Thursday, 22 October 2009

In Search of Mrs Woffington (Part 2)

One of Dublin's grand Georgian thoroughfares

Apart from our trip to Teddington in Part 1. we also made a slightly more ambitious journey to Dublin, where Mrs Woffington was born and bred. Mainly I wanted to see the site where the famous 18th-century theatre, Smock Alley, had stood in the 1700s. It's still a narrow street but what I didn't realise was that there's a contemporary studio theatre on roughly the same spot (my photographs of it are here).

Wandering around Dublin with a modern A-Z and a photocopy of an 18th-century map was fascinating and memorable, but as with our trips to London, we had trouble finding anything much dating from Peg's childhood in the 1730s. Yes, Dublin is a truly magnificent Georgian city, but constantly we stumbled across the problem that the street plan was extensively remodelled by the Wide Streets Commission from the mid-1750s, so that the Dublin of the early 18th century no longer exists.

With a photocopy of Rocque's map of Dublin from 1756: the street plan of Temple Bar remains virtually unchanged but the buildings are different

The circumstances of Peg's childhood are surrounded by conjecture, but following the sudden death of her father (one writer claimed he fell off a ladder), debts began mounting and the Woffington family (mother, Peg and baby sister Polly) were forced to eke out a living in a low cabin, with Peg selling watercress door-to-door.

At some time around 1727 she seems to have been discovered by a celebrated rope-dancer called Madame Violante, who had set up a tumbling booth in Fownes Court and Peg got her first theatrical engagement, as a singer. Take a look at the picture below of Fownes Street Upper and despite the modern facades, the upper sections of the buildings are clearly early 18th-century panelled houses. These narrowly escaped demolition in the 1980s when the state transport company, CIE, proposed that a new bus station be built across the site.

Fownes Street Upper, Temple Bar

Of course, there was one thing we knew existed during Peg's lifetime and that was Dublin Castle: a powerful social and political symbol with a complex history. In the 18th century it would have been the Protestant Ascendancy's seat of power; early in the century it hosted the viceregal levee: a formal reception held just after the grandee had risen from bed, usually held on a Sunday. The Castle would also host the usual round of banquets, state balls and 'drawing rooms' (card parties for ladies), with the season ending on St Patrick's Day with a special ball.

The Castle as Peg would have known it: from Charles Brooking's
map of Dublin in 1728

Dublin Castle's 13th-century Norman Record Tower, 2007.

As you can see from the picture above, Dublin Castle is a Norman construction which has much in common with the castles of Wales with their round towers; the Castle still had a moat (formed by the River Poddle) in the Georgian period, but by this time it was redundant and filled with rubbish.

The British administration never rebuilt the medieval castle as a single piece of architecture however; derelict parts were patched here and there, resulting in the mix of buildings we see today. Under the gaze of the Wide Streets Commission, the gate at Cork Hill (below), the Guard House and Court Marshall Room were all completed in 1751, and the Upper Castle Yard itself was extensively remodelled, so even this isn't a true picture of early 18th-century Dublin. Only the old maps can come close to recreating the Dublin that Peg knew as a child and young woman.

Upper Yard, Dublin Castle, 2007

James Malton: Upper Yard, Dublin Caste, 1791.

Further Reading:

I was lucky enough to find several fantastic books that really helped me to imagine Dublin before the work of the Wide Streets Commission. I can highly recommend Peter Pearson's The Heart of Dublin: Resurgence of an Historic City which is an utterly passionate account of the unknown areas of Dublin; I'm indebted to Pearson's work throughout this blog post. I was also hugely excited to find - in the bargain bin of Dublin's City Hall gift shop - A Directory of Dublin for the Year 1738, published by the Dublin Corporation Public Libraries in 2000. I got a thrill when I looked up Margaret Woffington in the index and found her listed as 'actress, Theatre Royal, Aungier Street' and a resident of Jervis Street: a surprisingly well-to-do area, judging from the professions of her neighbours, north of the river. And although it depicts the new Dublin emerging in the final decade of the 18th century, Colin Smythe Ltd's pocket-sized edition of Malton's Georgian Dublin: 25 Aquatints is simply a joy to behold.

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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curator said...

"Rope dancer" - now there's an interesting calling. It had been too long since I had come by, and as usual I greatly enjoyed the visit. Excellent post!

Mrs Woffington said...

Thanks so much Curator - it's been a struggle for inspiration lately, so it's great hear you dropped by.