14 September 2019

Lichfield celebrates
Samuel Johnson’s 310th
birthday this weekend

Samuel Johnson in the winter darkness and with the Christmas lights in the Market Square in Lichfield last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Today marks the 310th Birthday of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer, who compiled the first standard dictionary in the English language, and who is also commemorated the calendar of saints in Common Worship in the Church of England.

As part of Lichfield’s Heritage Festival, the man of many words is being celebrated this weekend with a series of fun activities throughout the day.

In the Samuel Johnson Birthplace and Museum, which is open from 10:30 to 4:30, they are continuing an annual tradition of offering free birthday cake for all visitors – while stocks last – and the Small Print Company is giving visitors an opportunity to print their very own posters using a traditional press.

The formal civic celebration takes place on the Market Square at 12 noon and is followed by demonstrations from different groups, including the Three Spires Morris dancers, Wildfire Folk and the City of Lichfield Concert Band.

Saint Michael’s Church on Greenhill is open from 10am to 6pm. This 13th century church, set within the oldest churchyard in England, has a memorial to Samuel Johnson’s family.

As part of the Birthday Celebrations, the Lichfield Poets are reading a selection of ‘Nature Poems’ this afternoon. They are meeting in the Monks Walk Garden at 2:15.

‘Georgian Jono,’ Jonathan Oates, is signing copies of his new book, The A-Z of Lichfield, in Lichfield Library from 1 pm to 3 pm.

A Pool Walk with Saint Chad meets outside Saint Mary’s in the Market Square at 2:30 and is an opportunity to learn more about Saint Chad, his contemporaries and the Midland saints. The programme also offers guided tours of the Guildhall and Dr Milley’s Hospital.

As part of the celebrations, the Samuel Johnson Society holds its annual candle-lit supper this evening in the Guildhall. Guests will be addressed by the new President, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. He is speaking on the subject of Samuel Johnson and the tradition of Tory Anarchism.

The vote of thanks to the incoming president is being proposed by the Lichfield author and blogger Annette Rubery.

A walk to the Sandfields pumping station and guided walks of the Lichfield Canal restoration is being offered today and tomorrow by the Lichfield Waterworks Trust and Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust. This includes a walk along part of the line of the tunnel under Lichfield to the Sandfields pumping station.

Walkers may then take an optional guided walk along the trails and towpaths of the nearby Fosseway Heath section of the Lichfield Canal, and there is a free heritage bus ride back to the city centre, stopping off at the restored Gallows Wharf.

The Calendar in Common Worship in the Church of England commemorates Samuel Johnson on 13 December.

Johnson was a devout Anglican and a compassionate man whose works are permeated with his morality. His faith did not prejudice him against others, and he respected members of other churches who demonstrated a commitment to the teachings of Christ. He admired John Milton’s poetry but could not tolerate his Puritan and Republican beliefs. He was a Tory, yet he opposed slavery and once proposed a toast to the ‘next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies.’

He would write on moral topics with such authority and in such a trusting manner that one biographer could say: ‘No other moralist in history excels or even begins to rival him.’

Shortly before his death, Johnson composed an inscription for a floor slab in the centre of the nave in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, to commemorate his father, Michael Johnson (died 1731), his mother, Sarah Johnson (died 1759), and his brother, Nathaniel Johnson (died 1737), who were all buried in the church.

The original stone was removed when Saint Michael’s was repaved in the late 1790s, but it was replaced with the same inscription in 1884 to mark the centenary of Samuel Johnson’s death.

On his last visit to church, the walk strained Johnson. However, while there he wrote a prayer for his friends, the Thrale family: ‘To thy fatherly protection, O Lord, I commend this family. Bless, guide, and defend them, that they may pass through this world, as finally to enjoy in thy presence everlasting happiness, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.’

In his last prayer, on 5 December 1784, before receiving Holy Communion and eight days before he died, Samuel Johnson prayed:

Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits, and his mercy; enforce and accept my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption. Have mercy on me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends; have mercy upon all men. Support me, by the grace of thy Holy Spirit, in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

As he lay dying, Samuel Johnson’s final words were: ‘Iam Moriturus’ (‘I who am about to die’). He fell into a coma and died at 7 p.m. on 13 December 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey a week later.

I am going to miss the opportunity to enjoy any of these events this weekend, but I am back in Lichfield next week to speak at Lichfield Civic Society on Tuesday evening [17 September 2019] on the story of the Comberford family of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Lichfield Street, Tamworth.

The Samuel Johnson Birthplace and Museum at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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