Sam’s School Days

Samuel Johnson was born in September 1709 on Breadmarket Street in Lichfield. His home provided his first school, at “his mother’s knee.” Sarah Johnson taught her son to read. Samuel recalls that she also taught him about “the future state” where there were two places, “one a fine place filled with happiness called Heaven and the other a sad place called Hell”. Johnson would have been about three at the time.

Growing up in a bookshop, Johnson was surrounded by literature and opportunities to learn.

At four years old Johnson went to a Dame school, around the corner from his home in Dam Street. The school was run by Ann Oliver.

The site of Ann Oliver’s Dame School on Dam Street in Lichfield

Dame Schools were small and informal, privately run, classrooms. At this time there was no compulsory education and the number of children receiving any formal kind of education was limited. The aristocratic and wealthy were taught at home by tutors and governesses. The Public Schools, old foundations dating back to the middle-ages, were too expensive for most people. For children from seven onwards fee-paying grammar schools might have been available, founded by public spirited people such as wealthy merchants. Run as businesses, these schools were dependent on the fees and their power to attract customers so did not always survive long. There were also Charity Schools. In 1699 the Society for the propagation of Christian Knowledge was founded. Its stated aim was to bring the knowledge of Christianity to the people, to which end it founded schools for poor children from ages of 7-11. These schools provided a basic Christian education and trained teachers for the job. As a member of the middling-classes, the son of traders, Johnson attended Dame Schools and Grammar Schools.

A 19th century painting which gives an impression of a Dame’s School. Source: Webster, Thomas George; A Dame’s School; Tate;

Johnson’s own writings about his Dame school days did not survive, but he recalls in conversation with Boswell that Oliver could read the ‘Black Letter’, an antiquated style of typography generally used in Germanic texts, often on ecclesiastical subjects. He also remembers being given a present of gingerbread by Ann Oliver when he eventually left Lichfield to go up to Oxford University, and was told he was “the best scholar she ever had”

Johnson attended two Dame schools, the other when he was about six years old which was run by a Tom Browne. Browne was a shoemaker who supplemented his earnings running a school. Johnson recalls that Browne also published a spelling book.

Around January 1717 Johnson entered Lichfield Grammar School.  It was at Lichfield Grammar School that Johnson’s excellent knowledge of Latin was developed. He learned first under Hawkins, undermaster of the school, for two years and was then taught by John Hunter, head-master and father of the Poet Anna Seward. Hunter was described by Johnson as “very severe, and wrong-headedly severe”, but Johnson did later attribute his accuracy in Latin to Hunter’s strict methods. 

View of an 18th century Grammar School classroom. Different ages were often taught in the same room Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johnson’s annals provide a wealth of detail about his time at the school. There were eleven students in the class. In the under-school, Aesop’s Fables were learned by heart on a Thursday night and repeated on a Friday morning. Examinations took place on Saturday mornings. Texts were almost exclusively in Latin. Books consulted included Lily’s Grammar, which had been a significant source for Shakespeare. Johnson found examinations easy, and remembered school “with pleasure.”

View of Lichfield Grammar School, from the Birthplace Museum Collection

Johnson’s school-friend Edmund described his years of learning beside Samuel to James Boswell. Hector remembered that he “never knew him corrected at school, but for talking and diverting other boys from their business.” He was an intuitive learner but his life-long tendency for idleness and procrastination were apparent as a child, however “whenever he made an exertion he did more than anyone else.” Samuel had an extraordinary memory: Hector recalls reciting 18 verses of a poem to him, which he repeated back exactly.

Due to Johnson’s poor eyesight, he did not join in the play of the other children apart from during the winter when he enjoyed being pulled around on the ice.  He was also often carried from home to school by three of his school friends.

The statue of Samuel Johnson on Lichfield Market Square includes a relief showing Johnson carried home from school by his friends.

Johnson attended two Grammar Schools. In 1726 he enrolled at Stourbridge Grammar School while staying with his uncle, Cornelius Ford. Johnson’s education in Lichfield had already given him such a good grounding that he acted as an assistant to master Mr Wentworth and helped to teach younger boys.

Photograph of Stourbridge Grammar School (right), from the Birthplace Museum Collection.
Written around 1726, probably while at Stourbridge Grammar School, this is one of the earliest examples of Johnson’s handwriting. Birthplace Museum Collection

Johnson said of his two schools: “At one, I learnt much from the school, but little from the master; in the other, I learnt much from the master, but little in the school”.

