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’

Francis Barber in the Birthplace collection

Francis Barber died on 13 January 1801 and was buried in Stafford. Born into slavery on a Jamaican Plantation in c.1742, Frank became a surrogate son and ultimately heir to Samuel Johnson. You can hear more about his life in our introduction to Francis Barber video.

To commemorate the 220th anniversary of his death this month’s blog post brings together a selection of items from the Museum collection relating to Francis.

Portrait of Francis Barber (?)

The Birthplace holds one possible portrait of Barber, an early 19th century stipple engraving by an unidentified printmaker, after the original painting by Joshua Reynolds. The painting is in the Menil Collection in Texas and there are copies in other collections, such as Tate and Dr Johnsons House in London. It has been suggested that James Northcote, Reynolds’s pupil, may have been one of the copyists.

There is no conclusive evidence that Barber is the sitter, and it is possible that it is a portrait of Joshua Reynolds’s servant, who was used as a model in other paintings. We may never know for sure, but the image has long been described as a portrait of Francis Barber.

Adventures to Lichfield

On Thursday 20th June 1771 Samuel Johnson wrote to his friend Hester Thrale to tell her of his plans for travelling to the Midlands. The tone of the note conveys the warmth of the relationship between Sam and Frank:

“This night at 9 o clock Sam: Johnson and Francis Barber Esquires set out in the Lichfield stage. Francis is indeed rather upon it. What adventures we may meet with, who can tell?”

The men spent six weeks on this trip to Staffordshire and to Derbyshire, visiting Johnson’s old school friend John Taylor in Ashbourne.

A gift from Johnson’s Library

Amongst the possessions which Francis inherited from Samuel was this small 1626 edition of Juvenal’s Satires, published in Amsterdam. The book has an interesting story which is told by a note written in the flyleaf:

“This book was formerly the property of Dr Samuel Johnson. It was given to me by Dr Wright of Lichfield, who received it from Frank Barber Dr Johnson’s servant who he attended in his last illness.

Charles Nutt September 14th 1818″.

Charles Nutt was a Lichfield Cathedral verger. Dr Richard Wright was the grandson of Richard Greene, the owner of the Lichfield Museum. Greene was a good friend of Samuel, and also of Francis after he moved to Lichfield. In addition to his work as a Surgeon, Richard Wright also re-opened his Grandfather’s Museum, but the collection was dispersed after his death in 1821. Whether the book was given as payment for surgical care or as a gift is unclear.

The copy was donated to the Birthplace by the genealogist Allen Lyell Reade in 1912. Reade dedicated a whole volume of his work ‘Johnsonian Gleanings’ to the story of Francis Barber, published in the same year.

Francis Barber’s letter to Thomas Percy, December 1788

This copy made by Barber of a letter that he sent to one of Johnson’s executors allows us to hear his voice directly. Unfortunately, it is in rather dire circumstances: a period of “fierce illness” struck Francis, Betsey and their eldest daughter and he applies to Percy for fifty pounds from Johnson’s legacy.  He gives the reason that: “Christmas is drawing near and it is customary for apothecaries and other Tradespeople to bring in their accounts.” Barber’s bills were larger than he had anticipated, and he was not able to settle them from the quarterly annuity that he received from the executors.

Barber and Boswell

Three letters in our collection were sent to Barber by James Boswell in the late 1780s, while Boswell was working on his Life of Johnson. Boswell searched for any information he could add to his biography, and his friend Barber was an essential ally for Boswell in his research.

The biography of Johnson written by his executor John Hawkins appeared in March 1787. Hawkins was vehemently unkind to Barber in the text. Boswell tells Barber that he believes Hawkins had:

“done gross injustice to the character of the great and good Dr Johnson, and having written so injuriously of you and Mrs Barber, as to deserve severe animadversion”

In his biography Hawkins boasts about having unique access to fourteen notebooks that had escaped Johnson’s fire, but Bowell points out that these should rightly be the property of Barber. He suggested that Barber write to Johnson’s executors to demand the papers back, to be returned to Boswell on his behalf. He was happy to assist, replying that he was “agreeable to your request with a heart full of Joy and gratitude.” The letters worked, and Hawkins sent the items a week later.

