesley Corbett and Rushock as well as the Wodehouse and Holborn, London. There would seem to have been a tussle between the young Samuel’s stepmother, Dame Elizabeth, and Samuel’s grandmother, Sarah Huntbach represented by his ‘official’ court appointed guardian Charles Lyttleton. The death of Dame Elizabeth, widow of both his father and the MP Sir Thomas Cookes Winford (Bart) in 1753 did not solve much as her executor continued the fight until 1755, even then the acrimony with his grandmother continued for another thirty years

Samuel matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford on 3 Dec 1753, where Charles Lyttleton was an influential figure, being at the time Dean of Exeter. It was either here or earlier that he struck up a friendship with Thomas Shaw, to whom he was to leave his whole fortune. Thomas Shaw married Mary Shaw, a distant cousin of Samuel Hellier, in 1756

Sir Samuel studied for six years at Oxford and was supposedly much influenced by Benjamin Kennicott. He was awarded a Doctorate in Civil Law on 7 Jul 1763. He had been admitted to the Inner Temple on 19 Jul 1754 but not called to the bar until 7 Feb 1766. Unlike his father he never seems to have practised as a barrister, despite living much of his time in London. A large amount of his correspondence has survived, mainly to his  estate manager and steward back in Wombourne, John Rogers. Apparently hardly a letter omits some reference to music or musical instruments. He appears to be constantly worrying about details on the estate but his visits appear to be infrequent. They reveal an insecure personality driven by both passion and despair at his projects for the Wodehouse. Samuel tellingly laments on his inability to marry, blaming his grandmother, “the old lady”, who continued to refuse him money. Sarah Huntbach lived to the age of 99 and therefore, in effect, thwarted the continuation of the Hellier name. It was only by the requirement of his chosen heir, Thomas Shaw, to change his name to Shaw-Hellier that the family name was able to continue to live on at the Wodehouse until the 1980’s

The portrait attached is attributed to James Shaw, the artist. James Shaw was the younger brother of Thomas Shaw not to be confused with James Shaw, father of Thomas’s bride, who was erstwhile attorney to Samuel Hellier, senior.

More detail about the Musical Instruments can be read in the piece by Frew and Meyers, more about the Book collection in  the piece by Percy Young, and more about the Wodehouse and the design of the garden in the piece by Dianne Barre. All three rely heavily on the Rogers correspondence.

Samuel Hellier died on 12 Oct 1784 and was buried in the family vault  in St Benedict, Wombourne alongside his grandfather (1672-1727), great uncle (1680-1719), grandmother (1672-1735), father (1699-1751) and mother (1710-1745).

Selected Sources

  • Parish Registers of St Benedict, Wombourne,  (original manuscripts –
  • Percy M Young: Samuel Hellier, A collector with a Purpose. The Book Collector, Autumn 1990
  • Frew and Meyers: Sir Samuel Hellier’s “Musicall instruments” Galpin Society Journal, 2003 (JSTOR)
  • Dianne Barre: Sir Samuel Hellier and his garden buildings, Garden History, Winter 2008.  (JSTOR)
  • Will of Samuel Hellier, Knight of Wombourne, Probate 17 Oct 1784, National Archives PCC
  • Will of Samuel Hellier, Salesman of Savoy Precinct, Probate 15 Feb 1694, National Archives PCC (Great Grandfather)
  • Will of John Hellier, Merchant of St James Westminster, Probate 1719, National Archives PCC (Great Uncle – mentions two Cremona Violins left to nephew Samuel Hellier)
  • Will of Samuel Hellier, Gent of Holborn,  Probate 21 Nov 1727, National Archives (Grandfather)
  • Will of Samuel Hellier of Inner Temple, written 12 Feb 1735, Probate 12 May 1755, National Archives PCC (Father)
  • Will of Dame Elizabeth Cookes Winford/Hellier, Probate 22 Dec 1753, PCC (Stepmother).
  • Will of Sarah Huntbach, Widow, Probate 18 Mar 1783, Nationak Archives PCC  (Grandmother)
  • Inner Temple Admissions Database
  • Oxford Alumni Database






Last updated on 3 April 2024 by JJ Morgan