Robert Woffington: Organ-builder, Harpsichord and Pianoforte-maker, Dublin: a Biographical Timeline 1774 - 1819



>

Summary

Robert Woffington was an organ, harpsichord and pianoforte maker, active in Dublin in partnership with William Gibson in Grafton-street from 1775 - 1778 and then on his own account at 9, William-street from 1778 until his death in 1819. Until now, information about his life and activities has been sparse. However, thanks to newly available digitised primary source materials, the author has been able to establish that he became a Freeman of the City of Dublin by service in the Joiners Guild in 1774. Assuming he was apprenticed at the usual age of fourteen in 1767, it follows that he was born about 1753. There is also evidence from contemporary newspapers that he became a prominent member of the Guild and was Master in 1789. Moreover he was politically active; for example, in 1780 he was among a group of members of the Corps of Dublin Volunteers to form a breakaway group calling themselves the Corps of Independent Volunteers in protest against the Corps' refusal to make an address of thanks to Henry Grattan for his conduct in parliament.

In 1799 he advertised his 'Vocal Piano Fortes', accusing another unnamed maker of copying them. This was firmly refuted by William Southwell in a newspaper notice shortly afterwards, thus demonstrating that rivalry existed between the two firms.

A newly identified advertisement for the sale of Woffington's stock in trade placed by his Executors in 1819 firmly establishes the year of his death. An entry for his will appears in an Irish Index of Wills in 1820, but sadly the will itself has not survived. There is evidence from trade directories and advertisements that the firm continued to be active until ca. 1835, presumably run by one or more of his sons.

Eight instruments from his shop are known to survive today. They include a harpsichord (said to be in Japan); a chamber organ, a mechanical organ and an upright harpsichord combined with a pipe organ (all held at The National Museum of Ireland, Dublin); two upright pianofortes (one in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the other at Finchcocks Museum, Kent which sadly has recently closed) (Darcy Kuronen, Newletter of the American Musical Intrument Society, Vol.37 No. 3, Fall 2008, 11-12). More recently two square pianofortes have been identified, the first in a private collection, London; the second in a private collection, Australia.

Timeline
ca.1753

Probable birth year of Robert Woffington. Since he became a Freeman by service in 1774 (see below), it follows that his apprenticeship commenced seven years earlier in 1767, at the age of about fourteen years

His parentage remains unknown. However, at least two Woffingtons were active as organists in Ireland earlier in the century. A Robert Woffington was organist of St Mary's Dublin in 1735 (UK and US Directories 1680-1830, Ancestry.co.uk); and a John Woffington was appointed organist at Armagh in 1752 and in 1758 placed advertisements in which he stated he was 'late organist of St. Michan's Church, Dublin' and trained at St Jame's Westminster under Dr Croft (website of St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh). It seems probable that Robert was related to this line.

1774

A surviving nineteenth century printer’s gallery which never reached publication lists almost 6000 men admitted to the Freedom of the City of Dublin between 1774 - 1820. It includes the name of Robert Woffington who became free by service in the Joiners Guild in 1774. Unfortunately the record does not include the name of his Master; however, clearly he [his Master] must have been a Freeman of this Guild. (Source: Freemen of Dublin City,1774-1824, accessed via Findmypast.co.uk)

[Author's note: In the past it has been suggested that Woffington was apprenticed to the harpsichord maker Ferdinand Weber, but for the moment this remains unproven. The record of Woffington's Freedom admission raises the question of whether or not Weber was eligible for membership of a Trade Guild, as a German craftsman who settled in Ireland? Vivien Costello tells us that under the 1662 Act to Encourage Protestant Strangers, Huguenots received special concessions to become Freemen of Dublin (Vivien Costello, 2007. "Researching Huguenot Settlers in Ireland," BYU Family Historian: Vol. 6, Article 9). But did this apply to other foreign settlers too? Further research is needed to investigate this issue.]

