Dr Johnson in Worcester Cathedral

Did the famed Dr Johnson ever visit Worcester Cathedral? Yes he did – and we know that he did because he wrote about it in his Diary of a Journey into North Wales. In September 1774 he and Mrs Thrale were visiting her estate near Denbigh, and on their return he mentions stopping at Hartlebury, Ombersley and Worcester among several other local places. He wrote this about Worcester:

We went to Worcester, a very splendid city; the Cathedral is very noble with many remarkable monuments. The Library is in the Chapter House. On the table lay the Nuremburg Chronicle, I think of the first edition. We went to the china warehouse. The Cathedral has a cloister. The long aisle is, in my opinion, neither so wide or so high as that of Lichfield.

In his account of the history of the Library, Canon Wilson added a note that the Nuremburg Chronicle was “Koburger’s well-known edition of 12th July 1493.”

Samuel Johnson is perhaps best remembered for his famous Dictionary. Worcester has a copy of the original 1755 edition in two huge volumes.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The Library also has a handsome twelve volume set of his other works, published in 1806. The introductory Advertisement uses this quotation: “Whoever in the Three Kingdoms has any books at all, has Johnson”, signifying that his reputation as writer and critic was and still is, much wider than just for the Dictionary. The books were originally the property of Bishop Philpott and were presented to the Library by him on his retirement in 1890.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


And this is not all! The Library also has a book from Dr Johnson’s own collection, signed by him and sent as a gift. The book, named An Apologie of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World, was written by George Hakewill and printed in 1627. Hakewill’s lively and forceful style was said to have been a formative influence on Johnson himself, so this may well have been a favourite volume. On the title page is the following handwritten note:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The note is in Latin abbreviation: Lib Ecc Cathe Wigo: ex dono Sam: Johnson, meaning in English, “A gift from Samuel Johnson for the Library of the Cathedral Church of Worcester”. There is little doubt that it is a genuine signature as can be seen by comparison with examples from other writings.

Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was not the first work of its type, but it set a standard for all future ones, and used methods of explaining meaning and illustrating usage that are still in common use. But his other works are sadly much less well-known today. To earn a living with his pen he had to produce a lot of material on a variety of subjects.

Johnson first tried to earn a living as a teacher, applying unsuccessfully for posts in Stourbridge and Solihull. Apparently he was rejected on account of his frightening appearance, having a scarred face from childhood scrofula, and also from exhibiting symptoms of what would now be diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome, namely random and startling personal tics and gesticulations. He decided to become a writer in part due to these failures.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


In 1737 he moved to London, and the following year produced his first published work called simply London. This is a satirical poem which attracted critical praise, notably from the famous Alexander Pope. Some lines from the poem show a sense of humour intermingled with indignation at the abuses of life in that city:


                  Here Malice, Rapine, Accident, conspire,

                  And now a Rabble Rages, now a Fire;

                  Their Ambush here relentless Ruffians lay,

                  And here the fell Attorney prowls for Prey;

                  Here falling Houses thunder on your Head,

                  And here a female Atheist talks you dead.


Johnson was famed for another long satirical poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes. He wrote a tragic drama called Irene that was a success on the London stage, and a novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. It is said he wrote it in a week to earn enough money to pay for his mother’s funeral. It was also very popular, its strongly expressed anti-slavery sentiments earned Johnson the respect of the abolitionists, and the name Rasselas was sometimes adopted by freed slaves.

Other popular works were his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, short biographies of, and critical judgments on 52 poets, mostly from the eighteenth century, and the 1773 Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, an account of a journey through Scotland and the Hebrides in the company of his friend and eventual biographer James Boswell.

And there are huge numbers of essays on all kinds of subjects, perhaps the mainstay of a writer trying to make a living in the tough eighteenth century world. For two years, Johnson wrote a twice-weekly publication called The Rambler. The literary magazine was then a popular format, and some journals started at the same time have survived until now, as for example The Spectator and The Tatler. Boswell recalled that Johnson once composed an essay due for publication next day in the half-hour before the last post was collected!

Dr Samuel Johnson still maintains a significant place in Worcester Cathedral Library. In another blog we will look a little more closely at his famed Dictionary of the English Language.


Tim O’Mara








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