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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on several busts clinging to the edge of life on the balcony, looking down on us. This week the focus is on Samuel Johnson. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Bust of Johnson in the Octagon

Bust of Johnson by Francis Verheyden commissioned by the People's Palace c. 1888.

His Early Life

Samuel was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire on 7th September 1709, according to contemporary Old Style English dating (when the Calendar in England changed in 1752, he then celebrated 18th September as his birthday). His father was Michael Johnson, a native of Derbyshire, who settled in Lichfield as a bookseller and stationer. His mother was Sarah Ford, whose background was from the yeomanry in Warwickshire.

Both his parents were in advanced years when they married. They had two sons, Samuel and Nathaniel. At the age of twenty-five Nathaniel died. When Samuel was born, he had a difficult birth; he did not cry and there were concerns for his health.  After some time his health improved slowly. He was given a Wet Nurse but later he contracted scrofula, known at the time as the "King's Evil" because it was thought royalty could cure it. It recommended that the young Johnson should receive the “royal touch” and he did so from Queen Anne on 30 March 1712. This was unsuccessful and his illness left him with permanent scars across his face and body.

Despite a difficult start in life Johnson was a quick learner. He displayed signs of great intelligence as a child and his parents, to his later disgust, would show off his "newly acquired accomplishments”. His education began at the age of three, and was provided by his mother, who had him memorise and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer.

When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, 'Sam, you must get this by heart.' She went up stairs, leaving him to study it: But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. 'What's the matter?' said she. 'I can say it,' he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it more than twice.

Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell 1791

Samuel’s early education was at Lichfield Grammar School where he excelled in Latin. His father was steadily growing in debt, and he began to help his father in the bookshop with stitching books. Here he took the opportunity to read and built up his literary knowledge. The family remained in poverty until the death of his mother’s cousin, when she left enough money for Johnson to go to university. At the age of nineteen he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. Unfortunately, it was a brief stay due to an ongoing lack of money. Unable to find work, he drifted into a writing career and in 1735, he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow more than 20 years his senior.

Working Life

Title page of A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson

Two years after his marriage Johnson decided to move to London in 1737. He struggled at first trying to support himself. He turned his hand to writing on various subjects through journalism. He contributed a lot to The Gentleman’s Magazine, working on his own poetry and drama, including the long satirical poem "London" which was published anonymously in 1738.

Gradually his reputation grew and by 1747 a syndicate of printers, including William Strahan, commissioned him to compile his Dictionary of the English Language. This was an enormous undertaking.

Title page from one of the editions of Johnson’s dictionary held in the rare books collection

The task took eight years, and Johnson employed six assistants, all of them working in his house off Fleet Street. The dictionary was published on 15 April 1755. It was not the first such dictionary, but it was certainly the most important at that time. In Johnson's lifetime five further editions were published, and a sixth came out when he died.

In 1763 Samuel Johnson met a twenty-two-year-old Scottish gentleman, James Boswell, who would famously go on to write an intimate, detailed biography of his friend, 1791’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson decided to take a grand tour of Boswell’s native Scotland, and they travelled together for three months. For Johnson this was quite an alien way of life as the customs, religion, education, trade and agriculture of the highlands and islands were very different to what he was used to. Samuel Johnson described his journey in a book called A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland 1775; Boswell also wrote about their experiences in A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1785. In Boswell’s recollections, he noted a particular conversation which gave rise to one of Johnson's most famous quotes:

We entered seriously upon a question of a much importance to me, which Johnson was pleased to consider with friendly attention. I had long complained to him that I felt myself discounted in Scotland, as too narrow a sphere, and I wished to make my chief residence in London, the great scene of ambition, instruction, and amusement; a scene which was to me. Comparatively speaking, a heaven upon earth.

Johnson: “Why, Sir, I never knew any one who had such a gust for London as you have; and I cannot blame you for your wish to live there”...

...I suggested a doubt that if I were to reside in London, the exquisite zest with which I relished it in occasional visits might go off, and I might grow tired of it.

Johnson: “Why, sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

In 1781, Johnson at last completed his Lives of the English Poets, of which he gave this account: “Some time in March I finished the ‘Lives of the Poets,’ which I wrote in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste.” Johnson’s original thinking was to have a sixty-volume work with a biographical introduction on each of the poets. Eventually they were published as separate volumes in their own right making them very popular.

Johnson became one of the leading lights of the literary world in London. He rubbed shoulders with artist and writers. Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and his very good friend David Garrick.  Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and Member of Parliament, and his wife Hester became his friends and Samuel Johnson treated their home as his second home and became part of their family.

Johnson died in 1784 at the age of 75, leaving behind a substantial body of pioneering works of literary criticism, lexicography and biography. On Monday 13 December, the day on which he died, a Miss Morris, a daughter of a particular friend of his called, and begged to be permitted to see the Doctor, that she might earnestly request him to give her his blessing. Johnson turned himself in the bed, and said, “God bless you, my dear!” These were the last words he spoke.

A few days before his death, he had asked Sir John Hawkins, as one of his executors, where he should be buried, and received the answer, “Doubtless, at Westminster Abbey.” Accordingly, on Monday, 20 December 1784, his remains were deposited in that noble, renowned edifice; and over his grave was placed a large blue flagstone, with the inscription:


Obiit XIII die Decembris

Anno Domini


Ætatis fuæ LXXV.

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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