Johnson: “a longer stay”

Image: The Old Square. From a print of William Westley, 1732. R K Dent, Old and New Birmingham, (Birmingham, 1879)

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Boswell visited and corresponded with Hector after Johnson’s death and obtained from him details of Johnson’s life. A mural tablet, commemorating the life and work of Edmund Hector who died in 1794 is to be found in St Philip’s Church. Today only a modern sculpture in the traffic island called Old Square, opened officially in 1998, makes reference to the house in the original Old Square, in which Hector and the Lloyds had lived and which Johnson visited on many occasions.  Simply known as the Square at the time, it was the site of the ancient Priory of St Thomas the Apostle, some remnants of which were still in existence when Hutton wrote his history of Birmingham and when Johnson visited it. A print by the architect of the complex, William Westley, shows a range of houses on all four corners of the square with the centre enclosed and adorned with trees and shrubs. “From this pleasantly situated spot at that time”, writes Dent, one could see “the Rowley Hills, the villages of Oldbury, Smethwick, Handsworth, Sutton Coldfield, Erdington, and Saltley, as well as most of the suburbs on the southern side of the town.”   Depicted in the mural with a pointed index finger next to Edmund Hector, Samuel Johnson is n integral to the city’s heritage. One could almost hear him say, “a few years ago I just saluted Birmingham…but when I come again I shall surely make a longer stay.” (Letters, i: 260; 291).

Johnson and Matthew Boulton

Image: J S C Schaak, Portrait of Matthew Boulton aged 42 (1770).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

By 1776 Birmingham was the largest industrial town outside London.  One expression of Birmingham’s success was the Soho Works of Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), which in 1771 employed 700 hundred hands in the largest hardware manufactory in the world.  Johnson visited Boulton’s manufactory in 1774 with the Thrales and his brief entry for his visit reads: “we went to Boultons, who with great civility led [us] through his shops”. Boulton became the most prominent Birmingham entrepreneur of his day and partnered James Watt to develop an improved version of Newcomen’s engine and the Soho Manufactory attracted many visitors from home and abroad.

James Boswell recorded the visit that he made with Johnson to the Soho Works on 22 March 1776. They were shown round by Boulton, “the very ingenious proprietor” who behaved like “a father to his tribe”. He was impressed by the technology and noted that “the vastness and the contrivance of the machinery would have matched his [Johnson’s] mighty mind”. Deeply impressed by Boulton’s reflection “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desire to have, – POWER”, Boswell recorded it for posterity (Life, ii: 32).

It is worth noting that “power” in The Dictionary is defined in thirteen senses ranging from “command, dominion, influence” (1), “influence; prevalence upon” (2), “ability; force; reach” (3) and “faculty of the mind” (7). Sense 5 is formulated as “the moving force of an engine”.  Aware of the deeply rooted significance of the concept of power, Johnson recognized its physical as well as its intellectual and psychological properties.

Johnson, John Taylor and Henry Clay

Image: Portrait of John Taylor. Lantern Slide.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In another letter to Hector dated 7 December 1765, Johnson referred to his edition of The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare. It was to be sold by subscription and the letter suggested that Hector might have expressed a wish to sell copies in Birmingham (Letters, i: 260). The letter suggests that one of the subscribers to Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare’s works could well have been John Taylor, the Birmingham merchant who made his fortune in the gilding and japanning trade. Referring to Taylor as “my old Friend”, Johnson was probably introduced to him in 1732 whilst staying with Hector in Birmingham.

Taylor probably introduced the making of gilt buttons to Birmingham, which became one of its staple trades. In 1755 a visitor to the factory wrote that there were 500 people employed in the manufacture of buttons and snuff-boxes, and the products were finished by three processes: gilding, plating and enameling or japanning.  William Hutton, in admiration of Taylor’s ingenious spirit said that he may justly be deemed the Shakespeare or Newton of Birmingham. He acknowledged that “to this uncommon genius we owe the gilt button, the japanned and gilt snuff-box, with the numerous race of enamels” (Hutton: 73).  Boswell calls Taylor one of Johnson’s “valuable” acquaintances and refers to his “ingenuity in mechanical inventions, and his success in trade” (Life, i:86). A prominent leader of the industrial community in Birmingham and recognizing the need for capital in the development and expansion of business, John Taylor joined with Sampson Lloyd II in founding Birmingham’s first bank in 1765, Taylor & Lloyd. Sadly, when Boswell visited Birmingham with Johnson in 1776, he saw neither Taylor nor Baskerville since they had both died the previous year.

