Inventor: a finder out of something new

This September we are joining heritage sites across the UK to take part in the national Heritage Open Days fortnight. The theme of this year’s event is ‘Astounding Inventions’. Arguably Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 was an astounding invention in itself – bringing together the principles of his forerunners to create the first modern Dictionary in the format that we still recognise. In this month’s blog post we look at Samuel Johnson’s interest in what we might typically think of as ‘Astounding inventions’, as we find out about his interest in the science, technology and innovation of his age.

Johnson’s Chemistry Experiments

After meeting in 1765, Johnson spent much time at the house of his friends Henry and Hester Thrale in Streatham. Vignettes of life at Streatham present Johnson as relaxed, playful and practical – one summer he took to binding books in the summerhouse. Such was his interest in science, that he undertook his own experiments. Hester Thrale (later Piozzi), writes in her Anecdotes (1786):

“Dr. Johnson was always exceeding fond of chemistry; and we made up a sort of laboratory at Streatham one summer, and diverted ourselves with drawing essences and colouring liquors. But the danger Mr. Thrale found his friend in one day when I was driven to London, and he had got the children and servants round him to see some experiments performed, put an end to all our entertainment, so well was the master of the house persuaded that his short sight would have been his destruction in a moment, by bringing him close to a fierce and violent flame”

The concerns were not unfounded as Johnson regularly set fire to the front of his wigs near candles, and had a custom of reading in bed which had led the Thrales to allocate a servant to carry Johnson’s candle for him when he went to sleep.  This mitigation did not extend to science experiments: “Future experiments in chemistry, however, were too dangerous, and Mr. Thrale insisted that we should do no more towards finding the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Thrale Place, Streatham


Johnson defines electricity in his Dictionary as: “A property in some bodies, whereby, when rubbed so as to grow warm, they draw little bits of paper, or such like substances, to them”, quoting medical writer John Quincy. However, the definition goes on to discuss the subject in a more journalistic way, showing excitement in the subject and suggesting Johnson’s own interest, as no further source is quoted. During Johnson’s age, experiments in how electricity might be used were underway, but often only as tricks and spectacles for the viewing public. In 1751 Benjamin Franklin published his ‘Experiments and Observations on Electricity’ and developed the lightning rod. Johnson also shows knowledge of the medical application of electricity, reassuring relatives of an ill friend that they “should not despair of helping the swelled hand by electricity, if it were frequently and diligently supplied.”

Johnson’s definition of Electricity in his 1755 Dictionary


Ballooning for travel began at the very end of Johnson’s life. 19th September 1783 saw the first balloon flight when Pilatre de Rozier’s  ‘Aerostat Reveillon’ took to the sky in France with a sheep,

The first balloon flight with human passengers occurred two months later when Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier launched their balloon from the centre of Paris.

In England, Vincenzo Lunardi flew a hydrogen balloon on 15th September 1784 at an Artillery Ground in London, accompanied by a dog, a cat and a caged pigeon. Johnson paid a subscription for Lunardi’s balloon, and his circle was fascinated by ballooning. Samuel Johnson was in Lichfield at the time of the flight, but he received numerous letters about it from his friends. However, he complained that he had ‘three letters this day, all about the balloon, I could have been content with one’ and that ‘since it has been performed, and the event is known, I had rather now find a medicine that can ease an asthma.’ Shortly afterwards, when James Sadler flew from Oxford on 17 November 1784 Johnson was in the city, but so ill that he sent Francis Barber to see the flight on his behalf.

By the time of the French Revolution, balloons were being used by the military. Samuel Johnson saw the potential for flying machines to be used in warfare, which he echoed in his novel ‘Rasselas’.

A representation of a balloon flight by Lunardi

Johnson and Industry

Johnson’s lifetime saw a huge amount of technological change, the heart of which was his home region of the Midlands. In his later life Johnson travelled regularly and made a point of visiting manufactories, mines and mills. He was a member of the The Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and his writings, letters and diaries include regular mentions of the specifics of manufacturing processes that he had observed. He writes proudly of the progress of the canals in Derbyshire, and visits ceramic manufacturers. Throughout the 1740s and 1750s, Johnson was also instrumental in attempts to improve cotton manufacturing by supporting the invention of distant family member from the Lichfield area, James Wyatt . The website Revolutionary Players is an excellent hub for information on Johnson’s links to the Midlands enlightenment.