He reflects more broadly on the passing of school days:

“The time… appeared much longer by the multitude of novelties that it supplied, and of incidents, then in my thoughts important, it produced. Perhaps it is not possible that any other period can make the same impression on the memory”

Samuel Johnson

January 24th marks the International Day of Education, a United Nations day of observance which celebrates education and draws attention to the importance of inclusive and equitable education and lifelong opportunities for all. Find out more at:

Many thanks to Annemarie Powell, Birthplace Volunteer and inspiring educator, for her work on this blog post.

“I was bred a bookseller”: the Johnson Family Bookshop

Samuel Johnson’s Birthplace was not only a family home, it was also a family business. This month’s blog post highlights items from the Museum collection which are related to the history of the Johnson’s bookselling business.

Samuel Johnson’s father was born in a thatched cottage in Cubley, Derbyshire in 1656. His parents were William and Katherine, and he was the eldest of four children: brothers Benjamin and Andrew, and sister Margaret.

Michael Johnson in an engraving by Edward Finden, 1835

Michael entered the book trade in April 1673 when he was apprenticed in London to Richard Simpson at the sign of the Harp in St Paul’s Churchyard for eight years. Bookselling became a family trade, as Benjamin joined him as an apprentice to Simpson in 1675, and youngest brother Andrew was later an apprentice to Benjamin.

Benjamin Johnson’s indenture to Richard Simpson, Birthplace Museum collection. Michael Johnson’s indenture is in the Staffordshire record office collection

Prior to moving to the Breadmarket Street house which we know today, Michael started his business in another premises on Market (then know as Sadler) Street in the 1680s. Records indicate that he was well known across the region, with customers in Alrewas, Catton and Elford, Eccleshall, Ashbourne, Uttoxeter and even Gloucester. His contacts for suppliers of hides to bind books went as far as Ireland and Scotland.

One customer, Sir William Boothby at Ashbourne Hall, repeatedly made complaints about Michael’s work: “Your books open very ill so that it is troublesome reading: pray mend this great fault.”

Being a bookseller in the early eighteenth century meant involvement in many aspects of the production of a book. As well as buying stocks of books from the sales of estates, Michael would have received printed sheets which he then bound, either in standard bindings for the shop shelves, or to order. In the 1790s Michael was also involved in the publication of some works, including John Floyer’s medical works, and religious texts.

Examples of Michael Johnson’s publications

Michael didn’t work alone. His brother Andrew assisted him before he went on to establish his own bookselling business in Birmingham (a seemingly short-lived career as Samuel Johnson later remembers his Uncle Andrew as a boxer in Smithfield) Michael also had apprentices of his own, such as Simon Martin who went on to become a bookseller in Leicester, and Ann Deakin supported the household as a servant.

Samuel’s parents Michael and Sarah married in 1706 and the bookshop that we can still visit to this day was established shortly before Samuel was born in 1709.

The family business was not as successful in the new century, and financial worries were added to by Michael’s efforts to branch out into parchment production ending in a court appearance in 1717. This was due to operating the trade of a tanner without having been apprenticed to it. The charges didn’t affect Michael’s local civic standing though, and he was elected to Junior Bailiff (equivalent to Deputy Mayor) the following year.

The indictment of Michael Johnson, written in Latin, 1717

While the parchment case was ongoing, Michael held auctions in Worcester and the advertisement for the event shows the variety of stock that the family shop held:

a 19th century facsimile copy of an advertisement distributed by Johnson for an auction at Worcester

Michael also attended markets, and a well-known story from Johnson is his regret in later life that he refused to attend the stall in Uttoxeter on his father’s behalf: an act of teenage rebellion for which he paid penance as an old man, standing at the site of the stall in the rain.

Detail of Johnson in Uttoxeter, wood engraving after Adrian Scott Stokes published in the Graphic Newspaper, 1881

In 1731 Michael Johnson died and the shop was continued by Sarah Johnson, with help from family servant Catherine, or ‘Kitty’, Chambers and Johnson’s step-daughter Lucy Porter.

Samuel Johnson once said that he was “Bred a Bookseller, and I have not forgotten my trade.” Johnson’s exposure to the industry from such a young age was no doubt useful when negotiating the book trade as an author in later life, and he also knew how to bind a book. A Lichfield bookseller recalled that Johnson once visited his shop and found a book which he recollected the binding of to be the work of his own hands. Mrs Thrale wrote in a letter to Johnson in 1777: “It were better to bind books again, as you did one year in our thatched summer house.”

Although Samuel may have had amateur experience of binding, it seems that younger brother Nathaniel took a more active role in assisting Sarah with the business. A letter from 1736 addressed to ‘Sarah Johnson, Bookseller’ refers to him acting on her behalf to recoup accounts owed to Michael in Burton.