1776

By this year Robert Woffington had been taken into partnership by William Gibson, who is perhaps best remembered today for his beautifully crafted guitars and citterns. An example of a guitar from his shop, dated 1765, is held in the musical instrument collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

[Author's note: Interestingly, John Rogers lists William Gibson as a joiner and cabinet maker at College Green, Dublin 1769-74 (Appendix 1: "A Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century Irish Furniture Makers" in The Knight of Glin and James Peill, 2007. Irish Furniture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 283). Rogers also tells us that Gibson became a Freeman of the City of Dublin as a Carpenter in 1760, was elected Warden of the Joiners Guild, 1769-70 and Master from 1772-74. Mary Pollard cites evidence that he was also active as a music publisher at College Green, 1768-1774 and solely as a musical instrument maker at 6, Grafton-street from 1775-1790. (A Dictionary of Members of the Dublin Book Trade 1550-1800, 2001: 237). For more information on Gibson's activities as a musical instrument maker, see The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, 2014 Vol.2, 428.]

A notice in The Hibernian Journal in October of this year signed by a group of employers, cabinet makers and Freemen of the Joiners' Guild in Dublin, including Gibson and Woffington, makes interesting reading. They complained that  ‘the journeymen of our Trade have entered into an unlawful Combination and quit their work’:

 WE, the Subscribers, principal Employers of the Cabinet-makers of the City of Dublin, with great Concern find that the journeymen of our Trade have entered into an unlawful Combination, and quit their work; and being informed that many industrious Men would most willingly return to their Work, if they were not deterred by the Threats of some among themselves.  In order therefore to encourage the well inclined Journeymen Cabinet-makers of  this City, or Country or other good Workmen as may be inclined to come hither from England, Scotland,  Germany, or elsewhere, we hereby engage to give constant Employment and the highest Encouragement, and  we will protect every Person in our Employment by every lawful Means; ...

... N.B. If the Workmen  who have left their Work unfinished do not immediately  return and finish it, they shall be proceeded against as the Law directs; and we hope our Customers will not countenance such combining Journeymen, but kindly indulge until we are  supplied with Workmen (The Hibernian Journal 23-26 October 1776)

[Author's note: Among more than forty signatories of this notice we also find Hall Kirchoffer and Richard McOwen, whose names also feature in the 1802 advertisement placed by a group of cabinet and musical instrument makers, including William and Nicholas Southwell, seeking workmen from the mainland.]

1778

In August 1778, having dissolved his partnership with William Gibson, Robert Woffington announced he was continuing in business on his own account as an organ builder, harpsichord and pianoforte maker at No. 9 William-street.

ROBERT WOFFINGON, Organ Builder, Harpsichord, and Piano-forte-Maker, continues Business solely on his own Account (the partnership of Gibson and Woffington being dissolved) in William-street, No.9, the House formerly occupied by the late Mr. Deane. Where he has now for Sale several of these Instruments, and, entreats the Command of the Nobility and Gentry, whose many Favours he thankfully acknowledges. (The Hibernian Journal, 31 July- August 3 1778)

1779

A notice placed in a Dublin newspaper in the Autumn of this year records the growing disquiet felt by the local Musical Instrument-Makers at recent imports of instruments, which they believed would threaten their livelihood and that of their workmen.

DUBLIN, OCTOBER 16, 1779
The Musical Instrument-Makers of this city being assembled to take into Consideration the late importation of Organs, Harpsichords, Piano-fortes, Guittars, Violins, Flutes, &c. &c., sent from the London Warehouses, to different Shopkeepers, on Commission, the following Resolutions were unanimously agreed to.

Resolved. That the late Importation of Musical Instruments for Sale, (a Thing never before practised in this Kingdom) is in direct Opposition to the general Associations, and if not prevented in future, will evidently tend to the Destruction of our Business, and to the Injury of Joiners, Carpenters, Smiths, Founders, &c. &c. to whom we give employment.