Bookmarks Past and Present

In this behind-the-scenes blog post, Museum Attendant Sarah Dale has been inspired by donations to our Museum Bookshop to find out more about the history of the bookmark

Our second hand book shop is very much part of our offer at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, and we are grateful to all the people who donate books for us to sell.  Second hand books are often more interesting than new books, because they have a history of ownership which may be shown by hand written inscriptions, book plates or library stamps.  Another literal marker of where their readers have been is the bookmark which may sometimes be left between the pages.

Bookmarks (or markers, as they were first called) have a long and interesting history.  The earliest bookmark so far identified dates from the 6th century and was found attached to the cover of a Coptic manuscript excavated from a ruined monastery near Sakkara in Egypt.  This particular bookmark was made of ornamented leather lined with vellum and was linked to the book itself with a leather strap.  Given the great expense in terms of labour and materials that a hand written book represents it’s probably not surprising that it was thought worthwhile to include a bookmark as part of the package – turning over the corner of a page to mark your place would not have been received well by the librarian!

We’re lucky at the museum that we haven’t so far experienced some of the more unlikely items used as bookmarks that librarians report coming across, including banana skins and bacon rashers.  Paper money, letters and photos (some compromising) are fairly common.  In January 2020 the University of Liverpool Library posted a photo of a slice of cheese in a plastic wrapper that had been found in a book

Of course, as this is the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, almost the first thing we thought of doing was to look in Johnson’s dictionary to see how he defined bookmark (or marker) but the only definitions he gives for marker are:

The reason for this (apart from the consideration that English has a very large vocabulary and quite a few words are missing) may partly be that the bookmark didn’t exist as an item separate from a book until the mid-19th century.  Johnson had, thanks to his father’s trade as a bookbinder, considerable technical knowledge on how to actually make a book.  This doesn’t seem to have made him particularly careful about how he used books, and Boswell records anecdotes from people who lent him their books and found to their displeasure that he had spilled food or tea on them.  It’s also recorded that he used books as coasters, doorstops and to prop up uneven furniture.  Because Johnson was blind in one eye, and apparently short sighted in the other, he could only read by holding a book very close to his face, sometimes bending the covers right back and cracking the spine.  This reputation for rough treatment of books was probably the reason that Garrick refused to lend Johnson his folio edition of Shakespeare.

As bookmarks began to be made as separate items they became collectors’ items in their own right.  In the 1860s machine-woven markers were popular and made to commemorate a wide range of public events, one of the first being to mark the death of Albert, the Prince Consort.  Only 20 years later this fashion had passed its peak and bookmarks printed on stiff paper became more common, mirroring the fact that books themselves were becoming cheaper and more generally available.

In the 19th century it was also possible to buy multi-purpose bookmarks that also served as paperknives – an interesting wooden example is the bottom item in this picture. The really gadget-conscious Victorian could have purchased a silver patented combination bookmarker, leaf holder and paperknife with a rotating outer silver blade which could hold the leaves of a book open while it was being read. (Source:

There are a number of organisations for people who collect bookmarks, including the International Friends of Book Marks, the Leather Bookmark Club and the Bookmark Collectors Club.  Collectors often like to specialise in highly specific areas and these organisations enable networks of collectors to swap specimens at very little cost.  Indeed, there is a huge supply of free bookmarks which are often used by organisations as a cheap and effective way of promoting events and services and as bookmarks are relatively small and easy to store book mark collecting could well prove to be a hobby that is both convenient and of genuine interest in tracking social trends and developments.

18th century women authors in the Museum library

As International Women’s Month draws to a close, we celebrate some of the women writers represented in the Birthplace Museum library collection in this month’s blog post.

Johnson’s Birthplace holds strong collections of material relating to Hester Thrale, which we introduce in this previous blog post, and also the poet Anna Seward, including around 100 manuscript letters. In this Month’s post we browse the bookshelves of the Museum library to share some works by or relating to other women writers of the century.

Sarah Siddons (left) and Fanny Burney (right)

Sarah Siddons

One of the greatest actresses of the 18th century, Siddons was famed for her performance in tragedies. Born in 1755, Siddons came from a performing family and eventually triumphed on the stage from the 1780s. Siddons’s circle included Joshua Reynolds and acquaintances of Johnson. Johnson met Siddons in 1783 and during their meeting Siddons promised to act his favourite tragic character, Queen Catherine in Shakepeare’s King Henry the Eighth. Sadly Siddons did not have an opportunity to do before Johnson’s death.

The Birthplace manuscript collection holds a charming ‘thank you’ note from the great actress to Lichfield-based poet Anna Seward, sent in 1796.