A letter from Nathaniel Johnson to his mother

After the death of Sarah Johnson in 1759, Kitty Chambers stayed and kept the house going with help from Lucy Porter until Kitty’s death in 1767. After this, the bookshop business initially passed to William Bayley for a few years, but the house was rented to an ironmonger by 1781. Following Johnson’s death in 1784 the building once again became a bookshop, and from 1785 to 1802 was the property of bookseller Major Morgan.

An alphabet designed to be folded around a paddle (battledore) for children to use, published by Major Morgan

When the Birthplace Museum opened to the public in 1901 the shop was used as a room for collection displays and was once again opened as a bookshop in the 1980s. Today, every purchase made or book donated helps to support the future of Johnson’s Birthplace.

Foody: Eatable; fit for food

September is a month of celebration and commemoration at Johnson’s Birthplace, as we prepare to mark Johnson’s 312th Birthday on September 18th. A recent tradition in Lichfield is to treat every visitor to the house to a slice of cake, and this is particularly fitting this year as the 2021 theme for the national Heritage Open Days events is ‘Edible England’. In honour of the theme, this month’s blog post serves up some food-themed items from the Birthplace collection.

Samuel Johnson’s silver knife and fork, donated to the Birthplace in 1909

“Some people,” said Johnson, “have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously and very carefully: for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.”

Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Boswell family hot water plate

This plate has a chamber which can be filled with hot water to keep food warm. It belonged to the Boswell family, and carries their crest in the centre: a hawk and the motto ‘Vraye Foy’ (True faith).

‘Tetty’, Johnson’s breakfast saucer

The Lichfield historian Thomas Harwood wrote a note in 1859 which is pasted to the base of this saucer. It reads: “This saucer was the property of Dr Samuel Johnson. Because it had belonged to his wife, his roll every morning at breakfast was placed in it, and he familiarly called it ‘Tetty’. It was given to me by the widow of Francis Barber”.  The saucer, an early 18th century piece of Chinese export ware, is a touching testament to Johnson’s memory of his wife.  It was on display at the old Lichfield Museum in the 19th century before coming to the Birthplace in 1901.

Anna Seward’s snowy supper

In this letter from March 25 1808, the poet Anna Seward writes to her friend Mary Powys with news of a very eventful evening at ‘Tea and Supper’ with a friend. Seward arrived by sedan chair but a snowstorm of “unparalleled rapidity” descended while her party were dining, with five-foot snow drifts making the streets impassable. They borrowed ‘the Diligence’, a stagecoach, and with some struggle and a moment of fearing that they may be stuck overnight, made it home. Anna tells her friend: “Never was I so glad to enter my own warm apartments.”

Grocery accounts

Alderman John Gilbert gave the Birthplace Museum to the city in 1901, and our collection now includes a group of documents relating to our donor. Included are family account books from two Lichfield businesses situated on Tamworth Street, which give a fascinating snapshot into the groceries of a well-off household in the early 20th century. Items purchased included oranges, pineapple chunks, Bovril and ‘Parisian Essence’

Johnson Celebration Suppers

The Birthplace Museum opened to the public in 1901, and in July a group from the Johnson Club of London visited Lichfield for the official opening day. This menu card is from their evening Supper at the George Hotel. You can read more about the day and what they ate for dinner in this blog post. The Johnson club supper can be seen as a forerunner to the Johnson Society of Lichfield annual suppers, which were held at the Three Crowns Inn before moving to Lichfield Guildhall.

The Annual Supper of the Johnson Society at Lichfield Guildhall in 1928

A Johnson themed Dinner on the Empress of Britain, 1956

Samuel Johnson pops up in the most unexpected of places, such as this bright selection of souvenirs from a 1950s cruise. A letter accompanying the menu from a traveller named Dorothy explains that dinner menus on the cruise alternated between Canadian landmarks and places related to famous British Writers. Johnson was the theme on Wednesday August 8th, 1856

Food in Johnson’s Dictionary

There are many entries relating to food in Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary, here are just three to give a flavour. You can explore Johnson’s Dictionary online here

Salmagundi: A mixture of chopped meat and pickled herrings, with oil, vinegar, pepper, and onions.

Kissingcrust: Crust formed where one loaf in the over touches another.

Juncate: Cheesecake. A kind of sweetmeat of curds and sugar. A furtive or private entertainment. It is now improperly written junket in this sense.

When at table, Johnson was totally absorbed in the business of the moment; his looks seemed riveted to his plate; nor would he, unless when in very high company, say one word, or even pay the least attention to what was said by others, till he had satisfied his appetite, which was so fierce and indulged with such intenseness that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled and generally a strong perspiration was visible.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson
Cake for Johnson’s Birthday celebrations in 2019.

