William Whitehead was born in Cambridge, the son of a baker. Through the patronage of Henry Bromley, later Baron Montford, who may have had some connection with the family, he was educated at Winchester College from where he won a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge in 1735. He became a Fellow of the college in 1742. At Cambridge he wrote On the Danger of Writing Verse, a poem, Ann Boleyn to Henry VIII, and the didactic Essay on Ridicule.
In 1745 he took up residence in London and became tutor to George Villiers, later Viscount Villiers, 4th Earl of Jersey and Gentleman of the Bedchamber to King George III. Whilst there he wrote two tragedies, The Roman Father and Creusa, Queen of Athens which were put on by David Garrick, co-manager of Drury Lane Theatre. In 1754 he travelled abroad with George Villiers, returning to England two years later.
In 1757 he was made poet laureate after the position had been declined by Thomas Gray and later that year wrote a comic poem, A Pathetic Apology for All Laureates, Past, Present and To Come, which was privately circulated among his friends. This would imply that he was not completely happy in the role, which had to a large extent been discredited by the political appointment of his predecessor,Colley Cibber. He also wrote two comedies, The School for Lovers and The Trip to Scotland.
Prior to 1769 he had always resided in the houses of his patrons, the last of whom was Simon Harcourt, Viscount Harcourt, later governor to the Prince of Wales, the future George III, but from then onwards he lived in London. In addition to plays, Whitehead duties as poet laureate included writing obligatory odes but he also wrote a burlesque poem, The Sweepers, the poems The Goat’s Beard, Variety, The Youth and the Philosopher and The Je Ne Sais Quoi, an ode, The Enthusiast and an Epilogue, Spoken by Mrs Pritchard. His works were published in two volumes in 1774 and a third published posthumously in 1788 by William Mason, including a memoir. He was a talented wordsmith but his lines in The Je Ne Sais Quoi “ And all her sense is only chat, Like any other woman” would not go down very well in some quarters today.