On the Trail of Dr Johnson: Staffordshire and Derbyshire

The dictionary is a curious thing- A book full of words and their definitions which most people use only to look up the rude ones. If you’re British you’ll likely use the OED and if you’re from the US I believe that Websters is the preferred dictionary of choice. But we wouldn’t have either of those dictionaries if it weren’t one man: Dr Samuel Johnson. He wasn’t the first to write a dictionary, but it was he  who wrote the most influential dictionary and the first modern one at that. Undoubtedly, he’s one of the most well regarded word masters in history. However, he wasn’t just a dictionary writer. Like all other learned men of the eighteenth century Dr Johnson wrote other things. Most notably he wrote essays, diaries and travelogues. One such diary is his ‘Journey Into North Wales,’ a sometimes scant but entertaining romp across North Wales and the Midlands. Though it was never originally intended for publication and not as well known as his trip round Scotland with James Boswell,  I still thought it might be fun to try and track his route across the country, along the way seeking what remains, what’s changed and what he got completely wrong…

The diary begins on the 5th July 1774 with Johnson and his travelling companions, Mr Henry Thrale, Mrs Hester Thrale and their daughter Queenie, leaving Streatham. Johnson lived at the manor of Streatham Park with the Thrales from when he met them in 1765. For one reason or another he was still there seventeen years later. At this time Streatham wasn’t a part of London as it is now. It was a village about five miles (Eight KM aprx) outside of the city. It is remarkable to consider that today Streatham is eleven miles (seventeen km aprx) inside London, more than twice the distance it was away from London in Dr Johnson’s time. This astonishing statistic shows how much London has grown since then. The official ‘City’ of London is still only the same square mile it has been since Roman times but today that is only zero point one six percent of London. The total London metropolitan area is now six hundred and seven square miles, sixty thousand six hundred percent bigger than the official ‘City of London’.

At the starting point itself we see the second big change occurring. The manor of Streatham Park no longer exists. After the death of her husband in 1782, Hester Thrale decided to lease the house and after her death in 1821 the house was sold.  It was demolished in 1865. The area then suffered heavy bombing during World War II, rendering the place we see today somewhere quite at odds with the area that Dr Johnson knew. I am assuming, based on this evidence, that an awful lot of the places visited by Dr Johnson on this journey will be in a similar state, most looking incredibly different to as the way they were when he saw them. In the Streatham Park area today it is interesting to note that there is both a ‘Dr Johnson Avenue’ and a ‘Thrale Avenue.’ So, although the house is long gone, it is clear that the former residents are not forgotten.

The main problem with these diaries is that in some areas they are very brief whilst in others Johnson goes into quite a fair amount of detail. For the following day, July 6th, Dr Johnson briefly mentions Barnet and then Dunstable where he and the Thrales stayed overnight and then moves on. Presumably these places don’t warrant much of a mention because he was only passing through, I assume. However, once he reaches the city of Lichfield we get the same scant sort of information. This is curious because this was Dr Johnson’s home town, his birthplace, and he only gives a passing mention to the cathedral and his numerous visits to various friends whilst there. Perhaps it was simply because he was born there that he didn’t feel much of a need to elucidate on the area. However, when we look at some of the people he visited whilst in Lichfield there is quite a bit of interest. There is David Garrick for instance, the noted actor and pioneer of modern theatre. There’s also Anna Seward, one of the romantics, and finally ‘Dr Darwin.’

When I first read that name I immediately thought of Charles Darwin but then realised he wasn’t born in 1774 so it can’t have been him. Then, after some research, I discovered that the man referred to was actually his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus Darwin was fairly famous in his day, particularly as a physician and naturalist. It has even been suggested that he was once almost as famous as his grandson. Today Erasmus Darwin has been sidelined by his more celebrated descendant and his only memorials are an obscure museum and a stone in a supermarket car park, whereas Charles is revered (and in some places detested) the world over for his ground breaking scientific works.

Another passing mention in the diary, regarding Lichfield, is ‘Mr Greene’s Museum.’ My immediate assumption was that this would be some sort of a private collection or a cabinet of curiosities, as that was what was commonplace at the time. For all I can discover about the museum it might have been just that, but it was supposedly a ‘must see’ attraction. It was run by a man called Richard Greene and Dr Johnson visited several times over the course of his life, even donating to the collection at one point.  After Greene’s death in 1793 the whole collection was scattered to various other places and then scattered further in 1821. Some of it may be in the Tower of London, but most of it has now been lost to the mists of time.

Curiously enough, the only other similar ‘general’ museum in Lichfield wasn’t opened until 1981. However, although I have never been to Lichfield, I can immediately predict that it is probably not a patch on Mr Greene’s museum- Mainly owing to the fact that it calls itself a ‘heritage centre,’ which in my experience is never a good sign, and that it seems to occupy only the second floor of a converted church. Then again it could be the best museum in the world. I do not know.

What follows is a part of the diary I initially had a little trouble with, mostly in terms of location and some errors in the transcription. Dr Johnson mentions two places, ‘Ham’ and ‘Oakover.’ At first I couldn’t seem to find where this ‘Ham’ place is supposed to be. I thought he might have meant Birmingham but he visits there much later on and mentions it as ‘Birmingham’ and not just Ham. Likewise, I thought the same was the case with ‘Oakover.’ That doesn’t appear to exist either. The closest I could come up with was ‘Oakover Grange,’ just outside of Stafford, but I figured that could just be a name and not really an indication that it was where Dr Johnson and his friends were at the time.