However, they were not all returned and a few months later Boswell wrote to Barber again, requesting a further letter to the executors. Barber obliged and asked for some financial assistance from Boswell in return. Boswell send him some funds, and he ends his letter with a display of concern for Barber: “Some of your old master’s friends have thought that your opening a little shop for a few books and stationery wares in Lichfield might be a good thing for you, you may consult, and consider of it.”

Francis Barber’s Poor Law examination record

The Barber family continued to struggle financially and in 1799 Barber made an appeal to the Poor Law examination board. Signed by Barber, his statement is a significant record of black presence in late 18th century Staffordshire and provides valuable information about his life, including details of his birth, residences in the area and the names of three of his children. It is significant that he is referred to as a ‘Yeoman’ in the document, which suggests that he was respected in his community. Records do not show that the Barbers were given any financial assistance after the examination, but they were able to remain in the Parish.

Betsy Barber’s book and ring

Elizabeth Ball and Francis Barber married in 1776. She was called ‘Betsey’ by Francis, and was described as “eminently pretty” as well as “sensible and well-informed”. Elizabeth signed her name in a 1739 copy of the Book of Common Prayer book which was originally owned by Elizabeth ‘Tetty’ Johnson. Another personal item which came into Elizabeth’s possession was Tetty’s wedding ring. After arriving in Lichfield Francis attempted to return the ring to Lucy Porter, Tetty’s daughter, but she declined to accept it. The ring had been enamelled as a mourning ring in memory of Johnson and worn by Elizabeth Barber.

After Francis Barber’s death in January 1801 the annuity from Johnson’s will ended, and Elizabeth had to make her own income. She eventually moved back to Lichfield and opened a school on Stowe Street. Her last resort was to sell items that had an association to Johnson including this book and ring, doubtless precious possessions for Betsey Barber. Both items were given to the Museum collection in 1909, on the bicentenary of Johnson’s birth.

Buttons and the Bard: Behind the scenes in our basement

This month’s blog post takes us behind the scenes at the Birthplace and down into our basement. As visitors to the Museum will know, one room of the basement is usually available to visit: the Johnson family kitchen. However, this year the basement has been closed to the public since February, when we had a small flood in an adjacent room. The area dried out and thankfully no damage was done, but the kitchen display remained closed as part of our covid-secure social distancing measures after the Museum reopened in July.

Our team has used the closure as an opportunity to take care of some of the items in the display. Although the majority of items in the tableau are reproductions, there are a few collection items in the scene including the Conduit Lands Trust Chest. This large oak chest would have contained the funds and papers of the Trust. It was transferred to the Johnson Birthplace Museum from the Lichfield Museum in the 1970s, and is of Johnsonian interest because Johnson’s father Michael would have used the chest during his time as a Trustee of the charity, which is still in operation today. He would likely have been the holder of a key to one of the three locks, which ensured that nobody could access the contents without fellow trustees present.

The Conduit Lands Chest

Another collection item hidden amongst the clutter of the Johnson’s kitchen is a little 18th century painting by an unknown artist, also transferred from the Lichfield Museum in the 1960s. It doesn’t have a Johnson connection but the image is typical of a classical idyllic scene, and family servant Kitty Chambers may well have dreamed of far-away places like this while she stirred the family’s stew.

An early 18th century landscape painting from the Birthplace collection

The family kitchen is watched over by a young Samuel Johnson, and he has also received some care and attention this year. At the start of the latest lockdown, Museum Attendant and talented sewist Sarah Dale took home Samuel’s nightshirt to wash and repair, but unexpectedly ended up undertaking some fascinating research into 18th century fashion.

