I do love a good dictionary and Dr Johnson remains the master of the genre, three hundred years after he compiled his first such tome. This is why markontour and friends took a short detour to Lichfield on our long drive back to London from the English Lake District, for it was in this little Staffordshire city that Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 and his childhood home has be turned into a lovely museum and bookshop.
Then, as now, Lichfield was a small market town with a cathedral courtesy of Saint Chad, who settled here with a handful of followers in 669. Overs the years a shrine built up and Lichfield became known as a place of miracles, attracting a steady slew of pilgrims. Unfortunately, Chad had sited his church adjacent to a bog and so the shrine remained difficult to access until an enterprising thirteenth century bishop, seeking to increase revenues, erected a brick edifice by the cathedral, built a causeway to it and paved the adjacent streets, creating the basic layout of the city centre that survives to this day.
Samuel Johnson grew up a stone’s throw from where St. Chad was buried, surrounded by the books his father sold and which he read voraciously, despite an infant bout of scrofula which left him blind in one eye. The five floors of the house are now arranged in chronological order of Johnson’s life, starting in the basement where the family spent most of their time.
Samuel left home permanently after his father died in 1731 but returned annually, taking advantage of Lichfield’s mid-century status as a major staging post on the new cross-country coaching routes that sprang up as a result of Turnpike Act investment in roads. One of the first such licences permitted the tolling of the road between Lichfield and Burton upon Trent, where markontour grew up.
While Dr Johnson made his name in the capital and, indeed, is perhaps now best known for his judgement that “A man who is tired of London is tired of life”, he remained proud of his birthplace. On his frequent visits to Lichfield he joined the intellectual conversational circle convened by the biologist, Erasmas Darwin (grandfather and inspiration to Charles), and the poet, Anne Seward. A plaque in the museum records his his friend and biographer, James Boswell, quoting Johnson as promising to take him to Lichfield to show him “genuine civilised life”. A wall-plaque in one of the upstairs rooms tells us that Johnson, a renowned lover of a tipple or two, also bragged: “I remember when all the decent people in Lichfield got drunk every night and were not the worse thought of.”
Thanks to the museum dedicated to his memory, notable people have continued visiting Lichfield over the centuries, including two members a small private group of young literary types that also included one J.R.R. Tolkein. R. Gibson and B. Smith passed by Dr Johnson’s house on their way to meet with the Middle Earth creator, before going off to fight in the trenches of the First World War. The guest book shows their names appended with the letters “TCBS”, standing for Tea Club, Barrovian Society. It was a joke, but clearly also something of which they were proud and a symbol of their friendship. A year later Gibson and Smith were dead and Tolkein was bereft.
An early edition of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary takes pride of place on the top floor. One could spend a whole day reading the beautifully crafted definitions, but the word that caught markontour’s eye was “Hedgehog – an animal set with prickles, like thorns in an hedge.” Johnson slaved for a decade to complete his task and even referenced compiling a dictionary under his explanation of the word “dull”. According to the friendly and informative museum manager, Johnson had expected to get the job done in just three years, on the sound xenophobic principle that as a Frenchman had recently published a first dictionary in his language after nearly forty years of toil, an Englishman ought to be able to produce a dictionary in less than a tenth of the time.
Johnson gained fame from his lexicography and lived out his life on a royal pension, taking long excursions around Britain with Boswell, bringing his famed skills as a raconteur to the provinces, and often passing through Lichfield along the way. When he died in 1884 he left most of his wealth to his manservant, Frank Barber, a black former slave, whom had become his great friend and collaborator. The legacy caused a minor scandal in a country whose growing wealth and power was built on slave colonies and I can’t wait to get off the M25 and read Barber’s biography, purchased in the lovely little bookshop on the ground floor of the Johnson Museum. All in all, well worth the diversion, but now it’s my turn to drive again.