Join us to celebrate Samuel Johnson’s 312th Birthday on Saturday 18th September. Visit our website events page for more details.

Samuel Johnson and Robert Burton: The Anatomy of Melancholy at 400

In 1621 Robert Burton published The Anatomy of Melancholy. Often cited as Samuel Johnson’s favourite book, the work has engaged readers throughout the centuries and is being reconsidered during its 400th anniversary year. In this blog post we look at Johnson’s relationship with Burton’s book (please be aware that this post includes discussion of depression and mental health topics)

Samuel Johnson told James Boswell that “Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy… was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise”

Robert Burton by Jackson Gilbert; Photo Credit: Brasenose College, University of Oxford

The Anatomy of Melancholy was first published in 1621 and enlarged in successive editions up to 1651. The author, Robert Burton (1577 – 1640) was a fellow Midlander, educated at Nuneaton and Sutton Coldfield schools and continuing his studies at Brasenose College and Christchurch, Oxford. He was Rector of All Saint’s Church in Seagrave, a small village in Leicestershire, for the last ten years of his life.

The Anatomy of Melancholy was Burton’s only significant publication although, like Johnson, he also wrote a play as a younger man. The Anatomy presents as a medical text but with a gentle satirical tone, indicated by the pseudonym he used for work of ‘Democritus Junior’, as Democritus was the laughing philosopher. Burton finds melancholy to be universally present in human experience. He presents causes, symptoms and cures and includes quotes from a huge range of sources. 

It appears that Johnson had a life-long relationship with Burton’s work. The book was known to Johnson as a young man: John Hawkins refers to Johnson as having “frequently resorted to [the Anatomy] for the purpose of exhilaration” while he was running his failing school at Edial Hall shortly after his marriage and before moving to London.  It is also very possible that Johnson would have known the book from earliest childhood, as we know it was a title which his father carried in the family bookshop. In the 1680s a disgruntled customer in Ashbourne wrote to Michael Johnson: “Burton’s Melancholy I return, being dear and there is a much better edition”. Michael Johnson may well have had a personal interest in the book, as we know through his son’s accounts that he experienced episodes of depression.

The Frontispiece from the 2nd edition of Burton’s work (1626)

Samuel Johnson’s own mental health struggles are documented and particularly apparent in his private writings, later published as his Diaries, Annals, and Prayers. Boswell’s biography includes discussion of Johnson’s experiences of melancholy, recounting a number of episodes when Johnson refers to Burton’s book while offering guidance on how to manage the condition. 

Johnson introduces the topic soon after the two men meet, and against melancholy he recommended “constant occupation of the mind, a great deal of exercise, moderation in eating and drinking and especially to shun drinking at night.”

The friends came back to the subject while visiting Oxford in March 1776, when Johnson states “to have the management of the mind is a great art, and it may be attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise”. Johnson’s recommendation that Boswell should have a lamp burning and book to hand to compose himself to rest when he wakes in the night gives insight into his own nocturnal experiences.  He recommended Burton’s Anatomy for the purpose, saying “there is a great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind”

On a later occasion, when counselling Boswell, Johnson quotes and adjusts Burton’s advice:  “The great direction which Burton has left to Men disordered like you, is this: Be not solitary; be not idle; which I would thus modify: “If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle”

Burton’s Melancholy was not only a tool to assist Johnson’s ‘management of the mind’, but one which aided his compilation of his Dictionary of the English Language. He recognised that Burton’s work “is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation” but this reflected the author’s extensive library, and was no doubt an approach attractive to Johnson.  15 definitions cite Melancholy in the final publication, though 45 were marked up as possible entries in Johnson’s 1676 edition of the book which is in the Bodleian library collection at Oxford University.

The words with examples of usage quoted from Burton indicate that Johnson considered the text to be a good source of unusual and old-fashioned words, rather than a source for topics directly related to the subject of the work. The words quoting Burton are “addle,” “colly,” “costard,” “doter,” “to filch,” “to fleer,” “giddyheaded,” “griper,” “hotspur,” “ to macerate,” “muckhill,” “mutter,” “oligarchy,” “quacksalver,” and “squalor.” Entries were sympathetically edited by Johnson to appeal to an 18th century readership, many of whom may not have been familiar with Burton’s work, which grew in reputation in the 19th century.