The Birthplace Museum Kitchen Tableau

Sarah discovered that it looked as though the nightshirt was adapted from a woman’s nightdress, and it had plastic pearl style buttons glued on.  She tells us more:

“An 18th century shirt would have used thread buttons (also called Norfolk buttons, because this is where a lot of them were made). Thread buttons were practical because they were cheap to make, comfortable next to the skin, and able to stand up to the ferocious washing techniques that 18th century under garments were subject to”

You can see read a step by step account of how Sarah made the thread buttons here:

One of the things that visitors often ask us is: “Did the Johnsons really cook and spend time down there?” It is not an easy question to answer because the layout of the basement and ground floor of the building has much changed since Samuel’s day. In the late 1960s the staircase that now takes us down into the basement was built. Before that, steep steps under a trapdoor led down to the basement from inside the house. There were also steps leading down from the yard behind the building. A plan of the building from 1925 even shows a scullery at the back of a neighbouring building across the yard from the back door of the Birthplace (now The Bureau café). Descriptions of the house at auctions in 1785 and 1887 describe ample cellars and place the kitchen on the ground floor, but we do not have enough information to know for certain what the Johnson’s layout would have been.

A floor plan of the cellar in the early 20th century

Johnson, of course, would not have called this floor of the house a basement. The word does not appear in his Dictionary, it would rather have been a Cellar, defined as ‘a place under ground, where stores are reposited’.

So why do we show the kitchen in the cellar? Well, it is due to a passage in Hester Piozzi’s Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786), where she recalls:

I have heard him relate another odd thing of himself too, but it is one which everybody has heard as well as me: how, when he was about nine years old, having got the play of Hamlet in his hand, and reading it quietly in his father’s kitchen, he kept on steadily enough till, coming to the Ghost scene, he suddenly hurried upstairs to the street door that he might see people about him.

Here Johnson hurries upstairs, and as this is the only account that gives a glimpse into the domestic layout of the building in Johnson’s youth, it provides an evocative basis for the atmospheric tableau.

For more atmospheric stories from the Birthplace from the comfort of your home, join us for our first online event on Monday 21st December in partnership with Lichfield Storytellers. More information and tickets available here

Samuel Johnson on the freedom of Joseph Knight

Black History Month in the UK in October is a time for reflection, education and celebration. One 18th century figure who appeared in a number of articles last month is Joseph Knight. In this month’s blog post we find out about Samuel Johnson’s support for Knight’s legal case, an important landmark in the fight for the abolition of slavery.

In June 1776 James Boswell wrote to Samuel Johnson about a case he was assisting in Edinburgh. It concerned the freedom of Joseph Knight.

Joseph Knight was born in Guinea. His original name is unknown. Taken as a child to Jamaica, he was eventually sold to John Wedderburn who was the largest landowner on the island at the time. Knight was educated, put to work as a domestic servant and brought to Scotland when Wedderburn returned in 1769.  In Scotland Knight married Ann Thompson, an employee in Wedderburn’s household and they had at least one child together. Knight asked Wedderburn whether he could leave the house to live with his new family and was refused. He ran away, Wedderburn had him arrested, and the case began in 1774.

A mention of Knight in the first edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Knight’s case against his enslaver was not without some precedent. Somerset v Stewart had already taken place in England in 1772, when Lord Mansfield ruled that the imprisonment and removal to Jamaica of James Somerset was not allowed in the law of England.

Despite the ruling in the Somerset case, Knight’s first case in the Perth courts was found in favour of Wedderburn. Knight appealed successfully, but Wedderburn then appealed to Scotland’s supreme civil court in Edinburgh. It was at this time that James Boswell began discussing the matter with Johnson.

It is no surprise that Johnson, who Boswell described as having “always been very zealous against slavery in every form”, took an interest in the case. Johnson had expressed anti-slavery views throughout his writing career, well before meeting his Jamaican servant and heir Francis Barber in 1752, and recently in his Taxation no Tyranny pamphlet in 1775.

On 25 June 1776 Boswell sent a letter to Johnson enclosing a copy of a paper by John McLaurin, a member of Knight’s principle counsel. Johnson responded by referring to the ruling in the Somerset case, clearly known to him. Johnson was interested in supporting the campaign for Knight’s freedom not only intellectually, but also financially. On 6 July 1776 Johnson wrote:

“Since I wrote, I have looked over Mr McLaurin’s plea, and think it excellent. How is the suit carried on? If by subscription, I commission you to contribute, in my name, what is proper. Let nothing be wanting in such a case”

Boswell passed on the praise, reporting on 14 February the following year that “McLaurin is made happy by your approbation of his memorial.”