Resolved, That in order to co-operate with the Wellwishers of this Country, and to stop this new and destructive Importation, we are determined, and have bound ourselves to each other, not to tune, string, repair or put in Order, any foreign Musical Instruments that may now be on sale, or shall be imported at any Time hereafter.

Resolved, That these our Resolutions be inserted in the public Papers: And, we hope, the same Spirit of Patriotism, which induced the Nobility and Gentry, to protect other Manufacturers, will also extend to this, as we are determined, that nothing will be wanting on our part, to bring it to the greatest possible perfection.

Signed by Order T. PLUNKET, Secretary. (The Dublin Evening Post, 21 October 1779)

1780

A notice placed in Saunder’s Newsletter, 26 April 1780 reported on the refusal of the Committee of the Corps of Dublin Volunteers to make an address of thanks to Henry Grattan for his conduct in parliament and that in consequence a certain number of persons had withdrawn from the meeting and had resolved:

That Henry Grattan Esq. has merited the utmost Approbation of every Friend of this Country.  Resolved unanimously that we cannot, confident with the Feelings of Freemen, and Citizens of a free Country, associate any longer with Persons possessing Minds and Dispositions so much the reverse of our own.  But we hereby engage to retain our Arms and continue as a Corps of INDEPENDENT VOLUNTEERS READY TO EXERT OURSELVES in Defence of our Country when Occupation shall require.

Among the signatories of this statement we find the name of R. Woffington.

[Author's note: Further background information about Henry Grattan, Anglo-Irish Statesman may be found in an article here.]

1785

Five years after the first stirrings of disquiet at the importation of musical instruments (see 1779), A notice placed by Felix McCarthy in The Dublin Evening Post, 1 January 1785 reports the following resolutions made at a general meeting of the Musical Instrument Makers of the City of Dublin on 1 December 1784, chaired by William Castles Hollister and signed off by William Gibson, Sec.

Resolved:

* That the different makers in this kingdom are qualified to supply every demand in that business, and on as reasonable terms as any that can be imported.

* That if Musical Instruments be imported from other countries, it will tend to destroy the different manufactories of that business in this kingdom.

* That any person who will tune, repair, or put up Instruments, knowing them to have been imported since the first day of September last, must be considered as an enemy to the trade of this country.

* That we bind ourselves to each other (neither personally nor by those in our employ) not to tune, repair, or put up any Musical Instrument, that shall appear to have been imported since the first day of September, 1784.

In summary, it goes on to say that the working Musical Instrument Makers assure the Nobility and Gentry of this kingdom that 'every exertion in our power shall be used to rival the manufacturers of other nations' and concludes by thanking the patriotic Nobility and Gentry 'who by their laudable exertions discourage importation'.

[Authors Note: This notice is interesting, revealing as it does the high level of anxiety felt by the body of Irish musical instrument makers of the day at the threat posed to their livelihood by imported instruments. It suggests that the number of imports had escalated to a considerable extent since 1779. This is an area that merits further research.]

1788

The Freeman's Journal, 4 October 1788 reported that:

'Yesterday an excellent organ made by the celebrated Woffington, was erected in the chapel of the Augustinian Friars in Creagh-lane; the first which has been introduced into any chapel here'.

1789

A notice was placed in Saunder's Newsletter, 20 January 1789, on behalf of the Corporation of Joiners in the City of Dublin, thanking Archibald Hamilton Rowan for his conduct ‘in the Cause of the unfortunate Mary Neal’. It was signed by Robert Woffington, Master and Southwell Maclune and Robert Mallett, Wardens.

JOINERS-HALL, QUARTER DAY, JAN 13 1789.

The following ADDRESS was unanimously agreed on to be preferred.

To ARCHIBALD HAMILTON ROWAN Esq.