An entry in Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) referencing Robert Burton

Find out more

At 400, Burton’s work is being reconsidered and an exhibition exploring the theme opens in Oxford next month and is free to visit until March 2022. Find out more on their website

Last year Radio 4 ran an excellent series looking at what the book can teach us today: ‘A New Anatomy of Melancholy

You can read more about Burton in this 2020 blog post from Aeon:

The charity Mind offer help and support for mental health issues: Click here to visit their website

Johnson’s Willow: The Story Continues…

If you have passed the Museum recently you may have noticed our current willow-themed window display. The creation is in honour of an announcement this month about the future of Johnson’s Willow and a poetry competition in celebration of the tree. John Winterton, the Johnson Society’s Heritage Liaison Officer, tells us more in this month’s blog post

The First Willow, c.1800

Johnson’s Willow, which stands beside Stowe Pool, is one of Lichfield’s most historic landmarks. The tree was probably first planted in around 1700, and during the eighteenth century became famous for its great size. Originally known as ‘the Lichfield Willow’, it gained its modern name of ‘Johnson’s Willow’ from its connections with Samuel Johnson. When Johnson was young, he would often have seen the tree, which stood close to his father’s parchment factory; and whenever he returned to Lichfield in later life, he always made a point of visiting the Willow. Such was Johnson’s affection for the tree that he is said to have described it as ‘the delight of his early and waning life’.

After Johnson’s death, his fondness for the Willow prompted many people to seek it out. The original tree blew down in 1829, but that was not the end of the Willow’s story, as a cutting from it was planted on the site in 1830 to become the Second Willow. This process of replanting the Willow from a cutting of the previous tree has since happened on two further occasions: in 1898 the Third Willow was planted, and in September 1959 the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Johnson’s birth included the planting of the Fourth Willow.

In recent years, the Fourth Willow has become extensively decayed, and will sadly have to be felled in mid-August 2021. The importance of preserving the tradition of Johnson’s Willow has, however, been recognised by both Lichfield District Council and the Johnson Society, who have been working together to repeat the replanting process once again. In 2018, cuttings were taken from the current tree; these have been tended and raised by the District Council’s Parks Department, and one of the saplings grown from them will become the fifth incarnation of Johnson’s Willow. The new tree will be planted on the same site as its predecessor, at a ceremony to be held in November 2021. (Read the official press release about the replanting here)

The Fourth Willow, August 2017 (photo © Stephen Brierley)

Johnson was not the only author to take an interest in the tree. The Lichfield poet Anna Seward (1742–1809) mentions it several times in her writings, referring in one poem to ‘yon willow’s ample shade’. Much further afield, in 1787 the American poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (1737–1801) wrote ‘Two Odes on the Litchfield Willow’, in which she commemorated Johnson and other prominent figures who might have walked beneath the Willow’s boughs; she also celebrated the tree itself as a symbol of poetry and culture.

To maintain the link between poetry and Johnson’s Willow, the Johnson Society is running a competition to find the best new poem about the tree; the winning entry will be read out at the planting ceremony for the Fifth Willow in November, and will also be published in the Johnson Society’s Transactions. Entries must be submitted by 15 August 2021; for further details see the Society’s website here.

In her first Willow ode, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson expressed the hope that the Lichfield Willow’s ‘Emblematic Boughs’ would ‘ages Hence wave ore the Brows / Of true Poetic Swains’. The action being taken by the District Council and the Johnson Society will ensure that future generations can appreciate the heritage of Johnson’s Willow – as Johnson, Seward and Fergusson would certainly all have wished.

The window of Johnson’s Birthplace in June 2021, created by Sarah Dale

Read more about recent artistic responses to Johnson’s willow in our previous blog posts on Willow Words Exhibition in 2019 and an appearance of the willow in a children’s book. For more on the history of Johnson’s Willow, you can download a leaflet by the Johnson Society here, or pick up a copy free of charge from the Birthplace Museum

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s Odes are available to purchase from the Birthplace Bookshop, and you can read more about the poet and her work here

Hester Lynch Piozzi

May 2nd marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Hester Lynch Piozzi in 1821. Known to Johnson as Hester Thrale for the duration of their friendship, Piozzi was a significant figure in his life. A close friend and confidante and regular correspondent, Piozzi went on to publish her ‘Anecdotes’ of Johnson in 1786 and an edition of their correspondence in 1788. Hester Lynch Piozzi was a woman of letters whose poetry, travel accounts, diaries, notebooks and marginalia provide an unrivalled glimpse into a long literary life spanning the later Georgian and Regency period. In celebration of this extraordinary life, this month’s blog post shares some of our favourite items relating to Hester from the Birthplace Museum Collection.

