Doctor Johnson's Lichfield, StaffordshireThe great lexicographer, critic, essayist and wit Samuel Johnson was born and brought up in the small cathedral city of Lichfield in Staffordshire , spending all but brief periods of his life up to the age of 27 in and around the place. While it is also famed for its three-spired medieval cathedral , mention Lichfield and like as not the immediate association will be with Doctor Johnson.
The city, unsurprisingly, is extremely proud of its most famous son (though David Garrick the actor (a friend and pupil of Johnson) and the essayist Addison, a near contemporary of the great man, are close to Lichfield hearts too). Proof of the affection in the city can be seen in the naming of a road and of a pub for the man.
On the corner of Breadmarket Street and Market Street in the city stands a very fine Queen Anne house, three-storeys with a garret above, its external walls pink-washed in keeping with the period. This was where Johnson was born on September 18 1709. HIs parents both came from prosperous if not moneyed backgrounds, but they had gone down in the world by Johnson's childhood, though with a father who was a bookseller there were compensations for the studious child. This building was Johnson's home for most of his life until he was 27, and finally took a chance on his talent. It is now a museum dedicated to Samuel Johnson.
Affection in Lichfield for Johnson is by no means new ˆ in 1767 the authorities there gave him a 99-year lease on the house in which he had been born at the peppercorn rent of five shillings a year, enabling him to retain a property - and one close to his heart - in the city.
Opposite the Breadmarket residence there is a statue of the seated Johnson, bewigged and draped in a long cloak, in suitably contemplative pose. A new bronze statue for the city is planned to mark the tercentenary of his birth in September 2009.
The school in Dam Street, near the cathedral, where the infant Johnson learned to read, can still be seen, though it is now used for other purposes, in a pedestrianised area of independent shops with the striking backdrop of the cathedral beyond them. This narrow street gives a good feel for how the settlement may have been in Johnson's day, a feeling helped by the intelligent decision to keep traffic from it.
Equally sanely Lichfield has managed to retain many of its ancient buildings and even some of its early layout, and to keep those buildings well ˆ Tudor structures can be found in the place with authentic cream walls and brown beams rather than the mock version favoured by the Victorians with the black and white scheme we take to be original. The cathedral close is not to be missed in a visit to Lichfield.
The brilliant youngster went up to the ancient Lichfield Grammar School (founded in 1495) at the tender age of just nine, earning a reputation as a bright pupil, but a prolonged absence at the home of some cousins, during which he was tutored by a notable scholar, vexed the place, and though he wished to return to finish his studies he was banned from it - which perhaps is why his name, unlike his contemporaries Addison and Garrick, does not attach to one of the houses at the school, now called King Edward VI. The old school buildings can still be seen, on St John's Street where they were incorporated into the council offices some time ago.
Another site with Johnson connections is the Bishop's Palace, where he was a frequent and welcome visitor as a cultured man of the town.
The last place in the area that should be mentioned with reference to the life of Johnson was a fateful one: the school at Edial not far from the city. Here it was that Johnson, frustrated by his lack of success in obtaining teaching posts elsewhere, had decided to establish his own academy for young gentlemen. As he only ever attracted three pupils in the year or so he ran the place it nearly ruined him (and his wife Tetty, the source of his funds), and he was forced to seek his fortune in London. One of the pupils was the then 18-year-old David Garrick, the future great actor. On March 2 1737 Johnson and Garrick set out together for London, and the rest, as they say, is history.
If you like this, Share it
More Cultural Britain?