SIR.The Corporation of Joiners of the City of Dublin, admiring the Virtue and Public Spirit, which has eminently distinguished you in the Cause of the unfortunate Mary Neal, and wishing, in common with our Fellow Citizens, to express their Approbation of real Worth, entreat your Acceptance of their sincere and hearty Thanks for your Exertions; and whilst they lament that there could, in the highest Ranks of Life, be found Persons to countenance Acts so injurious to Morality and Society, they revere your Conduct, Sir, on that occasion as Noble as Manly. To the Approbation of a good Conscience (that greatest earthly Happiness) they consign you, and may you long live the Protector of Innocence.

ROBERT WOFFINGTON, Master

SOUTHWELL MACLUNE, ROBERT MALLETT, Wardens.

Hamilton Rowan's response was also published:

GENTLEMEN,

I RECEIVE with Gratitude, the marks of Approbation with which your respectable Guild, and my benevolent Fellow citizens have honoured my conduct, in the cause of Mary Neal; but I cannot avoid shrinking back when I consider that I have only done what is the duty of every Man towards the unfortunate. I know that the calumnies with which this persecuted child was overwhelmed, were chosen to procure, and fixed upon to palliate, an Arrest of Justice. I was therefore obliged, notwithstanding the Reluctance a private individual must feel in taking such a step, to appeal to the Public on her Behalf. I am happy to find that the virtuous part of my Fellow Citizens join in Condemnation of such conduct, as injurious to Society, and totally repugnant to Morality. I am, Gentleman, Your very obedient humble servant ARCHIBALD HAMILTON ROWAN. (Saunders Newsletter, 20 January 1789)

[Author's note: For a useful summary of Archibald Hamilton Rowan's involvement in the case of Mary Neal see: http://www.abandonedireland.com/Rathcoffey.html and also the Wikipedia article documenting his life. Mary Neal's case appears to be an example of abuse of a minor that sadly has resonance with the issues of child abuse found in our modern day world.]

In July of the same year a further notice published by the Corporation of Joiners and signed by Robert Woffington, Master and Southwell Maclune and Robert Mallett, Wardens, supported a resolution of the Guild of Merchants to the following effect:

That we will not vote for any Person or Persons to represent us in the Common Council of this city, who will not first take and subscribe the following declaration: That is returned into the Common Council of this city, we will not vote for any Police Commissioner, or Divisional Justice to be Chief Magistrate, or Representative in Parliament for this city...

These notices provide evidence that Woffington had achieved a position of high standing in the Joiners Guild and also serve to illustrate the politically active stance being adopted by the Guild under his leadership.

In October Robert Woffington advertised for 'working Men of this Business' to join his firm, with the proviso that 'None will be accepted but those of a sober and industrious habit' (Saunders Newsletter, 13 October 1789)

1790 A beautiful example of an upright pianoforte by Woffington held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been tentatively dated to this year.
1795 A news item in Saunder's Newsletter, 5 November 1795 reports on the results of an Election conducted by the Corporation of Joiners for two Common Councilmen to represent them for the ensuing three years. The five candidates included Robert Woffington, who was not however elected. This finding demonstrates that he still maintained a very active role within the Guild at this time.
1799

In September 1799 Woffington advertised for sale his 'Vocal Piano Fortes'.

TO THE MUSICAL COGNOSCENTI

VOCAL PIANO FORTES, very considerably improved, may now be had of the inventor only, Robert Woffington, William-street, Dublin. They will be found to possess ever desirable quality, and may be had with or without the accompaniments of the Tambourine and Triangle, additions peculiarly his own, and never before accomplished. The advertiser would not trouble the public with this address, but that a very inferior imitation of them having lately appeared by another name, he thinks it necessary to discriminate. Piano fortes of every description, at all times ready for sale. (Saunder's Newsletter, 21 September 1799)

[Author's note: See William Southwell's timeline for 1799 for his response to this advertisement, which reveals clear evidence of the existence of rivalry between the two men.]

