Magee, William (1750?–1827), printer, was probably born in Belfast, where his father, James Magee, printer and bookseller, had been involved with Francis Joy (qv) in papermaking near Ballymena in 1740, and had published the early Belfast news sheet, the Courant (1745–6). James Magee printed the first edition of the poems of Robert Burns outside Scotland, a pirated edition of Burns's first volume, in September 1787. For over fifty years James Magee was Belfast's most important printer of the small-format popular books sold by chapmen. William joined his father in the business at the sign of the Crown and Bible in Bridge St., Belfast; James's name appears for the last time on a publication of 1789, and he died in 1797, aged 90 years. According to Martha McTier (qv), writing in December 1777, ‘young Magee’ won £500 in the lottery; this might have been either William or his brother John Magee (qv), who left Belfast for Dublin in that year. John made a name for himself as a vituperative newspaper editor in Dublin; as his behaviour became increasingly erratic, William petitioned to have him declared a seriously mentally ill for the sake of his children in October 1789.
Throughout his career, William Magee sold lottery tickets at his shop in Belfast, where – as well as books – many luxuries were on sale; his regular advertisements in the Belfast Newsletter provide fascinating glimpses of the stock in trade of a Belfast shop of the period. Magee was also in partnership (1786–9) with Robert Callwell (1764–1836), his wife's brother, in an unsuccessful wine and spirit business. Callwell may have been related by blood as well as by marriage; his mother's maiden name was Magee. Magee's main line of work was in printing and publishing; he printed many of the best-known works of the century, whether in pirated editions for Belfast readers, or on behalf of the authors; he printed much of the work of William Drennan (qv). In May 1786 he bought the Belfast Mercury newspaper from John Tisdall, and changed its name the following month to the Belfast Evening Post. It was published twice weekly, and appeared for thirty weeks. A political radical, Magee was one of the twelve partners who invested £50 in 1792 to start the Northern Star newspaper, which represented the views of the Society of United Irishmen until the presses were destroyed in May 1797. His involvement with the United Irishmen does not seem to have gone beyond this.
In 1809 Samuel Archer purchased Magee's stock of books, and went into partnership with Magee's erstwhile chief assistant. After his retirement Magee became a member of the re-formed Belfast Harp Society (founded 1809), as he had been of the original society, and was on the board of Belfast Academical Institution (BAI). In March 1816 the BAI was threatened with loss of the grant on which it depended, as the government felt that the teaching and ethos within the school were too radical. Magee was one of three board members who resigned in March 1816, when it was known that they had attended a dinner at which anti-government toasts had been drunk. He died on 7 October 1827; he was held in such respect that all the shops in Bridge St., where he had been in business for over fifty years, closed on the day of the funeral. He was buried in Knockbreda churchyard along with his wife, Jane (née Callwell), who had died aged 36 on 25 September 1800, and a daughter and a son who died young. He was survived by three daughters and a son in Ireland, and a son, James, in America, who made and lost a fortune in Savannah, Georgia. After he again prospered in Mobile, Alabama, James Magee invited all his creditors to a banquet, where he refunded to each the amount he owed wrapped in their dinner napkins. He was British consul in Mobile during the American civil war.