WOFFINGTON 1742-1745


FACTS about the origins of Margaret Woffington (as she signed herself) are extremely hard to find. Legends abound. Even the surname which she made famous has been declared to be one which she adopted for stage purposes in place of the less interesting Murphy. Her date of birth has been given as anything between 1713 and 1720. She never produced any visible relatives except a widowed mother, a devout Catholic, and a very beautiful, much younger sister, Mary, "Polly". But the name of Woffington was not uncommon in Dublin since 1675, and it seems probable that she was the daughter of one Arthur or John Woffington, a journeyman bricklayer, who died when she was very young, according to one account, by falling off a ladder. If it be true that a Robert Woffington, a Vicar Choral at St Patrick's Cathedral, was her uncle, neither ever acknowledged the relationship. William Rufus Chetwood, actor, prompter and dramatist, owner of a bookshop over Tom's Coffee-House in Covent Garden, and a contemporary, staunchly claims that she was "born of reputable parents who gave her a genteel education". When Garrick, aged twenty-three, first saw her perform, in 1740, she may have been four years his senior, or three years younger; but her youth had been far from sheltered. It had been spent in dire poverty. Her mother was said to have failed to pay the rent for a huckster's shop on a Dublin quayside and descended to selling watercress in the streets. Charles Lee Lewes, who became an actor when Woffington was in her prime, believed that she had assisted her mother as a street-seller. "I have met with more than one in Dublin who assured me that they remembered to have seen the lovely Peggy, with a little dish upon her hand, and without shoes to cover her delicate feet, crying through College Green, Dame Street and other parts of that end of the town. 'All this fine salad for a ha'penny! All for a ha'penny! All for a ha'penny here!'" About 1727, a French acrobat, Madame Violante, was performing in a booth- theatre near College Green. Tom King, who acted in Dublin as a beginner when Margaret Woffington was a leading lady, believed that her stage career had begun as a baby, suspended in a basket attached to the feet of Madame Violante in a rope-walking act. As a child-


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David Garrick


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