Sampson, John (1862–1931), scholar and librarian, was born 25 February 1862 in Schull, Co. Cork, third child and eldest of three sons of James Sampson, metallurgical chemist and mining engineer born in Cornwall of a long Cornish lineage, and Sarah Anne Sampson (née Macdermott), who was of French protestant descent. When he was 9 the family moved to Liverpool. The long illness and eventual death of his father in the early 1870s left the family in financial difficulties, and John and his siblings received little schooling. Nevertheless, his brother Ralph Allen Sampson (qv) eventually went on to distinguish himself academically, and became astronomer royal for Scotland. John was forced to leave school in 1876 at the age of 14 to become apprenticed to a local engraver-lithographer, with whom he remained for twelve years. After trying unsuccessfully to start a printing business (1888), he became increasingly involved in literary pursuits as a self-taught scholar. Inspired by the writing of George Borrow, he developed an enduring interest in Romany culture and language, eventually establishing himself as an academic expert in the field. He conducted numerous philological studies of the Romany language, also mastered Sanskrit, and researched the indigenous Irish Romany dialect, Shelta. He played a key role in the founding of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1888, and served as its president (1915–16). The world's leading authority on Welsh Romanies, he published his most celebrated work, The dialect of the Gypsies of Wales, in 1926. His ‘Forty-two Welsh Gypsy folk-tales’ was serialised in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (1907–32); a selection in book form was published as XXI Welsh Gypsy folk-tales in 1933. Sampson's friendship with Kuno Meyer (qv), a linguist at University College Liverpool (latterly, Liverpool University) and member of the Gypsy Lore Society, led to his appointment, despite his lack of previous experience, as the college's first full-time librarian (1892–1928). He edited (1899–1904) Otia Merseiana, an annual volume of literary, philological, and historical essays, and was secretary to the University Press of Liverpool (1901–10). In 1901 he met the artist Augustus John, with whom he had a lifelong, if turbulent, friendship; sparked by Sampson, John developed an interest in Romany culture, also became a Romany scholar, and was honorary president of the Gypsy Lore Society from 1937 till his death in 1961. Sampson's close friends also included Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh and Robert Bridges, the poet laureate.
Conferred with an honorary MA by Liverpool University in 1907, Sampson received a D.Litt. from Oxford university (1909) and from Liverpool (1930). A respected authority on William Blake, he received better reviews for his Poetical works of William Blake (1905) – in which he restored the poet's orginal texts – than W. B. Yeats (qv) had for his 1893 edition. Sampson's other publications included a Romany anthology in prose and verse, The wind on the heath (1930); a collection of Romany poetry, Romane gilia (1931); and the posthumously published In lighter moments: a book of occasional verse and prose (1934).
Sampson married (1894) Jessie Margaret Sprunt, with whom he had one daughter and two sons, the younger of whom was killed in the first world war. Described as ‘portly in build, ponderous in speech, choleric in disposition, immensely learned and yet with an impish sense of humour’ (Kelly, 171), he lived for many years in Bettws-Gwerfil-Goch, north Wales. He died in West Kirby, Cheshire, on 9 November 1931; his ashes were scattered from the top of Foel Goch in Denbighshire (Cymru), north Wales, by his surviving son, Michael. The hundreds of mourners included friends from the university and a great assemblage of Romanies from around Britain. Sampson is included in a group portrait painting by Albert Lipczinski that hangs in the Sydney Jones library, Liverpool University, and is commemorated by a Latin inscription by Campagnac on a wall tablet in the university's Harold Cohen library. A biography, The scholar gypsy (1997), was written by his grandson Anthony Sampson.