Who Was Mrs Woffington?

Mrs Woffington as Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Virtually forgotten today, Margaret Woffington (also known as Peg or Peggy) would rise from humble origins to become one of Georgian London’s most famous actresses, sharing the stage with the likes of David Garrick and excelling in so-called ‘breeches roles’. Born around the year 1720 in Dublin, her childhood years were marred by the death of her father, which plunged her family into poverty. Having reputedly sold watercress barefoot in the streets of the Irish capital, she was soon talent-spotted by a tumbler known as Violante, who staged populist entertainments in booths around the city.

Margaret Woffington, by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, c.1738.

Violante had a troupe of child actors called the Liliputians, and before long Woffington was making her debut as Polly Peachum in their version of The Beggar’s Opera. Moving to London, she gained plaudits for both her outstanding beauty and her talent – particularly in comedy – appearing at both Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Known for her quick wit and no-nonsense attitude, she had high-profile affairs with Garrick, Lord Darnley and Charles Hanbury Williams; she was also a generous benefactor, supporting her elderly mother and may even have endowed some almshouses in Teddington, where she had settled at the height of her success. She died, unmarried, in 1760, having suffered a long wasting illness, and is buried in Teddington’s parish church of St Mary’s.