View of Streatham Park

Hester Lynch Salusbury married the brewer Henry Thrale in 1763 and Streatham become her home, along with the House adjoining the brewery in Southwark. Johnson first visited the Thrales in 1765 and became a regular visitor at Streatham.

The view shown here is the house he would have known after extensive improvements in 1771. This drawing of the property is by Peter Richard Hoare. It is possible that the artist visited the property when the contents of the house were sold in May 1816.

The Summer House in the grounds of Streatham was a favourite spot of Johnson’s, who used it for writing and even had a birthday party thrown for him there. It was moved to Kent in the 1800s century, where this photograph from our collection was likely taken, and then to Kenwood House in North London in the 1960s. It was sadly destroyed by arson in 1991.

Samuel Johnson’s Letters

Johnson and Thrale were regular correspondents. The Birthplace Museum holds a small collection of letters written by Johnson to his ‘Dear Lady’, most of which were penned while visiting the Midlands.

This letter written to Hester on 19 June 1775 includes much of the usual subject matter of Johnson’s letters to Hester, often writing on the health of himself and others, enquiring after life at Streatham Park, and Hester’s family. He also shares local news (including Johnson having been pecked on the leg by a Parrot!) The playful and friendly tone of their correspondence is apparent, and Johnson ends with: “I have begun early for what would become of the nation if a letter of this importance should miss the post?”

Drinking Tea in Lichfield 1787

This letter in Hester’s hand shows her ongoing association with Lichfield and Johnson’s circle after his death. Evidently written during a visit to Lichfield, the Reverend Henry White has invited Hester to visit, but she makes her excuses for herself and Mr Piozzi, and her daughter Cecilia as they are already engaged to see Peter Garrick, brother of David Garrick. She suggests an alternative plan to meet at their lodgings at the Swan Inn.

Miniature portrait

This miniature shows Hester in mourning attire after the death of her second husband, Gabriele Mario Piozzi in 1809. Gabriele Piozzi was a singing master and composer who had been tutor to the Thrale children. They married in 1784. The miniature was owned by Hester’s uncle and was passed down through the family. It was painted in 1811, and acquired by the Birthplace in 1974 with assistance from the Art Fund.

Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson and other annotated books

Hester Piozzi’s Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson LLD during the last twenty years of his life were published on 25 March 1786. The first edition was so popular that it was said to have sold out on the first day, and four editions had appeared by May. The Birthplace Museum holds a very special copy of this book amongst a small collection of books annotated by Hester herself, and given as a gift to a friend in her later life. Her additional notes add extra details to her texts, and she points out items of particular interest with a charming illustration of a hand.

Samuel Johnson’s Easter Resolutions

Within the Birthplace Museum collection, one little book contains a particularly special inscription. At Easter in 1777, aged 68, Samuel Johnson took a moment of reflection and wrote down some resolutions for the months ahead in the back leaves of this volume.

Johnson gives his own account of the moment at which the inscription was made. He writes:

“I was for some time distressed, but at last obtained, I hope from the god of peace, more quiet than I have enjoyed for a long time. I had made no resolution, but as my heart grew lighter, my hopes revived, and my courage increased; and I wrote with my pencil in my common prayer book:

Via ordinanda

Biblia Leganda

Theologiae opera danda

Serviendum et laetandum”

The resolutions translate as: to order my life, to read the bible, to study theology, to serve god with gladness.

It was Johnson’s custom to observe religious holidays and personal anniversaries with what Boswell describes as ‘a pious abstraction’. In addition to Good Friday and Easter Day, the date of his wife’s death and his own Birthday provided moments for reflection. Johnson also made New Year’s resolutions, more on which can be read in this previous blog post. Another year Johnson had resolved: ‘to conquer Scruples, to read the bible this year, to try to rise more early, to study divinity, to live methodically, to oppose idleness, to frequent Divine worship.’

Johnson reflects on his habit of making resolutions in his own writings. In 1764, he describes in his ‘Prayers and Meditations’: “I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O God, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for Jesus Christ’s sake amen”

In another passage written in 1770, Johnson reflects more generally on the making of resolutions: “every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions… Those who do not make them are very few, but of their effect little is perceived; for scarcely any man persists in a course of life planned by choice…” Nevertheless, Johnson valued reflection and resolution-making as a form of self-improvement, encouraging his servant and heir Francis Barber to do the same.

The book in which Johnson’s resolutions are scribbled is a 1720 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, published by James Watson. It is pocket-sized, with an ornate Moroccan binding, and worn, giving the impression that it was well-used and handled by Johnson. The book arrived at the Museum in 1909 as part of an exhibition of ‘Johnsonian relics’ to mark the Bicentenary of Johnson’s birth. It was the gift of Alderman Alfred Lomax, Lichfield printer and civic figure.

