The son of a tallow chandler, Henry Woodward was born on 2 October 1714 in Southwark. He went to Merchant Taylor’s School, received some training in dance and acting from the Covent Garden manager and harlequin John Rich and was cast in a juvenile version of “The Beggar’s Opera” on 1 January 1729. Young Woodward then joined Goodman’s Fields Theatre in the autumn of 1730 and was given such parts as Simple in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, the Page in “The Orphan”, Dicky in “The Constant Couple”, Filch in “The Beggar’s Opera” and the title role in “Tom Thumb”. The lad gained further experience at the Richmond Theatre and at Fielding’s Southwark Fair booth. On 21 April 1732 (the BDA mistakenly dates this 1752) he played the lead in “Harlequin’s Contrivance” at Goodman’s Fields and began his career in pantomimes. Throughout his stage life he had multiple lines: low and high comedy characters in plays and athletic leading roles in harlequinades. “The Theatrical Review” (1757) noted the paradox: ‘His figure is perfectly genteel, his voice smart, agreeable, and pliant, and both seem to point out the parts of a genteeler cast, as those which he is likeliest to look, and consequently to perform; and yet … it is not in those he succeeds best; and he never pleases his audience more, than when he is obliged to distort that genteel figure, into the aukward deportment of a Scrub [ in “The Beaux’ Stratagem”] or the like.’
By 1733-34 Woodward was acting regularly at Goodman’s Fields in the winters and the Haymarket in the summers; to these activities he sometimes added work at the fairs in early autumn. He was a busy, hard-working, sober, serious, frugal player who specialized in comic characters: Jacques in “Love Makes the Man”, Clodpole in “The Lover’s Opera”, Tom in “The Funeral”, Roderigo in “Othello”, Osric in “Hamlet” and Tattle in “Love for Love”. He took his lines to Drury Lane after the Licensing Act of 1737 closed down Goodman’s Fields, and then Covent Garden from 1741. He was then engaged by the Dublin manager Thomas Sheridan. At Smock Alley Theatre on 28 September 1747 Woodward played Marplot in “The Busy Body”. Presenting satirical entertainments at the rival theatre on Capel Street was Samuel Foote, and Woodward had the audacity to present a monologue titled “Coffee” in opposition to Foote’s “Dish of Chocolate”. That led to paper wars not unlike the pompous challenges of swordsmen and boxers – wars which created audience interest and certainly made it look as though the comedians were at one another’s throats, which they sometimes were. But the sober side of Woodward seems to have prevented him from getting as deeply involved in antic entertainments and paper wars as Foote regularly was. By the time of his 1747 Dublin visit, Woodward had established himself as one of the best comic actors of his time and a favourite in such characters as Marplot, Bobadil in “Every Man in His Humour”, the Fine Gentleman in “Lethe”, Brass in “The Confederacy” (G0854), Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet”, Petruchio in “Catherine and Petruchio” (G0853) and, as always, Harlequin.
In the autumn of 1748 Woodward returned to London to act at Drury Lane under David Garrick’s management. There he remained until 1758, acting and presenting pantomimes of his own devising, with excursions to Dublin. His trips made him a favourite with the Irish and involved him in 1758 in the management of Smock Alley, shared with the actor Spranger Barry. The venture ended up losing Woodward some £3000. He then headed for a return engagement at Covent Garden, where he remained for eight seasons. In 1770, when his contract ended, he published a notice of his intention to go to Scotland with Samuel Foote and the summer Haymarket troupe. Then Woodward came back to Covent Garden, for over £16 weekly, and there he stayed in the winters until his death. He had given up harlequinades by this time, but in the 1770s he was still adding new characters to his repertoire, among them the fi