Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Woodfall, William

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WOODFALL, WILLIAM (1746–1803), parliamentary reporter and dramatic critic, born in 1746, was the younger brother of Henry Sampson Woodfall [q. v.] His father first apprenticed him to Richard Baldwin, bookseller in Paternoster Row, and afterwards employed him in printing the ‘Public Advertiser.’ Being smitten with stage-fever, he went to Scotland as an actor in Fisher's company [see Fisher, David, 1788?–1858], fell in love with a lady, married her, and returned to London about 1772. He recast the manuscript of Richard Savage's ‘Sir Thomas Overbury,’ a play which failed when performed in 1723 at Drury Lane, with the author in the chief part. The revised version was a success when represented at Covent Garden in 1776, and it was printed the following year (Biographia Dramatica, i. 754).

Woodfall's livelihood, however, was gained by writing in and conducting newspapers. He was editor of the ‘London Packet’ from 1772 to 1774, when the proprietors of the ‘Morning Chronicle’ engaged his services, which they retained till 1789. He is said to have visited Dublin by invitation in 1784 to report the debates on the ‘commercial propositions’ (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. i. 303). His reporting was an effort of memory; he listened to a speech and then committed to paper a remarkably accurate version of it. His fame had preceded him, and crowds followed him in the streets of Dublin because he was supposed to be ‘endowed with supernatural powers.’ Nichols records that Woodfall's report was printed and prepared for sale as a pamphlet, and that ‘not more than three copies were ever called for.’

In 1789 Woodfall established the ‘Diary,’ and published in it reports of the parliamentary debates on the morning after they had taken place, being the first who did this. He was a dramatic critic as well as a reporter, and in this capacity he sometimes gave offence to managers and actors. In February 1776 Garrick took umbrage at the comments in the ‘Morning Chronicle’ on the ‘Blackamoor,’ of which Bate (afterwards Sir Henry Bate Dudley) [q. v.], editor of the ‘Morning Post,’ was the author. Hearing that Garrick had charged him with rancour, he wrote to him that, ‘as the printer of the “Morning Chronicle,” I am the servant of the public—their message-carrier—their mouthpiece,’ adding that, in the disturbance, he ‘narrowly escaped being murdered.’ Replying to what Garrick had written in return, he assured him that the piece ‘was much hissed throughout the first act. I was myself in the gallery, and as I make it an invariable rule either to applaud or be silent, I listened attentively, and can rely on the evidence of my senses on the occasion’ (Garrick Correspondence, ii. 135, 137). When Richard Cumberland's ‘Mysterious Husband’ was performed for the first time at Covent Garden on 28 Jan. 1783, the critique upon it by Woodfall gave offence to John Henderson (1747–1785) [q. v.], who played a leading part, and who retorted by writing satirical verses which were not published, though circulated in manuscript (Taylor, Records of my Life, i. 379).

Not many years before his death Woodfall was an unsuccessful candidate for the office of city remembrancer. He died in Queen Street on 1 Aug. 1803, and was buried in St. Margaret's churchyard, Westminster. A portrait of him, painted in 1782 by Thomas Beach, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

His daughter Sophia wrote two novels before her marriage, ‘Frederick Montravers, or the Adopted Son,’ which appeared in 1802; and ‘Rosa, or the Child of the Abbey,’ in 1804. She married Mr. McGibbon. For many years she was the principal actress in tragedy at the theatres royal in Manchester and Liverpool.

Woodfall's son William was a barrister, and his ‘Law of Landlord and Tenant,’ published in 1802, became a standard work.

[Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 303, 304; Gent. Mag. for 1803; Ann. Reg. 1803; and private information from Messrs. Woodfall & Kinder.]

F. R.