It reads:

My dear Madam

I am scarcely recovered enough from a long illness to hold my pen but cannot longer delay my grateful acknowledgements for the honour you have done by sending me your beautiful poems.  I have only strength to add that no lady can be more deeply sensible of such an attention than

                                      my dear Miss Seward

                                           Your and obliged,

                                                       S Siddons.

Sarah Siddons to Anna Seward, 1796

Letter from Sarah Siddons to Anna Seward, 1796

The library shelves contain an interesting adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost by Siddons. She had seven children, sadly five of whom she outlived, and wrote the adaptation for her own family, explaining in the introduction it was planned to ” afford occupation and amusement for four evenings”. The adaptation was published in 1822. Sarah Siddon’s own memoirs are also in the library, published in the year of her death, 1731.

Fanny Burney

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties was Fanny Burney’s last novel, published in 1814. Written over fourteen years, partly while Burney was in exile in France, the first edition of 3,00 copies sold out. The historical novel follows a group fleeing the Terror and tells the story of Juliet Granville and the challenges faced by independent women in the 18th century.

Burney, Later Madame d’Arblay, was born in 1752 and her first novel Evelina appeared in 1778 to great applause. Johnson met Burney through Hester Thrale and Burney described Johnson as ‘The First (man) of every Kingdom’. She lived a long life and her journals are an important source for understanding 18th and early !9th century life and women’s experiences. Burney died in Bath in 1840. A memorial to her was established in Poet’s corner in Westminster Abbey in 2002.

Charlotte Lennox

Charlotte Ramsay was born approximately 1729 in Gibraltar to Scottish and Irish Parents. By 1747 she was in London and published her first literary work ‘Poems on Several Occasions’. The same year she married Alexander Lennox, an employee of the printer William Strahan. Charlotte Lennox was initially also an actress, meaning that she had her own income when she married, but she moved towards an exclusively literary career. She performed at Drury Lane in the 1750s, and went on to have her own play performed there in the 1770s. Over the decades Lennox published novels, poems, plays and translations, and wrote for the periodical ‘The Lady’s Museum’.

Her most significant work was ‘The Female Quixote, or, the Adventures of Arabella’ published in 1752. The novel was an inversion of ‘Don Quixote’, Cervantes’s famous 17th century parody of chivalric romances. Another significant work by Lennox was her ‘Shakespear Illustrated’ (1753-54), which was a pioneering attempt to explore the sources used by Shakespeare for his plays and an important early work of feminist literary criticism.

Lennox met Samuel Johnson after her first novel ‘Harriot Stuart’ was published in 1750 and they became lifelong friends. Johnson supported his friend by providing the dedication to the Earl of Middlesex for the ‘Female Quixote’, and to the Earl of Orrery in ‘Shakespear Illustrated’. A great advocate of Lennox, Johnson also sent reviews of several of her works to the Literary Magazine and helped to draft proposals for an edition of her works in 1775.

Unfortunately, critical success did not lead to financial success within her lifetime and Lennox’s later years were spent in poverty, with assistance from a pension from the Royal Literary Fund. She died in 1804 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Covent Garden, London.

Susanna Centlivre

Susanna Centlivre was the most celebrated female playwright of her period. The Busy Body (or ‘Busie Body’) was first performed in 1709 at Drury Lane. This copy of the play from 1777 shows the lasting impact of the work, which was performed a recorded 475 times in the eighteenth century but likely many more. The essayist William Hazlitt described how the Busy Body had been performed “a thousand times in town and country, giving delight to the old, the young, and the middle aged.”

Susanna Freeman was baptized in 1669 in Lincolnshire and, following a career as an actress and a married ended by her husband’s death in a duel, she eventually made her way to London. Susanna had written since childhood but became a professional writer when her first published work appeared in 1701 under the pseudonym ‘Astraea’. She had a prolific and well-respected career, with nineteen plays, three volumes of letters and numerous poems appearing. Susanna married a Joseph Centlivre, a cook in Queen Anne’s court, after meeting him while she was performing at Windsor Castle in 1707. She died in 1723 and her death was widely reported.

Anna Letitia Barbauld

Anna Letitia Barbauld (born Aikin) was born in 1743 in Leicestershire and had a long career as an editor, literary critic as well as a poet, essayist, author of children’s literature, and an abolitionist.  As well as writing, Barbauld was a teacher and manager of the Palgrave Academy in Suffolk, where she taught with her husband in the 1770s.

Barbauld was one the of most significant literary critics of her period. Amongst her many works was a six-volume edition of the edited letters of the novelist Samuel Richardson, which included a detailed biographical introduction written by her that represents the first major biography of the writer. She later went on to produce a 50 volume series of British Novelists. Barbauld died in 1804 in Stoke Newington, London.

