Visiting Lichfield: Dr Johnson’s birthplace

For someone so closely associated with London, the fact that references to Samuel Johnson abound in Lichfield – a city some 20 miles from Birmingham – may come as somewhat of a surprise.

From a community hospital taking his name to a statue in the market square and a mural nearby, the man best known for publishing the first complete dictionary in 1755 seems to follow visitors around this city in the Midlands.

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

But for the early part of his life Johnson was based in the Midlands. In Lichfield’s main market square, the Samuel Johnson Birthplace museum is housed in the very building where, on 18th September 1709, the  writer was born. His father, Michael, was a bookseller and had moved into the newly-built five storey building the year before Samuel was born.

Samuel Johnson Birthplace museum

On the ground floor – now a secondhand bookshop and entrance to the museum – was the Johnson family bookshop. The room behind was the parlour and had a door to Breadmarket Street, providing a separate domestic entrance for the building. And next to that was Michael’s workroom where he bound books and pamphlets for his customers. In here you can see a counter chair and cash box which was believed to have been used in the bookshop.

In the basement was the simple kitchen where nine-year Johnson is depicted sitting besides the fire on his father’s chair reading a copy of Hamlet by Shakespeare, an author he would remain interested in through his life. In 1765 Johnson edited a complete edition of Shakespeare’s works. Living surrounded by so many books clearly had an enormous influence on the young Johnson.

The upper floors, which were bedrooms, now house a series of displays about Johnson’s life. On the first floor, you can can see the very room where he was born and find out more about his early life in the Midlands. After attending Lichfield Grammar School, he went to Pembroke College in Oxford but left during his second year as his parents couldn’t afford the fees.

Johnson moved to Birmingham where he established himself as a writer and also met Elizabeth Porter, who he married in 1735. The couple set up a school – Edial Hall in Lichfield – but it closed after just 18 months due to a lack of students and they left behind a string of debts.

London then came calling for Johnson, who was later joined in the capital by his wife. He travelled south at the age of 27 with friend his David Garrick, who had been one of the few pupils that did attend Edial Hall and would go on to be the most celebrated actor of his age. The pair are said to have shared a horse for their journey down to London to save money – alternating who walked and who rode on horseback.

Johnson picked up a variety of writing assignments, including commissions for the Gentleman’s Magazine. But the work didn’t pay particularly well and he and his wife struggled to make ends meet. In 1746 Johnson started work on his Dictionary, which he initially expected to take three years but in the end it took nine years to compile the 42,733 entries from his attic room at Gough Square, Fleet Street (now Dr Johnson’s House museum).

Working on A Dictionary of the English Language helped to make Johnson famous, but it still didn’t make him wealthy. In 1762 he was awarded a pension by king George III, which gave him the means to develop into a something of a celebrity. Johnson would go on to travel widely – including the Western Isles of Scotland with James Boswell in 1773 – and regularly spoke to the great and the good in exclusive gentlemens’ clubs.

Back in Lichfield, the house where Johnson was born remained a bookshop until the 19th century before it saw a variety of other uses, including that of a dental surgery and coffee shop. James Henry Johnson (no relation to Samuel) left it to the city council in 1900 to buy for a nominal amount of £250 and the following year it opened as a museum.

Just a few minutes walk from the Samuel Johnson Birthplace museum is Stowe Pool, an expanse of water which was regularly visited by the writer. On the north side is Johnson’s Willow – a tree first planted in the 18th century which acquired the ‘Johnson’s’ preface because of the interest he showed in it whenever he returned to Lichfield in later life.

The current tree (the fourth Willow here) was planted in 1959 to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. For the writer the spot on the north side of Stowe Poole had another reason for being important as nearby was his father’s parchment factory – a lost building commemorated in the street name, The Parchments. Johnson died on 13th December 1784 and was buried, near to David Garrick, in Westminster Abbey. But the writer won’t be forgotten in Lichfield anytime soon.

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