William Rufus Chetwood (d. 1766)



  • Bookseller
  • Author
  • Theatre Manager
  • Theatre Prompter

William Rufus Chetwood, bookseller, 1713–24 in London; at the Sword and Cross over against Exeter Exchange in the Strand, 1713; at Cato's Head in Russell Court near the Play House, 1718–1719; at Cato's Head (the Post House) under/near Tom's Coffee House in Covent Garden, 1719–1722. He was a Director at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin in 1741 and sold books in the Four Court Marshalsea, 1750; and at the Green Door at the entrance of the Four Court Marshalsea, 1756.

The Companion to the Play-House: or, an Historical Account of all the Dramatic Writers (and their Works) that have Appeared in Great Britain and Ireland, by David Erskine Baker (1764)

Chetwood, Mr. William Rufus.—This Author for some Time kept a Bookseller's Shop in Covent Garden.—He was also for twenty Years Prompter to Drury Lane Theatre, and in that very laborious and useful Office was esteem'd to have great Excellence.—Tho' no Actor himself, yet, from being so conversant with the Stage, and with the various Manners of different eminent Performers, he became no bad theatrical Instructor; and to the Pains he has taken in that Business some condierable Actors now living, perhaps, stand indebted for Part at least of their early Approbation.—I have in particular heard it asserted, not only by Mr. Chetwood himself, but others, that Mr. Barry received his first Rudiments of theatrical Execution from this Gentleman, as did also a Lady, who has for a few Years past stood in high Estimation with the Audiences of Dublin, viz. Mrs. Fitzhenry, formerly Mrs. Gregory.

Mr. Chetwood by his first Wife had a Daughter, who was bred up to the theatrical Life, and was married to one Mr. Gemea.—His second Wife, who I believe is still living, was a Grand-Daughter of Mr. Colley Cibber.—Mr. Chetwood himself also is living, and I think in Dublin, but in a very advanced Age.—He has wrote some Pieces in the Novel Way, and a Work call'd A General History of the Stage, which however has very little, or rather indeed no Merit.—He has also written the following dramatic Pieces,

  1. Generous Free Mason. T.—C.F.B. Opera.
  2. Humours of Exchange-Alley. Farce.
  3. Lover's Opera. Ballad Far. Vid. Vol. I. Appendix.
  4. South-Sea. Farce.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

