Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Woodhouse, James

WOODHOUSE, JAMES (1735–1820), ‘the poetical shoemaker,’ was born at Rowley Regis, Staffordshire, on 18 April 1735. His parents came of old yeoman stock. James had to leave school at the age of eight. He became a shoemaker, and, having married early, added to his means by elementary teaching. In 1759 he addressed an elegy to William Shenstone [q. v.], whose estate, The Leasowes, was some two miles from Woodhouse's cottage. Shenstone became much interested in him, and sent the elegy to his friends in London, and had it printed in Dodsley's edition of his own poems. A collection was made for Woodhouse, and in 1764 he was able to publish a volume entitled ‘Poems on sundry Occasions.’ The poems were reissued in 1766 as ‘Poems on several Occasions,’ introduced by a modest ‘Author's Apology.’ Woodhouse was now celebrated. The anxiety of Dr. Johnson to meet him afforded Mrs. Thrale a pretext for inviting him for the first time to her house in 1764. It was either on this or a subsequent occasion that the doctor recommended Woodhouse to give his nights and days to the study of Addison. In 1770, however, Johnson spoke disparagingly of Woodhouse: ‘He may make an excellent shoemaker, but can never make a good poet. A schoolboy's exercise may be a pretty thing for a schoolboy, but it is no treat for a man.’

Before this time Woodhouse had given up his trade. For some time a carrier between Rowley and London, he was appointed by Edward Montagu, soon after the publication of the second edition of his poems, land bailiff on either his Yorkshire or Northumberland estates. He held the position for some twelve years, till about 1778. He was on a friendly footing with Montagu, but was never on good terms with his wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu [q. v.] She is the ‘Patroness,’ the ‘Scintilla’ or ‘Vanessa’ of his autobiography, where she is ridiculed as the quintessence of tyranny, meanness, vanity, and hypocrisy. About 1778 he returned to Rowley, but soon re-entered the employment of Mrs. Montagu (her husband being now dead) as house steward. He was finally dismissed, six or seven years later, according to his own story, on account of his opinions on religion and politics, which were repugnant to Mrs. Montagu. In 1788 Woodhouse issued a new volume of poems, which he called, like his former volume of 1766, ‘Poems on several Occasions never before printed.’ He was then suffering much privation, but by the help of James Dodsley [q. v.], the brother of his former publisher, he was able to establish a fairly prosperous bookselling and stationery business. From 211 Oxford Street he issued in 1803 a small volume, called ‘Norbury Park and other Poems,’ all the verses in which had been written some years before. It was dedicated to William Locke [q. v.], the owner of Norbury. His last volume, ‘Love Letters to my Wife,’ written in 1789, was printed in 1804 (cf. Monthly Review for 1804, ii. 426). Woodhouse died in 1820, and was buried in St. George's Chapel ground, near the Marble Arch. One of his sons, George Edward, realised a fortune as a linendraper in Oxford Street. In old age Woodhouse was noted for his patriarchal appearance and stately bearing.

A complete edition of Woodhouse's poems, edited by a descendant (R. I. Woodhouse), was published in 1896. Prefixed to it is an engraving by Henry Cook of a painting by Hobday of the poet at the age of eighty-one. Another portrait is mentioned by Bromley and Evans.

The collective edition contains Woodhouse's autobiography, which remained in manuscript at his death. The author called it ‘The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: a Novel in verse, written in the last Century.’ It is written in rhymed blank verse, and abounds in long digressions of a pious or political nature, but contains some good satirical lines.

[Gent. Mag. 1764 pp. 289, 290 (written by a friend of Shenstone); Blackwood's Mag. November 1829 (art. ‘Sorting my Letters and Papers’); Mrs. Piozzi's Anecd. p. 125; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, i. 225 n., 520, ii. 127; Doran's An English Lady of the last Century (Mrs. Montagu); Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Woodhouse's Works, with prefaces, especially to the Life and Poems, 1896; Winks's Illustrious Shoemakers, 1883, p. 296.]

G. Le G. N.