The recent celebrations held at Lichfield in honour of
one of Staffordshire's greatest sons were
enthusiastically carried out, but the lectures and
speeches produced little addition to the facts already
known of the life of the great lexicographer. Dr.
Johnson, both in his merits and his shortcomings, was a
robust type of English character. He lived in an age
when affectation and pretence were more common than they
are today when fulsome adulation seemed an easy passport
to literary success; but this way did not appeal to him
- he was nothing if not thorough, and through all the
long years he was striving for that recognition he won
so hardly, he was sustained by the conviction that he
was bound to achieve success eventually; but it was a
weary, soul-worrying life he led before the goal was
|He was the son of a Lichfield bookseller, and a
communication made to "Notes and Queries" in March, 1859,
gives the following record:- "Dr. Samuel Johnson was born
the 7th day of September, 1709, at Lichfield, near the
Market Place, about four o'clock in the afternoon," and he
was baptised the same day.
His early life was passed in Lichfield, where he was
taught at a Dame School, then placed under the care of the
Headmaster of Lichfield Grammar School. At the age of
fifteen he went for a time as a pupil at Stourbridge School.
He entered a Commoner of Pembroke College, Oxford, on
October 31st, 1728.
Unfortunately, his father failed in his business, and
Johnson had to leave Oxford. He returned to Lichfield in
1731 without a degree, and four years later, on July 9th,
1735, he married Mrs. Porter, a widow.
He then went to reside at Edjall Hall, about two miles
east of Lichfield, where he started a school, but his only
pupils were David Garrick and his brother George, with one
ether pupil, a Mr. Offly, a young gentleman of good fortune.
Dr. Johnson (after the painting by Sir
Dr. Johnson's birthplace, Market
The school was unsuccessful, and he
determined to try his fortune in London, where he went in
March, 1737, accompanied by his pupil, David Garrick.
It was during his residence in London
that Johnson worked to gain that literary recognition which
has since made him famous. For many years he worked hard for
a bare existence, and was so discouraged that he was tempted
to return to the drudgery of teaching again, so he applied
for the Headmastership of Appleby Grammar School, in
Leicestershire, but was unsuccessful.
In 1738 he published "London," a poem
in imitation of the third satire of Juvenal, and in 1747 he
published the plan of his great "Dictionary."
In 1749 his tragedy, "Irene," was performed at Drury
Lane. In 1750 and 1751 he published his "Rambler," and in
1755 he obtained the degree of Master of Arts at Oxford by
Stowe Church, Lichfield.
The same year saw the publication of
his "Dictionary." In 1758 and 1759 he published the "Idler,"
and "Rasselas" appeared in 1759. In May, 1761, he was
rewarded by the King with a pension of £300 a year. His
"Edition of Shakespeare" appeared in 1765. In 1775 he issued
his "Tour of the Hebrides," and in 1778, and following
years, he produced his "Lives of the Poets." During his
residence in London, he resided first at 17, Gough Square,
E.C., from 1748 to 1758, and it was here that his wife died,
and here that he wrote the greater part of the "Dictionary,"
the "Rambler," and the "Idler." His own study and the
garret, with its sloping roof, in which his six amanuenses
worked, are still to be seen. From 1765 to 1776 he resided
in Johnson's Court, Fleet Street, and removed to 8, Bolt
Court in the latter year, where he died in 1784, and was
buried in Westminster Abbey.
It was at 8, Russell Street, Covent
Garden, that Dr. Johnson first met Boswell ("that prince of
biographers," to quote Lord Rosebery). This historic event
happened on May 16th, 1763, and is thus described by Boswell
in his "Life of Johnson": "Mr. Thomas Davies, the actor, who
kept a bookseller's shop in Russell Street, Covent Garden,
told me that Johnson was very much his friend, and came
frequently to his house.
Dr. Johnson's monument, Lichfield.
At last, on Monday, the 16th of May
(1763), when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back parlour,
after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson
unexpectedly came into the shop." Boswell had long been
anxious to meet Johnson, but when the opportunity occurred
he did not make much impression on the great man, and the
marvel is that Boswell and Johnson should afterwards have
become so inseparable.
The shining lights of the literary and
artistic world of the eighteenth century were Johnson's
contemporaries, and these wits regularly met at the old
Mitre Tavern, where the great doctor would declaim in
thundering tones his views and opinions on men and politics.
Among this select coterie were such men as Oliver Goldsmith,
David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Charles Burney, T. Warton, and
His connection with the Thrale family, his trip with them
to North Wales, and later to Paris, are so well known to
readers of the famous" life" that recapitulation would be
wearisome, but we are able to present a few local notes in
connection with this famous Staffordshire genius that may be
new to some of our readers.
Edjall Hall (from an old
8 Bolt Court, London, where Dr.
It will probably surprise local readers
to know that Dr. Johnson, as a boy, visited at the Manor
House at Trysull, now the residence of Howard Mander, Esq.
It was in this house that his mother's relation, Mrs.
Harriotts, lived with the Barnesleys, and this was the first
house Johnson stayed in after his birth at Lichfield.
Visitors to St. Peter's Church will
notice the epitaph to Phillips, the violinist. It is in the
porch, and was written by Dr. Wilkes, of Willenhall. It was
shown to Johnson, and he at once said he could do it better,
and produced the following:
Phillips, whose touch harmonious could
The pangs of guilty power or hopeless love,
Rest here, distressed by poverty no more;
Here find that calm thou gav'st so oft before,
Sleep undisturbed within this peaceful shrine,
Till angels wake thee with a note like thine.
The greatness of Johnson's personality
is apparent in all his literary work. His great dictionary -
"the first dictionary which could be read with pleasure," so
Macaulay wrote - was the labour of years; yet even while he
was "tugging at the oar" in its preparation, he was writing
the "Rambler," with his mind distracted by the fatal illness
of his wife. His numerous other literary works are too well
known to be recapitulated here, but his "Rasselas" has been
translated into at least ten languages, while his last and
greatest work, "The Lives of the Poets," is now a classic.
It was undertaken when Johnson was almost seventy years of
Much has been written and said about
Johnson's rudeness, but one has to remember the period in
which he lived. Again, it must also be remembered that from
his earliest years he suffered from an incurable disease.
This suffering, combined with his early and desperate
struggles for existence, no doubt soured his nature, and
when he had at last attained a recognised position helped to
foster that domineering manner which was so distasteful to
those who did not know him intimately.
Old houses, Bore Street, Lichfield.
But while he was aggressive in argument
and abrupt in speech, he was a man who had a great sympathy
for others in distress, and if in the heat of argument he
hurt another's feelings, he was ever ready to apologise and
apply the healing balm of sympathy to his wounded friend.