On 20/21 September 1774, Johnson wrote in the Diary, “We breakfasted with Hector and visited the Manufacture Papier mache. The paper which they use is smooth whited brown; the varnish is polished with rotten stone” (i: 220). He was referring to his visit to Henry Clay’s factory where he saw “his process of japanning by pressing sheets of paper together instead of using paper pulp”. Clay had been trained by Baskerville in the art of japanning and among the materials finished with enamel was a kind of paper pulp, used for making various objects, such as snuff-boxes and picture frames. Baskerville may have introduced the process in about 1750, but in 1772 Clay produced and patented a material. This was also made from paper but more durable, more easily worked and capable of receiving a better finish. Taking an active part in the life of Birmingham society, Clay was chosen High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1790, and was one of the significant revolutionary players of 18th century Birmingham.

Johnson and John Baskerville

Image: Portrait of John Baskerville (1706-1775), Type Founder and Printer, painted by James Millar in 1774. Oil on canvas.

Image from: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

As a Midlands figure, Johnson met Matthew Boulton, John Baskerville, the Lloyds, John Taylor and Erasmus Darwin, amongst many other prominent revolutionary players.

In a letter to Edmund Hector dated 15 April 1755, the year The Dictionary came out, Johnson recalled with much tenderness the evenings they had passed together at Warren’s and the Swan (Letters, i: 104).  He mentioned briefly that John Baskerville (1706-75) had been to see him.  Baskerville had used the profits from a successful japanning business in Birmingham to set up his own press on his estate in 1750, and established himself as a typographical designer.  Baskerville’s ingenuity allowed him to oversee the whole operation: design, the making of paper and preparation of ink, as well as the work of the presses and probably the binding of books.

Johnson liked to assist behind the scenes and it may not be coincidental that in 1756 a circulation of proposals for an edition of Virgil, to be set in type to his own design, first drew attention to Baskerville’s work. In 1769 Johnson proudly presented a copy of Baskerville’s Virgil (1757) to Thomas Warton at Trinity College, Oxford, and desired it to be reposited on the shelves in his name for the many years he had used the library, to “recompense the College for that permission” (Letters, i: 323).  There is no existing correspondence between Johnson and Baskerville, and what is uncertain is the degree to which Johnson was responsible for Baskerville’s choice of printed works, many of them literary works of great merit, by authors particularly favoured by Johnson.  For example, Baskerville’s magnificent edition of the Aeneid (1757) by Virgil, whose poems Johnson translated and discussed in his essays, sold at one guinea. In 1758 Baskerville printed an octavo edition of the Poems of John Milton whose genius Johnson admired, saying of him in his Life of Milton that he was surpassed only by Homer (Lives, i: 189).  In connection with the printing of an edition of the New Testament in Greek, a paragraph in the St James’s Chronicle, Sept. 5th 1758, reads:

The University of Oxford have lately contracted with Mr Baskerville of Birmingham for a complete alphabet of Greek types, of the great primer size; and it is not doubted but that the ingenious artist will excel in that character, as he has already done in the Roman and Italic in his elegant edition of Virgil.

Johnson kept close links with the University of Oxford throughout his literary career and he exercised his influence to secure the commissioning of John Gwynn for the building projects of the covered market and Magdalen Bridge in Oxford. Could it be that it was also due to his support that Baskerville was successfully contracted?  In 1761 Baskerville published a quarto edition of the works of Joseph Addison, admired by Johnson for the way in which “he presented knowledge in the most alluring form, not lofty and austere, but accessible and familiar” (Lives, ii: 146). Then came out an octavo in three volumes of the Dramatic Works of Congreve, and works by classical authors that Johnson admired: Juvenal, Persius, Horace, Lucretius, Catallus, Tibbullus and others. Baskerville’s folio Cambridge edition of the Bible in 1763 was acknowledged as the finest example of typography ever produced. It was followed by an edition of the Book of Common Prayer and a quarto edition of Barclay’s famous Apology for the Quakers which became a subject of heated discussion with the Lloyds during Johnson’s visit to Birmingham with Boswell in 1777.

Johnson, the Society of Arts and the Transformation of the Cotton Industry

Image: Masson Mill, Matlock Bath, near Cromford, Derbyshire. This factory was built by Sir Richard Arkwright, the man who was responsible for introducing factory production to the cotton industry.