1803

A Dublin auction sale by Mack and Gibton on 3 February 1803, includes a grand piano by Woffington, providing evidence that he constructed this type of instrument too. (Saunder's Newsletter, 3 February 1803)

In April of this year Woffington advertised:

ROBERT WOFFINGTON's LONDON and DUBLIN, PIANO FORTE and ORGAN WAREROOMS, No. 9, William-street, are now assorted with a great variety of those instruments, where at once may be seen the productions of the best makers in England and Ireland, which he intends to sell at a FAIR PRICE and trusts they will be found at least equal in merit to those offered for sale elsewhere, at much more advanced prices, and for which advance, value is not nor cannot be given. (Saunder's Newsletter, 14 April 1803)

[Author's note: It seems that following the Act of Union, which came into force in 1801, pragmatism had won the day and Woffington had decided to sell instruments imported from London as well as those made locally. The reference to London appears to refer to the fact that he was importing instruments made there for sale in Dublin - the author has located no evidence to suggest that he had actually opened an establishment in London.]

1806 An auction sale by A. Davis, 23 Lower Ormonde-quay included a pianoforte by Gibson and Woffington (Saunder's Newsletter, 18 October 1806). This must date from before 1778 when their partnership was dissolved and demonstrates that Woffington was making pianofortes from the very earliest stages of his career.
1807

A news item in The Freeman's Journal about St. Andrew's Church, Dublin in March of this year describes the organ, built by Woffington thus:

The organ, built by Woffington, is on a very large scale, has sixteen stops, and near one thousand pipes. Amateurs who have tried it are of opinion that for its size, compass and tone, it will be one of the finest instruments in the kingdom, and its grand exterior, presenting three fronts, is worthy of the situation. (The Freeman's Journal 4 March 1807)

In June of this year a notice placed by Woffington himself advertised:

The organ, formerly in St. Andrew's Church, and now in Eustace-stree Meeting-house, to be sold on very moderate terms. - apply to Mr. Robert Woffington, No.9, William-street.(Dublin Evening Post, 20 June 1807)

[Author's note: Presumably this was the previous organ that had been removed from St. Andrew's to make way for a new one, as described in the March advertisement.]

1808-1813

Woffington, now describing himself as an organ builder, advertised for sale Patent Pianofortes 'lately imported from the first makers in London' as well as Church, Chamber and Barrel Organs. (Dublin Evening Post, 17 November 1808).

Two further advertisements placed in 1811 and 1813 echo this theme. He was by then selling piano fortes by 'eminent London makers' and at the same time advertising finger and barrel organs, presumably from his own house.

1819

Robert Woffington died, as is evidenced by a notice of the sale of his stock placed by his Executors at the end of June that year.

ORGANS AND PIANO FORTES TO BE SOLD At and under the First Cost By Order of the Executors of the late Robert Woffington, At the Organ and Piano Forte Ware-Rooms, No. 9, WILLIAM STREET.

A number of Barrel and finger organs of different descriptions, large Organs, particularly adapted for places of Public Worship, or small ones fit for private houses; also a few chosen Piano Fortes of the best London makers. The Executors being obliged to dispose of the Stock in Trade as soon as possible offer the above articles for Sale at and under First Cost. Persons having occasion for Organs for places of worship have now an opportunity of accommodating themselves to the greatest advantage, as the Organs now on hand are of the very best description, and will be disposed of on the most reasonable terms ever before offered to the Irish Public. (Saunder's Newsletter, 29 June 1819)

1820

The Ireland Diocesan and Prerogative Wills & Administration Indexes 1595-1858 (Findmypast.co.uk) contains an entry for Robert Woffington, organ builder, dated 1820.

[Author's note: The author has been informed by an Archivist at the National Library of Ireland that the will itself has not survived, so unfortunately it's terms remain lost for posterity.]

1821-1835 The firm continued to exist at 9, William-street until ca. 1835, trading as Robert Woffington, organ builders and presumably run by his one of his sons.
  (Author's note: This new resource page has been added to the site 9 March 2016)


Copyright © Margaret Debenham 2013-2016. All rights reserved.     Website design : Michael Debenham. Webmaster