For Johnsonians in Lichfield there are two dates that we automatically add to our calendar at the start of every year: Johnson’s Birthday on September 18th, and the 2nd March. The Johnson Society commemorates 2nd March as it marks the end of the Lichfield years, the break with the Midlands for two of Lichfield’s most famous citizens. Both men were to achieve fame in London; David Garrick virtually overnight as an actor and manager; Samuel Johnson more slowly as a man of letters.
Johnson and Garrick most likely met as youths in the house of Gilbert Walmsley, but their association most famously grew as teacher and pupil during the 18 months that Johnson ran his school at Edial Hall. Following the failure of the venture, the two men left to find fortune in Lichfield, supported by a letter of introduction from Walmsley. Their 120-mile journey lasted seven days, with Garrick later claiming that they “rode and tied”, meaning that they shared one horse between them with one man riding on ahead, tying up the horse and the other catching up on foot. They shared fond memories of the journey in later life, which Johnson remembered making “with two pence halfpenny in my pocket.” In 2009, as part of Johnson’s 300th Birthday celebrations Nick Cambridge, then Chairman of the Johnson Society of London, and author Peter Martin, walked as much of the original route as possible and were received at a spectacular event at the Guildhall in the City of London, very unlike the reception of our intrepid travelers in 1737.
In addition to marking the date with the Annual Lecture, the unusual but charming tradition of the ‘Chair Ceremony’ is carried out by the Johnson Society at the Birthplace Museum on March 2nd. The oak chair which is the inspiration for the event is believed to have been used at Johnson School at Edial Hall, and is toasted with Sherry. Why is a chair toasted with Sherry? The answer lies in the provenance of the piece of furniture. When Samuel and Elizabeth left Edial, the gardener is said to have seized the chair in lieu of unpaid wages. We don’t have any evidence of this, but it certainly fits with our image of Johnson’s disorganised finances at this time. The Jacobean chair remained in the gardener’s family until his great grand-daughter sold it to a John Salter Gettings, who was a Doctor from Chasetown in Staffordshire. It was sold at auction in New York in 1939 to a Mr Halstead Vanderpool, an archeologist from Washington and Rome. Mr Vanderpool gifted the chair to the Johnson Society in 1981. According to memories from Society members, a case of sherry also arrived from the donor as a token of Johnsonian association across the Atlantic, and the tradition of an annual toast was born.
The Toasts are: “Bon Voyage to Johnson and Garrick!” and “to the immortal memory of Samuel Johnson”. The response to which is a thoughtful silence.
The chair is on loan to the Birthplace Museum, where is can be seen in the Birth Room, alongside a larger oak settle which was also left behind in Edial. This year’s Johnson Society Lecture is Emily Ireson, Fashion & Social Historian on ‘‘Fashions and Fancy – Clothing the 18th Century Lady – From Excesses of Fabric, to the Bare Minimum’. find out more on the Johnson Society website