Image from: Photograph by Malcolm Dick

In the 1760s when Johnson was active in the Society of Arts, two prizes were offered by the committee for the best machine that would spin six threads at once. The Society’s unofficial secretary at the time, Robert Dossie, wrote that interest in this invention had been aroused by hearing of Lewis Paul’s unsuccessful attempt some twenty years before.  A careful reading of Paul’s patent revealed that his technical difficulty of giving a twist to the yarn had not been overcome. Dossie may well have come by this information through Johnson. Curiously, in order to give Dossie his vote to be a member of the Society, he paid up an arrear which had run on two years (Life, iv: 11).  Thus, Brown may be right in his supposition that, if Johnson did suggest making award for spinning inventions, the English cotton industry should be indebted to him for support and encouragement when it was most needed.  Without the preliminary experimentation, subsidized by the Society of Arts, Richard Arkwright could not have succeeded in building his composite spinning machine.  Despite its failure, the invention of Paul and Wyatt helped to lay the foundations of modern spinning machinery. It was the principle of spinning by rollers, patented by Paul in 1738 and 1758 that was taken up by Arkwright and developed into a commercially successful enterprise.

Johnson, John Wyatt and Lewis Paul: Improvements to Cotton Spinning

Image: Spinner. The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts, Part III, third edition (London Tabart and Co, 1806). John Wyatt and Lewis Paul began the process of transforming cotton spinning from a domestic industry to factory production. 

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

Johnson’s keen interest in applied science is firmly connected with the early years of his sojourn in Birmingham, although he burnt his diaries which would have contained more detailed information. Correspondence suggests that for nearly twenty years from 1738, Johnson was engaged in advising, making arrangements and healing quarrels between Thomas Warren, John Wyatt and Lewis Paul in connection with the first “spinning by rollers” for the cotton industry. Much of the evidence relating to the history of their attempts to establish the manufacture: letters, account books, the estimates of costs and day-books and ledgers perished in the disastrous fire of January 1897 at Birmingham Reference Library. Thirteen letters from Johnson to Lewis Paul survive, spanning the period from 1741 to 1756 and are concerned with the Midlands and the first roller spinning machine of Wyatt and Paul.  The letters were printed by Birkbeck Hill in his first edition of the Letters.

John Wyatt was a native of Thickbroom, a village near Lichfield and was related to the family of Johnson’s mother, Sarah Ford. He had worked as a carpenter in Lichfield until he moved to Birmingham to work on the invention of a spinning machine in the early 1730s.  The earliest mention of this machine is in a letter from Wyatt to one of his brothers, written in 1733 where he states that he “intends residing in or near Birmingham”.  In another letter to his brother, Wyatt writes that he was “shut in a small building near Sutton Coldfield” with his little machine, spinning the first thread of cotton ever produced by mechanical means.

The project was not a commercial success and after the failure of the enterprise to which Thomas Warren, Edward Cave and Dr Robert James subscribed, Wyatt worked at Boulton’s Soho Foundry where he invented and perfected the compound level weighing machine. In great demand at the time, Wyatt supplied weighing machines to the Corporations of Chester, Hereford, Gloucester, Liverpool and other places. Some of Wyatt’s documents reveal the versatility of his talents and were bequeathed to Birmingham Central Library. He was engaged in the design of bridges and canals and the invention of fire engines and other mechanical devices. Wyatt died in 1766 and was buried in the grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral.


In his study of Johnson’s letters to Lewis Paul, Wyatt’s partner, John J Brown traced the writer’s likely personal involvement with the invention which laid the foundations for modern spinning machinery.  According to Brown, Paul was the main mover behind the project and had conceived the novel plan of elongating cotton threads by running them between sets of rollers where they would be stretching them by having the second set revolving faster than the first. Paul then brought his idea to Wyatt, a skilled mechanic and inventor. Between 1730 and 1733 they developed the first roller spinning machine. Brown argues that Wyatt would not have been able to carry through his idea without the mechanical assistance of Lewis Paul, who in 1738 took out a patent on a spinning machine operated by rollers revolving at different velocities.

Johnson’s letters refer to the project’s difficulties, affirm his sympathetic disposition towards it and display the discretion with which he tried to assist as umpire between Wyatt and Paul. In a letter to Paul on 31 March 1741, Johnson advised: “I believe the most eligible method of determining this vexation affair will be that each party should draw up in a narrow compass his own state of the case and his demands upon the other”.  He requested that “each abate somewhat, of which himself or his friend may think due to him by the laws of rigid justice”.