CHETWOOD, WILLIAM RUFUS (d. 1766), bookseller and dramatist, is first heard of in 1720, when, at a shop under Tom's Coffee-house, Covent Garden, he published, under the name William Chetwood, ‘The State of the Case’ between the lord chamberlain and Sir Richard Steele. When, in the following year, he published under the same name D'Urfey's ‘New Operas,’ he was at Cato's Head in Russell Street, Covent Garden. Between 1722 and 1723 he became prompter at Drury Lane Theatre, succeeding Will. Mills, who as prompter took his benefit 7 May 1722, and taking his own first benefit 15 May 1723. In 1741–2 Duval, the manager of the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, asked over Chetwood, who, it is said, had then been prompter upwards of twenty years at Drury Lane. Duval, according to Hitchcock (Historical View of the Irish Stage, i. 116), owed much ‘to his advice and experience.’ Occasional references to the functions of Chetwood as prompter are found in plays of the time. The opening words of Fielding's farce of ‘Eurydice,’ produced at Drury Lane on 19 Feb. 1737, spoken by the author, are: ‘Hold, hold, Mr. Chetwood; don't ring for the overture yet. The devil is not dressed; he has but just put on his cloven foot’ (Works, ed. 1882, x. 235); and in the introduction to ‘The Hospital for Fools’ of Miller, Drury Lane, 15 Nov. 1739, the actor says, ‘Mr. Chetwood, ring for the overture.’ In his capacity of prompter he is said to have taught some actors of distinction, including Spranger Barry (of whom he speaks as a pupil, and whose reported ingratitude to him provoked unfavourable comment) and Macklin. At Covent Garden on 12 Jan. 1741 ‘The Old Bachelor’ was played ‘for the benefit of Chetwood, late prompter at Drury Lane, and now a prisoner in the King's Bench.’ Chetwood states that Mrs. Chetwood was granddaughter to Colley Cibber. This was his second wife. By an earlier marriage he had a daughter, who became an actress and married a Mr. Gemea. The career of Chetwood appears to have been continuously unfortunate. In the dedication of his ‘General History of the Stage’ he says: ‘Tho' my enemies have beat me to the pit (as Brutus said), yet, thank heaven! some few friends have interpos'd and prevented my falling in,’ and in the preface he speaks of Mr. Barrington and Miss Bellamy, whose goodness has often ‘eas'd an aching heart.’ In 1760 a benefit was, according to the ‘Biographia Dramatica,’ given him in Dublin, at which period he was again a prisoner for debt. He died in poverty on 3 March 1766. Scanty justice has been done to his ‘General History of the Stage,’ which was published in 1749. It is absurd in scheme, since Chetwood seeks within a few pages to give an account of the stage from ‘its origin in Greece down to the present time.’ When once on his own ground, however, he is fairly trustworthy, and his descriptions of the actors whom he knew have genuine value. His name has somewhat unjustly become a byword of contempt. With the outspokenness of 18th century criticism George Steevens calls him ‘a blockhead and a measureless and bungling liar.’ Chetwood wrote four dramatic pieces. Of these one only, ‘The Lovers' Opera,’ a musical trifle, was performed at Drury Lane for the author's benefit on 14 May 1729. It was printed in 8vo the same year. ‘The Generous Freemason, or the Constant Lady. With the Humours of Squire Noodle and his Man Doodle,’ by the author of ‘The Lovers' Opera,’ is said to have been played at Bartholomew Fair. This was printed in 8vo in 1731. It is dedicated to the grand master of the freemasons by the author, a freemason. ‘The Stock Jobbers, or the Humours of Exchange Alley,’ comedy, 8vo, 1720, and ‘South Sea, or the Biter bit,’ farce, 8vo, 1720, were not acted. They are satires on the mania for gambling then existent, and are not without a little sprightliness. These four plays were printed by J. Roberts, who apparently succeeded to Chetwood's business as a bookseller. They are all four bound in one volume, which is in the British Museum. In ‘The Stock Jobbers’ Chetwood took the pseudonym of Gargantua Pantagruel. In addition to these works and his ‘General History of the Stage,’ London, 12mo, 1749 (his best-known work), Chetwood disputes with B. Victor the authorship of ‘The Voyages of Captain R. Boyle,’ 1728, 8vo, reprinted 1787, 1797, 1804, and translated into French, and wrote ‘The Voyages of Captain R. Falconer,’ 12mo, 1724, and ‘The Voyages, Travels, and Adventures of Captain W. O. G. Vaughan, with the History of his brother, Jonathan, six years a Slave in Tunis,’ London, 1736, 12mo, 1760, 12mo. While in Dublin he gave to the world ‘Kilkenny, or the Old Man's Wish. By W. R. Chetwood. Printed for the Author,’ 1748, 4to. This is a very flaccid poem in the taste of the day, wishing for modest possessions conducive to comfort and health. It is curious as addressing Ambrose Phillips as ‘O awful Phillips,’ and contrasting him to his advantage with Pope. Neither Lowndes nor the ‘British Museum Catalogue’ mentions five new novels, viz.: 1. ‘The Twins; or The Female Traveller.’ 2. ‘The Stepmother; or Good Luck at last.’ 3. ‘The Inhuman Uncle; or The Repentant Villains.’ 4. ‘The Virgin Widow.’ 5. ‘Adrastus and Olinda; or Love's Champion. Written by W. R. Chetwood, Prompter to Her Majesty's Company of Comedians at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane; and Author of Faulconer, Boyle, and Vaughan's Voyages, &c. London, printed and sold by W. Lewis in Russell Street, Covent Garden’ (here follow other booksellers), ‘and at the Author's Lodgings, the Golden Ball in May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane,’ 1741. In spite of this address the preface, dated 20 Feb. 1740–1, says the work, like others of Chetwood's, was written in prison. Its stories, which are told in commonplace style, are probably from the Spanish. At the end of a list of subscribers, including Mrs. Clive twelve books (i.e. copies), Mr. Garrick, Mrs. Woffington twelve books, and others known in the theatres, some of whom took fifty copies, is the announcement: ‘Shortly will be published: 1. “The Illustrious Shepherdess.” 2. “The Banish'd Princess.” 3. “The Twin Brothers;” and 4. “The Prince of Albania. Written originally in Spanish by Don Juan Perez de Montalvan, and now first translated into English.”’ He edited in Dublin a small collection of English plays and editions of single plays by Shirley and Jonson, to which he supplied prefatory matter. The work which has incurred the strongest condemnation is ‘The British Theatre. Containing the Lives of the English Dramatic Poets, with an Account of all their Plays,’ &c., Dublin, 12mo, 1750. It is indeed a pitiful compilation, in favour of which it can only be urged that it was written and published by Chetwood while in prison with little hope of escape.

[Works mentioned; Hitchcock's Irish Stage; Genest's Account of the English Stage; Baker, Reed, and Jones's Biographia Dramatica; Lowndes's Bibliographer's Manual, &c.; Reed's Notitia Dramatica (MS.)]

J. K

Notes & Queries "London Booksellers Series" (1931–2)

CHETWOOD, WILLIAM RUFUS. First opened a bookselling business under Tom's Coffee House, in Covent Garden, in 1719. His first known publication was 'The State of the Case between the Lord Chamberlain and Sir Richard Steele,' a pamphlet provoked by the temporary suppression of Drury Lane Theatre, and the suspension of the licence which had been granted to Steele a few years previously. Early in 1720 Chetwood moved to Cato's Head in Russell Street, where he conducted his business for another two years, when he sold the shop, together with its stock, to Roberts, and himself became prompter at Drury Lane theatre.

The 'D.N.B.' states that he opened at Tom's Coffee House in 1720, and at Cato's Head in 1721; but a newspaper advertisement of Jan. 1, 1720, gives his address then as Cato's Head, so that it must have been in the previous year that he first set up as a bookseller.

Frederick T. Wood, 1 August 1931


CHETWOOD, WILLIAM. In addition to the addresses mentioned, at Covent Garden and Russell Street, one can give "the Sword and Cross, over against Exeter Exchange in the Strand," which occurs on the imprint of an anonymous poem, attributed to Dean Swift published in 1713. This is many years earlier than the date given by the 'D.N.B.' when it was stated that Chetwood was first heard of. It might be briefly mentioned that Chetwood wrote a 'General History of the Stage' (1749) and other works; among them were four dramatic pieces. An imprint on one of his novels 'Adrastus and Olinda' (1741) gives the author's address as at the Golden Ball in May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane. The four plays referred to were published by J. Roberts, who apparently succeeded to Chetwood's bookselling business about 1720 ('D.N.B.').

Ambrose Heal, 5 September 1931