Woffington Margaret (‘Peg’) (c.1720–1760), actress, was born in Dublin, elder of two daughters of John Woffington, bricklayer, and his wife, Hannah. Her funeral monument at St Mary's church, Teddington, Middlesex, claims she was born 18 October 1720, though it is quite possible she was born a few years earlier. Educated locally and raised as a Roman catholic, Peg learned to read and write and c.1730 became the protégé of Signora Violante, an Italian gymnast and equilibrist who was performing at the Smock Alley Theatre. In December 1731 Woffington made her stage debut playing Macheath in ‘The beggar's opera’ at the New Booth Theatre in Dame St., Dublin. Touring London with Violante's company in 1732, Woffington returned to Ireland to perform at the new theatre in Aungier St. Making her debut as Dorinda in an adaptation of ‘The tempest’, she acted and danced in various other productions over the following two seasons. With the closure of the theatres in Dublin in 1737 to mark the death of Queen Caroline, Woffington decided to seek her fortune abroad and emigrated to Paris. Returning to Aungier St. in 1739 she was a success in a number of roles and consolidated her growing reputation; the most important of these were Nell in ‘The devil to pay’, Phillis in ‘The conscious lovers’, Silvia in ‘The recruiting officer’, and the title role in ‘The female officer’. Donning breeches for the final two of these plays, she did so again on 25 April 1740 when she made her first appearance in ‘The constant couple’ and was a sensation in the part; the play was an immediate success and the character of Sir Henry (or ‘Harry’) Wildair became one of her most memorable roles. It was said that after an acclaimed performance as Wildair she once exclaimed loudly: ‘In my conscience! I believe half the men in the house take me for one of their own sex.’ Immediately another actress retorted: ‘It may be so; but in my conscience, the other half can convince them to the contrary!’ (Highfill et al., 202).
Much in demand, and applauded both for her acting skills and her striking figure, she returned to the London stage on 6 November 1740 playing Silvia in ‘The recruiting officer’. She followed this with three more plays, including another successful run of ‘The constant couple’. From 1741 she performed on stage as ‘Mrs Woffington’ although she remained resolutely unmarried, but never unattached. At the start of the 1742 season she embarked on a relationship with David Garrick, soon to be regarded as the finest actor of his day. Together they were invited to perform at the Smock Alley Theatre and they arrived in Dublin in June. Woffington returned to England in August but quickly separated from Garrick, who remained infatuated with her. She entered into a relationship with Lord Darnley in 1743, but like most of her love affairs it was brief. Competing with Catherine ‘Kitty’ Clive (qv) for most of the leading female roles, they were bitter rivals for most of the 1740s. In 1743 Woffington's attempts at a reconciliation were rebuffed, as Clive informed her that she had a reputation to consider. Woffington's retort was a good example of her bawdy wit: ‘Madam, so should I too if I had your face’ (ibid., 206).
In 1748 she left for Paris to refine her acting technique, and returned with an Italian lover. Later that same year she made her debut at the Covent Garden Theatre. In 1753 she conformed to the established church, in order that she might inherit the estate of her friend Owen Swiney (qv); her conversion contributed to the decline of her popularity in Dublin. By the start of the 1756–7 season she had won back much of her audience at Covent Garden, but her health was in sharp decline. In May 1757 she suffered a paralytic seizure on stage while playing Rosalind in ‘As you like it’; it was her final performance. Ageing rapidly and an invalid, she died 28 March 1760 at Queen's Square, Westminster, and was buried at Teddington.
Regarded as one of the finest actresses of her day, comfortable in tragic or comic roles, she won much praise for her striking figure, beauty, wit, and spirit. Her only weakness was her dissonant voice, and she was never able to master this problem. Francis Gentleman (qv), reviewing her career in the Dramatic Censor (1770), was torn between praising her acting and attacking her voice. Inaccurately credited with founding the almshouses at Teddington, she did help provide for them. Thirty years after her death, an anonymous tribute to Woffington was published in The Mirror in Dublin: ‘She freely professed her abhorrence of tattle/ And handled her sex as a child does a rattle/ As a toy, nothing more, and when weary with play/ She'd laugh at their folly and throw them away’ (Highfill et al., 219). Her sister Mary (‘Polly’) Woffington (c.1729–1811) also took to the stage in England and Ireland but was not a success. She married Robert Cholmondeley, son of Earl Cholmondeley , in 1746, despite Peg's disapproval. A friend of Samuel Johnson, she died 4 April 1811 in England. She had ten children.