On July 15 1777 Boswell sent Johnson a copy of the opposing case, asking him: “Pray read this, and tell me what you think as a Politician, as well as a Poet, upon the subject.” The next, and most significant, discussion of the case reported by Boswell is while the two men are together at Ashbourne in September, visiting Johnson’s childhood friend Dr John Taylor. After supper one evening Boswell asked Johnson to dictate an argument to him in support of the case.

Johnson states that “it is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion.” He argues that the condition of slavery or servitude cannot be passed down through generations (Johnson may have had Francis Barber in mind here, who was born into slavery in Jamaica) and criticises the fact that the laws of Jamaica allow no redress for an enslaved person, whose “colour is considered as a sufficient testimony against him.” He summarises that:

“No man is by nature the property of another: the defendant is, therefore, by nature free: The rights of nature must be some way forfeited before they can be justly taken away”

Boswell published Johnson’s full statement in his second edition of his Life in 1793, but he was dismissive of Johnson’s viewpoint and frames this passage with an anti-abolitionist statement. The support of Knight’s case and an anecdote about Johnson raising a toast in support of slave rebellions are useful resources, but overall the Life does not provide much information on Samuel Johnson’s opinions against slavery. Johnson’s views are now becoming better known and students will have come across them in the classroom now that ‘A Brief to Free a Slave, 1777’ is included in recent editions of the Norton Anthology of English Literature

Knight’s legal team was ultimately successful and Scottish Courts ruled that the rights of an enslaver over an enslaved person “could not be supported in this country to any extent” and that Wedderburn had no right to Knight’s service “for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent”. Johnson wrote that the cause had been ended “much to my mind” and “on the side of liberty.”

Knight left with his family, but the rest of his story is unknown.

The records relating to his case are held in the National Records of Scotland, and this fascinating blog post published during Black History Month gives an account.

Joseph Knight was the subject of an historical novel by James Robertson published in 2003. In October 2020 a scene from May Sumbwanyambe’s ‘Enough of Him’, a play about Knight’s story commissioned by the Scottish National Theatre, was released as a short film.

The Muse of Johnson’s Willow: Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson

This month we welcome John Winterton, Johnson Society of Lichfield council member and editor of ‘Transactions’, who gives insight into a little known American literary connection to Lichfield.

Samuel Johnson became a national figure in Britain during his own lifetime; however, his fame also swiftly spread to places as far distant as Pennsylvania, where one of his most fervent early admirers was the poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson.

Elizabeth Graeme was born in 1737. Her father was a well-to-do medical man, her mother the stepdaughter of a deputy governor of Pennsylvania. At the family home, Graeme Park near Philadelphia, Elizabeth had access to her father’s library, and was well educated, becoming proficient not only in Greek and Latin, but in French and Italian too – so much so, in fact, that one later admirer described her as ‘the most learned woman in America’.

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson

Elizabeth became engaged to Benjamin Franklin’s son William; however, he subsequently broke off the engagement, which left Elizabeth in a state of depression. To help revive her spirits, her parents sent her on a tour of Britain during 1764–5; here she was presented to George III, and also met the novelist Laurence Sterne – but, sadly, not (as far as we know) Johnson. The conclusion of Elizabeth’s tour was saddened by the death of her mother; shortly after her return home she also lost her last surviving sibling, Ann Graeme Stedman. As diversion in the midst of her woes, she immersed herself in literary composition and translation.

In 1772 Elizabeth married Henry Hugh Fergusson, with whom she settled at Graeme Park. During the American Revolution Henry sided with the British; he eventually fled to England, abandoning Elizabeth. Because of his pro-British activities, in 1778 Graeme Park was confiscated; although Elizabeth was able to reclaim it in 1781, she was later forced to sell the property when it proved uneconomic to run. Her last years were cheered by the companionship of her close friend and relative Betsy Stedman; Elizabeth died in 1801.