Johnson was introduced to the Book of Common Prayer as a small child, when his Mother obliged him to learn a portion. Throughout his life Johnson used the work as a basis for his own prayers. In June 1784 he told Boswell “I know of no prayers but those in the Book of Common Prayer”.

The page including Johnson’s inscription, now barely legible

Sadly, Johnson’s inscription in the volume is now very feint, although he added the date in ink which can be clearly seen. It is fortunate that the contents were so well-documented by Johnson, and rare to have such a record of the story behind an inscription.

Samuel Johnson: a social anthropologist?

A large part of Samuel Johnson’s writing was concerned with contemporary society. In 1773 he had the opportunity to observe and experience a society in many ways far removed from that of London, his home of over thirty years. Accompanied by his friend and biographer James Boswell, he undertook a journey around Scotland and the Western Isles; published two years later, the account of his travels has in recent years come to be regarded as a work of social anthropology. In this post, Janet Neale examines brief extracts from A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in order to explore this modern interpretation.

The opening page of Johnson’s account

Concerned with the study of human society and cultures, social anthropology emerged as an academic discipline long after Samuel Johnson’s death in 1784. In A Journey however, Johnson can be seen directly enquiring into and portraying the society and cultures he encountered; viewed initially as anti-Scots, an understanding of it as a window into a society that was both part of Britain but to a great degree alienated from it, came later. Johnson also used his observations during his travels to speculate on society as a whole, and an example of his methodology can be found in a passage headed ‘Mull’.

A narration of their arrival on the island is followed by a description of its size; he then moves on to its recent history, which gives him an insight into its subsistence economy:

“The consequence of a bad season here is not scarcity, but emptiness; and they whose plenty was barely a supply of natural and present need, when that slender stock fails, must perish with hunger”. 

Johnson the moralist then interjects:

“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own, and if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it”. 

The passage moves on to a philosophical reasoning as to whether the planting of tree seeds would benefit the island; thoughts on the relative shortness of human life are interwoven with the practicalities of caring for the trees.  The passage ends as it began, with the travel narrative resumed. 

Another of his concerns is the effect on the clans of the laws introduced following the rebellions in 1715 and 1745.  Johnson sets out the old hierarchy of the clans, the changes he observed brought about by the new laws, and then reasons as to why the clan chiefs would raise their land rents: “When the power of birth and station ceases, no hope remains but from the prevalence of money”.  A refusal to pay the new rents leads to eviction for the tenants; the old structures and allegiances are broken.

These passages give a very brief illustration of the blend of elements in the Journey.  At its heart is a travelogue, recorded in a journal, and the timeline of this drives the narration.  Interspersed with the record of the places and people he and Boswell encountered, is an insight into Johnson himself, in passages of autobiography and philosophic reasoning.  The overall effect is of Johnson observing and enquiring, giving a sociological insight into a people and culture he is meeting for the first time. 

Johnson depicted on his Travels in Scotland

A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland is a work that contains Johnson’s own first-hand observations and judgments of the society he found there.  It examines in detail the islanders’ social and cultural settings, the ways in which they have been obliged to organise themselves, and how religion, politics and economics have shaped their lives, providing them with little hope of escape except emigration from the ‘ordered whole’. In modern terms, these elements constitute a social anthropological study.

Guest Contributor: Janet Neale graduated from the University of Leicester in 2018 with a degree in Humanities & Arts. The degree included an in-depth study of the writings of Samuel Johnson. She has recently completed a Masters in West Midlands History at the University of Birmingham. Read Janet’s previous blog posts about Johnson on Poverty and Johnson on Women’s Education.

Half Term Fun: Let’s go fly a kite!

Under normal circumstances, we’d usually be hosting our Half Term Fun sessions at the Museum today. Our volunteers have led many great sessions over the years, with themes ranging from local wildlife to outer space. Despite our temporary closure, we still wanted to share an activity that you can try at home with only a few items.

In Georgian times, playing games was one of the most common forms of entertainment for children. Some of these activities have continued to remain popular until this day, with one of these being kite flying. ‘Kite’ even made its way into Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, where he charmingly described it as a “A fictitious bird made of paper”.

If you would like to make your own kite, please follow the steps below.

Gather your resources

To make your own kite, you’ll need:

  • 1 or 2 full sheets of newspaper
  • 2 wooden sticks (one 60cm, one 50cm)
  • Scissors
  • String
  • Strong tape
  • Strong glue
  • Ruler or meterstick
  • Ribbon or yarn

Place the sticks over each other to create a T-shape

If you would like to adjust the size of your kite, you can use larger/smaller sticks to create your desired shape. We’ve used two gardening sticks which we’ve trimmed down to size.

