William (Memory) Woodfall

Painting by Thomas Beach 1872

Presented to the National Portrait Gallery, London by H. D. Woodfall in February, 1864


William Woodfall - Memory

In Queens Street, Westminster, after a weeks illness, in his 58th year, Mr. William Woodfall, whose memory will long be revered by a very large circle of friends, and whose death is an irreparable loss to his family. Mr. Woodfall made himself to be eminently useful by the employment of his talents as a journalist, and by the character and distinction which his reports of the parliament debates acquired, that the public will desire to possess the history of a person who so long, so zealously, and so largely contributed to their information.

He was early placed by his father under Mr. Baldwin, of Paternoster Row, to learn the art of printing; from whose house he went back to his father’s office, and assisted in the printing and editing of “The Public Advertiser”. He became so warm an amateur of drama, that to gratify his penchant for the stage, he made an excursion to Scotland, and performed several times for his amusement in the company of Mr. Fisher. He used to relate many pleasant anecdotes of this jaunt, the most fortunate event of which, however, because it constituted the future happiness of his life, was his marriage with a most amiable woman, with whom he returned to the metropolis about 1772, and engaged himself as editor of “The London Packet”. From this he was called on by the proprietors of “The Morning Chronicle” to the double station of Printer and editor, which he filled with much credit to himself until the year of 1789, when he commenced a paper called “The Diary” on his own account.

 Mr. Woodfall had the merit of being the first writer who undertook to detail the reports of the debates in the two Houses of Parliament on the night of the proceeding. Before his time, a very short sketch of the debate was all that the newspapers attempted to give on the same night, and the more detailed reports were deferred to some subsequent day. Blest with a most retentive memory, Mr. Woodfall undertook the fatiguing and difficult task of giving detail of the proceedings on the same night. Without taking a note to assist his memory, without the use of an amanuensis to ease his labour, he has been known to write sixteen
columns after having sat in a crowded gallery for as many hours without an interval of rest. He took pride in this exertion, which brought him more praise than profit. It wore down his constitution, which was naturally good; and when other papers, by the division of labour produced the same length of details with an earlier publication, he yielded, and suffered his “Diary” to expire. Since that time he employed his talents in various publications.  He fought, in the decline of his years, to be appointed Rembrancer of the City, an office for which he was peculiarly qualified. But private friendships and superior interest prevailed. Mr. Woodfall possessed all the virtues of a private life that endear a man to society, and was particularly distinguished for his literary talents. His memory was uncommonly retentive; and, were it not for this quality, he would probably have risen to affluence in a world upon which he entered with a competence, and left in very humble circumstances. Aided and incited, however by this advantage, he explored a path hitherto unknown, and commenced a career of great but unprofitable labour, that of reporting the debates of Parliament from the strength of his memory alone, unassisted by notes or any artificial means. In this line he attained the highest degree of celebrity, as well for the fidelity of his report, as the quantity and rapidity of his execution. In 1784 he was invited to Dublin, to report the debates upon the Commercial Propositions; at which time, so great was his fame, crowds followed him through the streets, eager to catch a glimpse of a man whom they considered as endowed with supernatural powers. Mr. Woodfall, was also devoted to the belles letťret; and as such, was the intimate friend of Garrick, Goldsmith, Savage, and al the other members of the old Literary School, of which he was one of the few remaining disciples. He was so passionately fond of theatrical representations as never to have missed the first performance of a new piece for the last 40 years; and the public had so good an opinion of his taste, that his criticisms were decisive of the fall or fortune of the piece and the performer. Unfortunately, for himself and his family, he placed all his hopes on the most precarious species of property, and became the proprietor of a news paper, which his talents raised to eminence, but the talent of no individual could secure it a permanent station upon that eminence. The paper fell, and with it all his hopes. He was constant in his attendance at the bar of the House of Lords, which he had visited as lately as July, 27th. Although he was far advanced in life, he was active, animated, and in full possession of his mental faculties, without the appearance of any considerable waste of his physical strength. To a large family, entirely dependent upon the industry, his death is therefore an unexpected, deplorable, and afflicting event. As, however the circle of his acquaintance was as wide as the circle of polished life; as he was known by almost every man of rank, fortune, and literary acquirements in England; and as he was loved by many of them, and respected by all; it is hoped that their regard for the man will not be buried in his grave, but that it will survive, and shew itself in acts of kindness to his sorely afflicted family. His remains were interred on the 6th August, 1803, in St. Margaret’s churchyard,

The above article was extracted from pages 792-793, from the August, 1803 edition of “Gentleman’s Magazine” sub headed ‘Obituary, with anecdotes, of Remarkable Persons’

Other Anecdotes

He was ordered to attend the House of Commons on 12th March, 1771, already in custody on order of the House.

He had to beg pardon of the House, on his knees at the Bar. He did so, but on getting up, took his handkerchief, and dusting his knees, he said: “What a dirty, dirty house this is” and walked off.


The following pages are copies of a letter written by William Woodfall to his son Henry Sampson Woodfall, dated 30th September, 1793. It was addressed to H. S. Woodfall, Kings Head, Dorking, Surrey. The letter still has the original wax seal on it.

It was part of several old documents given to Frank William Woodfall by William Hernon Woodfall.

It has now been restored and mounted and is in the possession of Jacqueline Hazel Hovelroud (nee Woodfall).