Quite when Elizabeth first became aware of Johnson is unclear; she was, however, certainly familiar with his writings in his lifetime. Following the confiscation of Graeme Park, an inventory and valuation of its contents was made on 17 September 1778 with a view to its sale. The inventory included Elizabeth’s much-treasured library, in which were ‘4 volumes of the Rambler’ (valued at one pound ten shillings).

Evidence of her enthusiasm for another of Johnson’s writings appears in a letter that she wrote on 21 April 1786 to her close friend Dr Benjamin Rush, in which she praises The Lives of the Poets as ‘a work which ex[c]ites wonder, when one recollects the compiler was on the verge of fourscore’; in this letter she also describes Johnson as ‘a miracle’ and ‘a wonder of a Man’. Elizabeth’s most sustained expression of her admiration for Johnson, however, is found in a work which she wrote in 1787: ‘A Tribute to British and American Genius: in two Odes on the Litchfield Willow’.

The Lichfield Willow (Johnson’s Willow) in July 1785

The Gentleman’s Magazine for July 1785 had carried an article by the Lichfield antiquary Richard Greene about Johnson’s interest in a huge willow tree growing in Lichfield (now known as ‘Johnson’s Willow’). Elizabeth was inspired by this to write her first Willow ode in praise of Johnson and the other distinguished figures associated with Georgian Lichfield – such as Garrick and Anna Seward – who might have walked or studied under the Willow’s boughs. To further boost the tree’s claim to fame, she created for it an ancestry stretching right back to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, and passing through the gardens of classical Greece and Rome before arriving in Lichfield. In this way, Elizabeth made the history of the Lichfield Willow a metaphor for the transmission of culture from ancient times to modern Britain – a theme she continued in her second Willow ode, in which she expressed the hope that a cutting from the Lichfield Willow would one day arrive in America to symbolise the onward migration of civilisation from the Old World to the New.

In the first Willow ode, the figure receiving by far the most attention is Johnson himself; Elizabeth’s tribute to him (and to his Willow) includes the following:

Sure Phoebus Son was Johnson namd
He various talents Shard!
Verse, Genius, Knowlege, Wisdom claimd
A Genuine Bard Declard!

His native Soil he oft Retrod,
which Reard this wondrous Tree;
With filial Love markd the abode
Of Both their Infancy.

Thus when in Future each is known
to Bloom with lengthd years
He like His kindred Willow Show
yet Vernal both appears!

Then Peace atend His Hallowd Shade
The Christian, Poet, Sage;
Who gave to Virtue evry aid
to Vice His keenest Page!

In a note to the last stanza quoted above, Elizabeth explains the warmth of her admiration for Johnson’s literary skills:

When we consider the various kinds of Composition that Dr Johnson excelld in, it is to be hopd this Eulogium will not appear too high Carrid; for the Hero of the Willow Groupe, His Dictionary, His Lives of the Poets, His Ramblers, His Poems, His Tragedies [sic], His Moral Alegorical Novel the Prince of Abyssina all excellent in their kind   E F

Johnson also wins praise in the first Willow ode for his humanitarian acts, such as his rescue of a dying prostitute whom he found on Fleet Street, his (unsuccessful) interventions on behalf of the convicted fraudster Dr William Dodd, and his generosity towards his black servant, Francis Barber.

Elizabeth had hoped that her Willow odes would (like a number of her other compositions) appear in The Columbian Magazine; for some reason, however (possibly because of difficulties in deciphering her handwriting), this did not happen. Brief extracts were quoted in books and articles, but the full text of the odes remained in manuscript until the appearance of the first complete edition in 2020. Whatever their status as poetry, the Willow odes are of great interest from a variety of perspectives – and not least to admirers of Samuel Johnson, that ‘wonder of a Man’, as Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson described him.

‘The Hero of the Willow Groupe’: Samuel Johnson

Fergusson’s ‘Odes’ are available to purchase from the Birthplace Bookshop, or email for details on how to place a postal order.