Fifteen years later Johnson tried to secure support for another of Paul’s enterprises. On 12 March 1756 he wrote: “I am now thinking about Hitch [probably Charles Hitch, one of the proprietors of Johnson’s Dictionary], I am yet inclined to think he will lend money upon spindles, a security which he has found valid,” although a following letter noted: “it is impossible to guess what [may] be the answer when money is to be sought. Paul tried to get the spinning machine introduced to the Foundling Hospital and Johnson drafted a letter to the Duke of Bedford, the president of the Hospital. It proposed the erection of a machine for spinning cotton in the Hospital: “its structure being such that a mixed number of children from five to fourteen years may be enable by it to earn their food and clothing”. The letter features in Brownlow’s History of the Foundling Hospital and it is likely to have been written between 1757-9 since Paul died in 1759.  A passage of it betrays Johnson’s own unfailing criticism of the flaws in human nature and his sympathy for the plight of any projector who dared to work against the grain:

Mankind has prejudices against every new undertaking, which are not always

prejudices of ignorance.  He that only doubts what he does not know may be

satisfied by testimony, at least by that of his own eyes.  But a Projector has more

dangerous enemies, the envious and the interested, who will neither hear reasons nor

see facts and whose animosity is more vehement as their conviction is more strong.

In 1758 Paul took out a third patent for a spinning machine which was referred to by John Dyer in his poem The Fleece of 1757 and reviewed by Johnson in the Literary Magazine (No 12, 1757, 134-5).  Paul’s invention is twice mentioned in the poem: once, as “a spiral engine which, on an hundred spools, as hundred threads/with one huge wheel, by lapse of water, twines”; the second time, as “a circular machine, of new design,/ in conic shape: it draws and spins the thread/without the tedious toil of needless hands”.  Dyer admired Paul’s machine and its “upright spindles, which, with rapid whirl/ spin out, in long extent, an even twine”.

Johnson in Birmingham

Image: Westley’s East Prospect of Birmingham, c 1730. R K Dent, Old and New Birmingham, (Birmingham, 1879). The original plate provides the following description: “Birmingham, a Market Town in the County of Warwick, which by the art and industry of its Inhabitants, has for some years past, been render’d famous all over the World, for the rare choice and invention of all sorts of Wares and Curiositys, in Iron, Steel, Brass, &c; admir’d as well for their cheapness, as their peculiar beauty of Workmanship.” Johnson began his literary career in Birmingham at the time when this print was published.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

When Edmund Malone visited Johnson a few months before he died he found him engrossed in Hutton’s History of Birmingham. His connections with the town stretched back to his boyhood. Birmingham was without a bookshop in the early 18th century and he would have accompanied his father Michael who sold books there on market days. To release his melancholy, young Sam Johnson frequently walked to Birmingham and back.  From the mid-1760s Johnson paid yearly visits to the Midlands and often stopped in Birmingham to see his school friend Edmund Hector, who had moved from Lichfield in 1729 tom practice surgery. When the new Birmingham Hospital admitted its first patients in July 1779, Hector was on the list of the medical staff as a consulting surgeon.

Johnson made his first steps in his literary career in the town during the early 1730s.  James Boswell tells us that Thomas Warren, the first Birmingham bookseller, obtained “the assistance of his [Johnson’s] pen in furnishing some numbers of a periodical essay” for his paper, The Birmingham Journal, the first Birmingham newspaper (Life, i: 85). Little is known of its contents today, but there remains one single issue (No 28, May 21 1733), preserved in Local Studies at Birmingham Central Library. While lodging with Hector at Warren’s house “over the Swan Tavern in High Street”, and then at the house of a person named Jervis not far from the Castle Inn, where he might have met his future wife Elizabeth Porter, Johnson worked for Warren on the translation of Fr. Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia published in 1735.  Poorly printed on bad quality paper, it was Birmingham’s first published book, though it did not have Birmingham on its title page.  Instead the names of Bettesworth and Heath were inserted, well known London publishers, a “device” says Boswell, “only too common with provincial publishers” (Life, i: 87).

Johnson and Silk Production in Derby

Image: Plan of the Town of Derby showing the silk mill and china works in the top right-hand portion of the map. Rev Daniel Lysons and Samuel Lysons, Magna Britannia, being a Concise Topographical Account of the Several Counties of Great Britain, Volume the Fifth containing Derbyshire, (London, T Cadell and W Davies, 1817)

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

In 1774 Johnson visited the silk mill at Derby with the Thrales “where I remarked a particular manner of propagating motion from a horizontal to a vertical wheel.” He was also able to demonstrate some knowledge of the mechanical process (Letters, i: 170).  The silk mill was started between 1717 and 1721 by George Sorocold who built a mill for the Lombe brothers, beside the River Derwent to house machines copied from the Italians for “doubling” or twisting silk into thread. The original five-storey building housed twenty-six Italian winding engines which spun the raw silk on each of the upper three floors whilst the two lower ones contained eight spinning mills producing the basic thread.  Entered by a bridge, and with gates made by Robert Bakewell, the prominent Derby wrought-ironsmith, the site attracted many home and foreign tourists.

