VSivilization comes in many sizes and, for Dr. Samuel Johnson, compiler of A dictionary of the English language (1755), his home town of Lichfield was a microcosm of an educated and orderly society. He once wrote of a visit to the Staffordshire town with his faithful biographer James Boswell: “I recently took my friend and showed him real civilized life in an English country town. I dropped it at Lichfield.
It’s a trip worth repeating this summer, especially if you include a visit from Samuel Johnson Birthplace museum and bookstore, located near the old cathedral of the city. The great lexicographer was born on September 18, 1709, in this house, built by his bookseller father, who ran his business from the ground floor.
I discovered the museum during a visit in 2017, when I stayed half an hour away in Atherstone. I was struck by the orderly ecclesiastical layout of downtown – like something out of Anthony Trollope. My teenage son, a reluctant companion, could have skipped our visit to the three-spired cathedral, but he was drawn in by Johnson’s obsession with words and his idea that their meaning should be inscribed. He still remembers “the dictionary man”, but nothing else about Lichfield.
The museum’s Georgian rooms overlooking Breadmarket Street are adorned with portraits, amusing quotes and the kind of outdated definitions that will amuse any Wordle or Scrabble fan. But the museum also pays homage to Johnson’s earnest project, which truly shaped the intellectual world.
Although Johnson excelled at Lichfield and Stourbridge grammar schools and was duly sent to Oxford, his college career was cut short when his family fell on hard times and he had to cut his education short. After failing to make a living from journalism, translation and teaching, he moved to London in desperation, alongside his equally ambitious friend, budding theater star David Garrick. The old story goes that they took turns walking and riding, as they had only one horse between them.
Johnson worked for eight years on the dictionary that made his name, aided by six assistants, all doing research inside his home near Fleet Street. Today this house at 17 Gough Street is also a small museum and is perhaps better known as Lichfield’s birthplace. Both, however, celebrate his legendary wit and wisdom, whose reputation was greatly enhanced in 1791 with the publication of Boswell’s The life of Samuel Johnson.
Although London was where Johnson and his aphorisms first impressed literary society, let’s admit that, despite the fact that his most popular quote asserts that every man tired of London is tired of everything, Lichfield really works like an antidote to all the fuss. of the capital.
This year the Lichfield Time Travelers the app will allow you to access a dozen ‘time portals’, providing access to information on key historic locations in Lichfield, including the imposing house of Erasmus Darwin, father of Charles.
Johnson loved walking the city streets and touring the city in the footsteps of the great man sets you up for a dangerous urge to concoct fake Johnson quotes, all beginning, of course, with his apostrophe “Sir!”. It’s probably best, however, to fall back on the true genius of this phrase-maker.
One of Johnson’s lesser-known wisdoms really sets the tone for this Lichfield museum: “Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”