Hannah More

Writer of poetry, plays and tracts on moral and religious subjects, Hannah More was born in Bristol in 1745. Being the daughter of a schoolmaster provided More with access to education from an early age and she became a teacher. She began writing as a child and penned her first plays while teaching. More was an acquaintance of David and Eva Maria Garrick, and her tragedy play ‘Percy’ was staged at Drury Lane in 1777.

Samuel Johnson met Hannah More in 1774 and had a great respect for her work, telling Hester Thrale that her ‘Bas Bleau’ was “a very great performance”. More and Johnson travelled to Oxford together for a visit to Pembroke College in 1782. Hannah More died in 1833 and her memoir and correspondence was published the following year.

The changing face of Johnson’s Birthplace

2022 will see some small but important changes at Johnson’s Birthplace. This year, new displays in Michael Johnson’s Workroom will recreate an 18th century book bindery and share more information about the Johnson family business. We’ll also be adding visitor toilet facilities in our yard.

In this month’s blog post, we share images from the Museum’s photograph archive which chart some of the changes to Johnson’s Birthplace over the centuries

A shop front on Breadmarket Street

Image reproduced with thanks to Peter Langmaid

Thomas Clarke occupied the house from 1841 and ran his Drapers business on the ground floor. It was this very different frontage on Breadmarket Street which Charles Dickens would have seen on his visit to Lichfield – you can read about his visit in this blog post. The shop front was removed and the famous frontage of pillars and steps restored after 1887, when the house was purchased by philanthropist James Henry Johnson (no relation to Samuel)

When the Museum was given to the city in 1900, the committee set about on further work to restore the shop, removing floral wallpaper and changing the Market Street windows which you can read more about in our blog post here.

Changes in the 1960s

Some of our visitors still recall coming to Johnson’s Birthplace before significant changes were made at the end of the 1960s. Visitors entered into a hallway in the years before the Parlour wall was removed and a staircase was added to enable access to the basement floor of the building.

The Parlour prior to 1969, looking towards the bookshop

The main focus of the 1960s work was opening up access to the attic floor, now one of the most striking areas of the house. Dormer windows were reinstated on the roof as part of the works, which were carried out by the well-known Lichfield firm Linfords.

A worker on the Birthplace roof during the late 1960s renovations
A view of the attic during renovations in 1969
The Linfords team at work in the attic
The 1960s work allowed visitors to view the attic floor of Johnson’s Birthplace, now a favourite part of the house

While working in the attic an interesting collection of items came to light. No missing literary gems from Samuel Johnson, but the scraps of paper give an insight into the life of the house – from pieces of magazines from 1721 which Michael Johnson’s apprentices may well have been reading in their rooms, to correspondence with Mr Hinde, the editor of the Lichfield Mercury in the 19th century, and an advertisement for the Lichfield Races.

Scraps found in the attic in the 1969 works
The collection has been added to the Museum archive, as part of the story of our building

In addition to the parlour work and the opening of the attic, the basement was turned into an archive area in the 1960s, which later became the kitchen display.

A view of the basement during the 1960s works
The Basement kitchen when it was opened as a display after the 1989 refurbishments. Currently closed to assist social distancing, the kitchen will reopen to visitors for summer 2022.

Displaying the Collection

In the 1910s, the Birth Room contained the majority of the Museum’s collection in a huge display case, and the top floors of the house were not yet open to the public.

The Birth Room in the early years of the Museum

The Birth Room looked very different after the 1960s renovations. Part of the original part of the cabinets were still in use in the room which is now our Bookshop until the 1980s.

The Birthroom as it appeared before the current Museum layout was established in 1989
The Bookshop in the 1980s. Boswell’s Bookcase, now in the Museum attic, can be seen in the back corner of the room.

Our plans for 2022

In 2022 we’ll be adding a toilet block in our yard. Designed to have the lowest possible impact on our historic surrounding, the free-standing structure will also be clad using recycled materials.

A toilet ‘pod’ will be added in the Birthplace courtyard
An impression of the new workshop room, coming in 2022.

Access to the facilities will through the back door of the Museum in Michael Johnson’s workroom, which will have a new layout and become an interactive book bindery. The changes are the first step in developments to improve access and refresh displays at Johnson’s Birthplace, and you can read more about our plans on our website here. Ahead of these works, a full rewire of the Birthplace was undertaken in Autumn 2021 to ensure the future safety of the building – and yes, we did look out for treasures under the floorboards!

Items found under the floorboards in 2021, tell a history of their own

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.