Boswell also visited the silk mills on 19 September 1777 “which Mr John Lombe had a patent for, having brought away the contrivance from Italy.” Not greatly interested in technology, he was a reluctant tourist of industrial sites but admitted that he had learnt from Johnson “not to think with dejected indifference of the works of art.” Boswell admired the simplicity of the machine and “its multiple operations”, and recommended William Hutton’s History of Derby, a book which he thought was “deservedly esteemed for its information, accuracy, and good narrative” (Life, iii: 164 & n. 1).  Written more like correspondence from an old friend than a historical record, Hutton’s History of Derby was an informative personal reflection of a man born into poverty in the town in 1723.

The son of a wool-comber, Hutton was an employees at the silk mills in Derby for seven years which he called “the most unhappy years of his life.” He recalled how “the threads are continually breaking; and to tie them is principally the business of children whose fingers are nimble”.  The long hours of work and low wages together with the severity of treatment were all part of his unhappy memories of child labour: “the inadvertencies of an infant, committed without design, can never merit the extreme of harsh treatment” (History of Derby, 208).  In 1750 Hutton settled in Birmingham, a town he had fallen in love with on a previous visit, where he established himself as a stationer and bookseller, setting up the first paper warehouse in 1756. Hutton’s History of Birmingham (1782) was an immediate success and went through a number of editions.

Johnson and Derby Porcelain

Image: The Four Quarters (Continents), c.1775.  These items date from the time of Samuel Johnson’s visit to Derby Porcelain in 1777.

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Derbyshire was famous for its industry as well as its natural resources of metals, minerals and water power. Since the mid-1750s Derby Porcelain had been manufactured at William Duesbury’s china works. In 1773 Duesbury acquired the right to use the royal crown to mark his ware and by the time of his death in 1786 it was one of the foremost producers of ceramics in Britain.

When Boswell and Johnson arrived in on 20 September 1777, they went to see “the manufactory of china there” together with the local physician Dr Butter.  Boswell admired the ingenuity of the artisans, their delicate art and the way in which they “fashioned clay into a cup, a saucer, or a tea-pot, while a boy turned round a wheel to give the mass rotundity”. He thought the china beautiful but agreed with the observation of Dr Johnson that it was too dear – an opinion Johnson was to confirm in a letter to Mrs Thrale:

I took Boswell yesterday to see Keddleston, and the silk mills, and china work

at Derby, he was pleased with all. The Derby China is very pretty, but I think

the gilding is all superficial, and finer pieces so dear, that perhaps silver vessels

of the same capacity may be sometimes bought at the same price. (Letters, i: 70).

In The Dictionary Johnson defines china or porcelain as “dimly transparent, partaking of the qualities of earth and glass” and he elaborates on the process of its manufacture whereby “by mingling two kinds of earth, of which one easily vitrifies; the other resists a very strong heat: when the vitrifiable earth is melted with glass, they are completely burnt”. Johnson owned a number of pieces of ceramic ware. The British Museum has a Chinese famille rose porcelain teapot datable to about 1775. At Pembroke College, Oxford, there is a Worcester blue and white mug of about 1775-80, said to have been used by Johnson to drink gruel when he visited the Master of Kettle Hall and a large blue and white Worcester tea-pot (or punch pot) of about 1765-70.  His Diary records a visit to Worcester in 1774: “We went to the China Ware-House and thereon to the Cathedral, its chapter house and cloister”, but no mention is made of any purchase of porcelain.

Johnson and the Midlands Landscape

Image: Group of Rocks called Mock Beggar Hall, Derbyshire. Visitors to Derbyshire, such as Samuel Johnson were struck by the grandeur of the landscape. Rev Daniel Lysons and Samuel Lysons, Magna Britannia, being a Concise Topographical Account of the Several Counties of Great Britain, Volume the Fifth containing Derbyshire, (London, T Cadell and W Davies, 1817)

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Throughout his writings Johnson always insisted that knowledge attained from observation and personal experience had to be added to that gained from books, for example in Rambler 177 (v: 168), Adventurer 85 (ii: 412).  In Adventurer 115, Johnson states that it is inadmissible to “teach what we don’t know” and irresponsible to “instruct others while we are ourselves in want of a means of communication of acquired knowledge in a pleasurable way”.

From the mid 1760s, Johnson made yearly visits to Birmingham, Lichfield, Derby and Ashbourne which he describes in his letters. On 3 July 1771 he wrote: “Last Saturday I came to Ashbourne”, and dismissing the discomforts of travelling, he proceeds to describe the beauties of his “native plain”, with spirited vigour at the sight of the Staffordshire canal:

I crossed the Staffordshire canal one of the great efforts of human labour and human contrivance, which from the bridge on which I viewed it, passed away on either side, and loses itself in distant regions uniting waters that Nature had divided, and dividing lands which Nature had united. (Letters, i: 366-7).