Attach the sticks together using glue and string

We’ve used a combination of the two to secure the sticks, gluing them in place and using some string to firmly secure them together.

Top tip If you have a knot expert in your home, ask them to help you! We’ve used a clove hitch knot to secure these two pieces of wood together.

Create a frame

Using some string, make loops or knots around the sticks to create a frame to secure it in place.

Use some newspaper to create your sail

You can be creative with this step and use lots of different materials, like paper or fabric. We’ve chosen to use newspaper, which we have taped together to create one large sheet.

Lay the frame on the centre of the sail

Ensure that there is still some space left between the frame and the edge of the paper.

Use a ruler and a pencil to mark around the edges to create a diamond shape

Using your ruler, make a dot roughly 3-5 centimetres away from each of the corners of the sail

Connect these dots to give you a second outline that you can use to fold your sail over the frame.

Fold the edges of the sail over to create a frame

Use glue and tape to secure it down.

Top tip To make this easier, we’ve added a few pieces of tape in the centre of our frame to keep it secure.

Create a flying line using string

We’ve done this by attaching string to each corner and ensuring that they meet in a point above the kite’s frame.

Attach another piece of string where the other four meet

This will be where you hold on to the kite while it is in the air.

Decorate your kite using a piece of ribbon

We’ve done this by creating a slit and tying ribbon to the bottom of the kite frame, however you could also glue it down.

Get creative!

Add whatever decorations you like to the front of your kite. Once you’re happy with your design, hold on to the string tightly and run into the direction of the wind.

We hope you enjoyed this Georgian-inspired craft for the school holidays. If you decide to attempt this craft, we’d love to see the designs you come up with! Please send your kite photos to or tag us on social media.

For more activities you can complete at home, visit our website by clicking here.

“There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money”: Johnson on coinage

15th February 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Decimal Day in the UK – when the system of pounds, shillings and pence that Samuel Johnson would have been familiar with were replaced with our current coinage. To mark the day we look at Johnson’s appearances on tender in the Museum collection, over two centuries apart.

In April 2005 the Royal Mint produced a special coin to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. The coin was designed by artist and Royal Academician Tom Phillips and features part of Johnson’s Dictionary definitions for ‘Fifty’ and ‘pence’

The coin was the result of a competition involving five artists. They were briefed at Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square, and encouraged to think of the coin as not only a way of honoring Johnson as an individual but also as a celebration of the English language. Some of the proposed designs included portraits of Johnson, some books, and some took inspiration from the garret rooms that the Dictionary was created in. Thirty drawings were submitted in total. An independent panel selected Tom Phillips as the winner, liking his “highly appropriate idea” of using the definitions.

The current Dictionary room at the Birthplace was unveiled during this anniversary year and the displays contain a special 22 carat gold version of the Philips 50p coin, one of a limited edition of 1,000.

The Museum collection also contains a large plaster cast model of the coin, which was gifted to the Birthplace by the Royal Mint in 2005. A display about the new coin tied in perfectly with the admission policy at the Birthplace, as free admission was introduced in the same year.

Museum records show the first admission price to the Museum in 1901 when entrance cost three pence

2005 was not the first time that Johnson had inspired a coin design. Over 200 years previously he appeared on a halfpenny token which was in use across the Midlands, and beyond.

Between 1787 and 1797, seven different version of a token appeared including Johnson’s portrait. Until a change in law in 1800, provincial tokens were often used to combat high levels of counterfeiting and as a solution to an inadequate supply of official coinage. These tokens were used to pay wages and in exchange for goods.

The Johnson tokens were struck by a pub landlord based on Moor Street in Birmingham named Henry Biggs. Markings on the rim indicate that they were valid in Birmingham, Lichfield and Wolverhampton. One design was also valid in London.

The Birthplace collection holds nine Johnson halfpennies, representing three of the seven designs which were in circulation. The front all have the same bust of Johnson, either left or right facing, and the main difference is in the reverse design. The most common design shows three lions rampant, a less common version has laurel branches, and three of the Birthplace set were payable in London and have Britannia on the reverse.

James Boswell saw the inclusion of Johnson on a coin as “proof of the popularity of his character” and this was still the case over 200 years later. The Royal mint produced 17,649,000 of the 2005 anniversary coins, so it still makes a regular appearance in our pockets and purses today.

Johnson’s Dictionary entry for ‘Coin’