Dr Samuel Johnson’s birthplace, Lichfield, Staffordshire: a man of many words

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Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) was born in this house, to parents who ran a bookshop from the ground floor. They did not prosper in business too well and money was always tight. Samuel was a sickly baby and was born with a deaf ear and a blind eye and not believed to survive too long. Fortunately he grew up to be tall and powerfully built with intelligence, wit and charm although he suffered with a form of Tourette’s Syndrome where tics and gesticulations were frequently displayed.

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At grammar school he best enjoyed Latin and Greek literature which fired him up for his attendance at Oxford University. Someone took pity on his poverty stricken state and left him a brand new pair of shoes outside the door to his lodges. Samuel was furious in his humiliation and left university.

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He returned to Lichfield and assisted his father in the bookshop. He was always prone to depression but this was eased somewhat when he met Gilbert Warmsley, a Lichfield Cathedral official who introduced him to many sociable and interesting people who encouraged him to come to life in their stimulating company.

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Samuel later travelled to London with his actor friend David Garrick, both seeking their fortune. Samuel’s very much enjoyed the capital stating the famous line “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford”.

Johnson and Garrick both found fame in their respective crafts and enjoyed being celebrities of their day. Samuel said “I was miserably poor and thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit”. He gained employment writing articles and poems for “Gentleman’s Magazine”

Another good friend of Samuel’s was James Bosworth, a travel writer, diarist and lawyer who documented Samuel’s life. They enjoyed much playful bantering.

Johnson: well we had a good talk

Boswell: yes sir, you tossed and gored several persons.

On stepping down from his London coach to meet Boswell in Edinburgh, Samuel quipped “I smell you the dark” referring the the lack of sanitation in the Scottish city at that time.

Samuel and Boswell mincing along Edinburgh High Street. The cartoonist was a form of modern day paparazzo.

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On entertaining James back on his home turf Samuel relayed “I turned him loose in Lichfield that he might see for once real civility”.

Samuel first met his wife Elizabeth (“Tetty” as he called her) when she was married to a shop keeper and had 3 children. After her husband’s death Tetty and Samuel married in Derby in 1735 when she was 46 and he just 25. They enjoyed a happy life together however only one of Tetty’s children, Lucy, stayed in touch with her following the remarriage.

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Samuel worked on his version of the English dictionary for 10 years and it was published in 1755. He recognised the influential tome as dull work yet confirmed “I knew very well what I was undertaking, and very well how to do it and have done it very well”. The king thought so too and later gave him a generous pension in gratitude of his literally contribution to the country.

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Blackadder and dim Prince George entertain Dr Johnson following the completion of his wordy project:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOSYiT2iG08

When Samuel’s beloved Tetty died he could not attend her funeral so raw was his grief. He wrote the sermon which the reverend refused to read since he objected to the amplified praise of the deceased. Samuel’s words were eventually published after his death where he described Tetty as “beautiful elegant, talented and dutiful”.

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More of Dr Johnson’s artefacts:

Shoe buckles.

Shoe buckles

Crocodile bib clip.

Crocodile bib clip

Breakfast table.

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Writing tablets in a Moroccan case.

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Ivory writing tablets.

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Chocolate pot set imported from China. Chocolate was a luxury at this time.

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Armchair made in 1760 in England and taken from his final home in Bolt Court, London.

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Half penny token coins commissioned in Samuel’s honour by a pub landlord.

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Samuel Johnson received his doctorate 26 years after leaving Oxford University in distress. He died of pulmonary fibrosis and is buried in Westminster Cathedral.

“Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place”.

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