Apart from his succinct and vibrant style, the description betrays a bond with his Midlands. It also demonstrates his sense of pride in the progress that was taking place in the region. The Staffordshire Canal ran from the mouth of the River Derwent in Derbyshire to near Stone in Staffordshire as part of the Grand Canal from the Trent to the Mersey. In 1758 the Derbyshire-born canal pioneer James Brindley surveyed a route which he revised again in 1763-4. The Gentleman’s Magazine featured a plan of it in the year of Johnson’s travel to Derbyshire (GM July 1771, 286), and it was reproduced in Powell’s edition of the Letters (i: 256-7).

Johnson’s description creates a vivid image of the scene. Visible and lasting man-made structures, like lines stretched between two points prescribing security and direction, the bridge and the canal resembled finite pieces of space brought together. Separated from Nature’s whole, they were “uniting water that Nature had divided, and dividing lands which Nature had united”.  Johnson’s affinity to nature may have been reinforced by his early years in Staffordshire and his visits to Derbyshire, the latter being one of the English countries which combined industry, agriculture and the type of mountainous scenery that was attracting the 18th century traveller.

The Derbyshire historian Henry Kirke wrote, “we might claim Johnson as a Derbyshire man”.  Johnson’s father and grandfather came from Cubley, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter at St Warburgh church in Derby on 9 July 1735 and after her death in 1752 the most plausible candidate for the role of his second wife was the Derbyshire lady, Hill Boothby.  Johnson may have contributed to the Derby Mercury, which began its publication in 1732 and was one of the most sophisticated provincial newspapers.  Johnson’s Diary of the 1774 tour of England and Wales with the Thrales begins with an account of Chatsworth, Matlock, Ashbourne, Derby and Dovedale.  Although Dovedale did not meet his expectations, his observation that “he that has seen Dovedale has no need to visit the Highlands”, suggests that the mountains and rivers of Derbyshire did not pale into insignificance beside the Scottish scenery which he had witnessed the previous year with Boswell on his tour of Scotland.

Johnson and Practical Improvement: Iron

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), The Black Smith’s Shop (1771). Oil on Canvas.

Image from: Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

In Idler 37 Johnson observes that the abundance of iron and the skilful extraction and preparation of the artisans, have contributed “so much to supply the want of nature”.  He compares iron to the “necessaries” of natural and moral life, and gold to its “superfluities”.  Thus, it is not to gold but to iron that we owe the civilized state of our society as gold “can never be hardened into saws or axes; it can neither furnish instruments of manufacturer, utensils of agriculture, nor weapons of defence” (ii: 11). Johnson acknowledges the versatility and potentials of iron and attributes its abundance and processing to “the difference between savage and polished life, between the state of him that slumbers in European palaces, and him that shelters himself in the cavities of rock from the chillness of the night, or the violence of a storm.”

Writing in July 1751, a visit to “the shop of the artificer” becomes a journey of discovery as raw materials are transformed into objects:  “the extremes however remote of natural rudeness and artificial elegance, are joined by regular concatenation of effects, of which every one is introduced by that which precedes it, and equally introduces that which is to follow” Rambler 137 (iv: 361). In other words the numerous processes of manufacture can be disentagled and traced in succession.  He put this to the test at a visit to an iron works at Holywell in Wales, where the artisans made good use of the water power. Johnson noted in his Diary: “I saw round bars formed by a notched hammer and anvil. Then I saw a bar of about half an inch or more wire, cut with sheers worked by water and then beaten hot into a thinner bar.” Each mill had a water-wheel with an extended axle and Johnson could see how “the hammers, all worked as they were by water, acting upon small bodies moved very quick as quick as by the hand”.  The power of adjoining water moved the water-wheel that “causes the hammer to be jerked up against the rubber”, and its head being free to fall under its weight, stroke the iron positioned on the anvil beneath it. (i: 186-7). “I then saw wire drawn, and gave a shilling”, ends his observation.

Johnson’s style, stripped of embellishment, conjures up a vivid image which calls to mind a series of compositions of smithies and forges by Joseph Wright of Derby, painted between 1771 and 1773.  They show ruddy-faced and hard-working smithies transforming pig iron into malleable iron which are drawn into bars.  Pure and applied science inspired the artistic vision of these two Midlanders.

“That iron forged is stronger than iron cast every smith can inform him [Mylne]”, writes Johnson in his letter of 8 December 1759, in defence of Gwynn’s project for Blackfriars Bridge, aware of the versatility of wrought iron. Since “the first excellence of a bridge is its strength, every judicious eye will discern it to be minute and trifling, equally unfit to make a part of a great design” and cast the bridge in individual pieces.  Arguing from the standpoint of his common sense, Johnson determines that should the bridge “be cast in large pieces, the fracture of a single bar must be repaired by a new piece”.  Johnson’s defence of wrought iron in preference to cast iron comes from the fact that the brittleness of cast iron hindered its use.  Cast iron had been used architecturally early in the 18th  century in the railings around St Paul’s Cathedral of 1710-1714 and the Senate House in Cambridge of about 1730.

Cast-iron though, had benefits over wrought iron. It was strong under compression, weather resistant and capable of being moulded into intricate shapes. It was also cheaper to produce. Two Midlanders, John Wilkinson and Abraham Darby III saw its potentials and came up with the daring proposition for a cast-iron bridge of a single arch of 120 feet spanning the Severn Gorge at Coalbrookdale. Commissioned in 1776 and finished in 1781, the Iron Bridge became, according to Julia Ionides, “a symbol of Shropshire and a dignified piece of industrial archaeology that forms an era of innovative bridge building, recognized around the world”.

Johnson, Bridges and John Gwynn

Image: John Gwynn’s Bridge over the River Severn at Worcester. Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn (1824)

Image from: Shropshire Archives

“The first excellence of a bridge built for commerce over a large river is strength; for a bridge which cannot stand, however beautiful, will boast its beauty but a little while”. This is how Johnson identifies the quality of a bridge “in a country where greater weights are ordinarily carried by land than perhaps in any other part of the world”.   These excerpts are from one of three letters he wrote in 1759 in support of John Gwynn’s project for Blackfriars Bridge. It was shortlisted but lost to Robert Mylne’s innovative bridge design featuring elliptical arches. Johnson’s support for the architect’s projects is another indication of his interest in the practical application of science.  The tone of his approval of Gwynn’s design confirms his stand on the ethical goal of science for the improvement of human life. David Whitehead notes that Gwynn’s utilitarian ethos was employed in his design of houses in the St John’s area of Worcester which were a practical realization of his intention to create “a terrace near a mile in length commanding a most delightful prospect of river, bridge, town and country around (which) if properly completed will certainly be one of the finest approaches in England ”.  Bridge Street today is a monument to Gwynn’s ingenuity and foresight.


John Gwynn transformed his skills as a carpenter into those of an architect. He was the builder of the English bridge in Shrewsbury in 1767, Atcham Bridge (1769), Worcester Bridge (1771) and Magdalen Bridge in Oxford (1772). The acquaintance of Johnson with John Gwynn, the self-taught Shropshire born architect, may go back to 1749 when Gwynn wrote An Essay on Design, Including Proposals for Exciting a Public Academy to be supported by Voluntary Subscription, an idea very much dear to Johnson, and A Plan of the City of London after the Great Fire.  In 1760 Gwynn was elected a member of the exhibition committee of the Society of Artists. He exhibited his rejected plans for Blackfriars Bridge at the first Society of Arts exhibition in 1760 and in 1761 and 1762 at the rival exhibition of the Society of Artists.


Gwynn’s London and Westminster improved (1766) for which Johnson wrote a dedication is referred to by John Summerson as “one of the most remarkable books ever written about the planning and architecture of London”.  Summerson views Gwynn’s plan as an embodiment of “the spirit and practice of improvement”.  Morris Brownell quotes with apprehension Isaac Reed who though that the whole of this work was either revised or greatly edited by “the pen of the lexicographer”.  In view of Johnson’s interest in architecture, his active involvement with the Society of Arts and his pragmatic views, Reed’s suggestion seems plausible. Johnson shared Gwynn’s utilitarian ethos towards architecture and supported many of his projects.  The likely circumstances of Johnson’s contribution to the selection of Gwynn’s project for Magdalen Bridge and the new covered Market in Oxford are discussed in Oxoniensia.

Johnson, the Natural World and Industry

Image: Entrance of the Great Cavern at Castleton, Derbyshire. This is an example of the type of limestone cavern that impressed visitors and potential visitors to Derbyshire in the 18th century such Samuel Johnson. Rev Daniel Lysons and Samuel Lysons, Magna Britannia, being a Concise Topographical Account of the Several Counties of Great Britain, Volume the Fifth containing Derbyshire, (London, T Cadell and W Davies, 1817)

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Johnson realised how extensive the fields of art and manufacture were, and in his Preface to the English Dictionary, he admitted a failure of his original intention: “I could not visit caverns to learn the miner’s language, nor visit the warehouses of merchants and the shops of artificers, to gain the names of commodities, utensils, tools, and operations of which no mention is found in books.  (Works, v: 44). His Diaries and Letters show that during that last twenty years of his life Johnson travelled frequently, taking stock of the changes that were taking place over the country, equally amused by the physical beauty of nature and the ingenuity of the human spirit. His desire for learning through first-hand observation extended to all areas of human life. Whether he was calling at the salt mine at Nantwich, the silk mills at Congleton and Macclesfield in Cheshire; testing the medicinal waters in Buxton and investigating the limestone cavern at Poole’s Hole in Derbyshire; or visiting the copper and brass works in Holywell in Flintshire during his tour of England and Wales with the Thrales in 1774, Johnson was courting “living information”.

Johnson’s interest in the processes of manufacture was in tune with the ethos of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce whose member Johnson was from 1756 to 1762.  Founded in 1755 by William Shipley, a drawing master, the Society of Arts was one of many technical societies set up to study the progress that was being made in trade, commerce and the industrial arts.  The utilitarian ideals of the Society were expressed in the system of premiums and medals offered to those who contributed to the advancement of agriculture, chemistry, manufactures, mechanics, and the arts. The exploitation of British minerals was particularly encouraged. As a member, Johnson often included excerpts from its proceedings and reviews of new methods of production in The Literary Magazine.

Johnson and Science

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1764-1766). Oil on Canvas. At one level this painting is an essay on the communication of scientific knowledge.

The middle years of Samuel Johnson’s literary career were extremely productive. His essays in The Rambler (1752-54), The Adventurer (1753-54), The Idler (1758-60), book reviews in The Literary Magazine (1756-58) and Travel Diaries to Wales, England and Scotland, demonstrate Johnson’s ability to collate varieties of knowledge and experience to facilitate his discussion of human life. He selects metaphors of science to illustrate topics of a more mundane nature. The extremely intelligent Poliphilus in Rambler 19, is known for his successful university progress “through the thorny mazes of science” and “the flowery path of politer literature” but who could never settle down on a vocation or particular branch of study. Gelidus in Rambler 24 was “a man of great penetration and deep researches” with “a mind naturally formed for the abstruser sciences” (iii: 104; 132). Johnson portrays Quisquilius in Rambler 82 as “the most labourious and zealous virtuoso that the present age has the honour of producing” in possession of “an unshaken perseverance in the acquisition of the productions of art and nature”. Nucagulus in Rambler 103 “was distinguished in his earlier years by an uncommon liveliness of imagination, quickness of sagacity, and extent of knowledge” (iv: 65; 187).

These and other imaginatively created characters – amateur scientists – capture the enquiring spirit of the times.  Fired by “curiosity”, in the words of Johnson, “one of the permanent and certain characteristicks of a vigorous intellect”, they are equally allured “by novelty of every kind” from the phenomenon of electricity and the variations of the magnetic needle to the enigma of the origin of the Nile.  Johnson had a keen interest in the popularisation of knowledge to elevate the mind and enlarge the understanding of young and old.

Johnson: Observation and Enquiry

Image: Samuel Johnson. John Jackson, History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield (London, 1805).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The value of a work must be estimated by its use; it is not enough that a dictionary delights the critick, unless, at the same time, it instructs the learner.

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield on 7 September 1709 and died in London on 13 December 1784. His father, Michael Johnson was a bookseller, but he began his business with the sale of velum and parchment and set up a small parchment factory a third of a mile from his shop in Lichfield. Various tanners worked for Michael and he travelled around the Midlands to buy skins for the business. Samuel Johnson would have known the stink of the tannery and the nature of industrial activity from an early age. He was an acute observer, intellectually curious and a storehouse of information. His friend Hester Thrale wrote: “The life of this man was indeed expanded beyond the common limits of human nature, and stored with such variety of knowledge.”   Theoretical knowledge and experiential observation were integral parts of his mind.

The occurrences of common life: Samuel Johnson, Practical Science and Industry in the Midlands

Image: 18th Century Birmingham trade token (n.d.). H Biggs halfpenny with a bust of Dr Samuel Johnson and three lions rampant. Though the artistic quality of the image is poor, the token displays Johnson’s importance and connects him with the economic and technological activity of the Midlands which he described, supported and celebrated in his writings.


This study evaluates Johnson’s positive attitude to science. It provides evidence of his enquiring intellect through quotations from his letters, diaries, the Dictionary and his essays. Johnson was exceptionally fond of London, but not enough recognition has been given to his bond with the Midlands. Extracts from Johnson’s recorded travels in the region throw light on his desire to learn through observation and personal experience and his keen interest in practical science and industry.