Then, finally, looking over the map, I stumbled across a place called ‘Okeover Hall’ and realised that must be the place Dr Johnson is talking about. I’m guessing they either the name has altered slightly or Dr Johnson got it a bit wrong, which would be kind of embarrassing considering he wrote the dictionary. Like with Dunstable and Barnet, Johnson doesn’t mention much about Okeover at this point, though later on he has a small bitch about the decoration inside the church. Instead he devotes his words to ‘Ham’ and how his travelling companions ‘were much delighted’ by it. He claimed he was ‘less pleased with it than when he first saw it.’

I had almost given up looking for Ham when I spotted a village called ‘Ilam’ to the north of Okeover. I think I know what happened here- Somewhere there has been a misunderstanding, probably from someone who transcribed the original manuscript and thought that the capital I and lower case L of Ilam was a H. It would be an easy mistake to make. You can see just from the name how a person might get confused, especially if the I and L look similar on the original manuscript. It’s fair to say that it’s a mildly interesting, picturesque sort of place. There’s a Gothic looking hall and a big monument in the centre of the village. I  certainly don’t think that the place is as bad as is implied in the diaries though.

On July 12th the troop visits Chatsworth House, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. It’s fair to say that Dr J is more than a bit harsh here. He criticises it because he doesn’t like either the layout or the furniture. He refers to the place as ‘a bad inn.’ As regards the layout I can kind of see how he might be a bit apathetic, but it still doesn’t warrant that sort of harshness. And as for the furniture, that is definitely not a reason to be critical seeing as it wasn’t his house and the furniture was presumably to the taste of the then present duke (who was the one played by Ralph Fiennes in The Duchess.) To go into someone’s house and say something like ‘I don’t like your sofa!’ is going well beyond the point of rudeness.

Today, Chatsworth is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the entire country, let alone in Derbyshire. In 2010 it was the ‘fastest growing paid for visitor attraction in England’, coming fourth in terms of visitor numbers for ‘Historic Properties’ (fifteenth in terms of overall attractions) after the Tower of London, The Houses of Parliament and Stonehenge. It reported seven hundred and sixteen thousand, six hundred and sixteen visitors. In 2011 it was a similar story with the place garnering almost seven hundred and twenty three thousand visitors, coming fifth in terms of ‘Historic Properties’ and eighteenth in terms of overall attractions. It can’t be as bad as Dr J claims in order for it to attract that sort of crowd every year.  I’m inclined to disagree with Dr J here because, after an internet image search for the interior, I think it looks fairly good. It’s not quite to my taste I’ll admit, I prefer the refined ‘late Victorian gentleman’ style of furniture, kind of like you see in most Sherlock Holmes films. The furniture that is there suits the house and it doesn’t look bad at all. I reckon Dr J was just being narky about the place for the sake of it, just for something to complain about.

He was obviously a bit moody for the next few days as he simply says he was ‘at Matlock’ and then goes on to describe the church at Okeover (see above.) After this he briefly visits Ashbourne (Only he spells it without the E.) Then, on the 16th of July, he visits Dovedale where he appears to have gained two more companions, a Mr Langley and Mr Flint. First of all I decided I would like to know who these people are and what their importance is. The names ‘Thomas Langley’ and ‘Thomas Flint’ seemed, for some reason, to be causing some sort of recognition in my brain.

Thomas Langley, it turns out, was a bishop during the fifteenth century and Thomas Flint was a Canadian politician. Further digging revealed that ‘Rev. Mr Langley’ was master of a Grammar school at nearby Ashbourne, so not really too far off with my first guess it seems. The only reference to a ‘Flint’ I could find came in Boswell where he refers once or twice to a ‘Bet Flint,’ so Mr Flint may possibly be a relation of hers. There is also a reference made to a Gilpin, Parker and Brown being with them at some point. Gilpin  was an undergraduate at Oxford whilst Parker was from a place called Browsholme up near Lancaster. These people all appear not to be important men in the grand hue of history.

For the first time in Dr J’s diaries we get a detailed description and it appears that he actually likes the place. Although he does admit it didn’t meet his expectations. He mentions three places in his description that intrigue me: Reynard’s Hall, Reynard’s Kitchen and Church Rock. Firstly the term ‘Reynard’ smells to me like it could one of those old fashioned names for the Devil and looking it up it seems that as usual I am one hundred percent wrong and Reynard is actually a mythical French fox… And I don’t even know if those caves have anything to do with him. They may do as ‘Reynard’ was a common enough story and had been floating about Europe for centuries. Shakespeare used part of the story to name a character in Romeo and Juliet (It was Tybalt) and Chaucer also used him for the Priest-Nuns tale… So once more I’m going to suggest that it is entirely possible… But there could be another reason why they are named as such. Looking around the internet I came across a few old engravings of the caves and a couple of modern pictures but very little in the way of good information.

Next, however, comes Church Rock and there were a few more pictures as thankfully some people have put some photos up on Flikr (See here) so we can judge for ourselves. Dr J. admitted that he couldn’t quite see why the rock was so named and to be fair he has a bit of a point. It takes a bit of imagination to see why it’s called ‘Church Rock.’ The spire is kind of visible though and in a certain way it could be a church, almost.

The next place he visits (on July 19th) is Kedleston in order to see ‘Lord Scarsdale’s new house,’ Kedleston hall. As earlier at Chatsworth, he reveals his dislike for the place and effectively calls it ‘cheap’ looking. Here we are granted an opportunity to compare the two. Unlike Chatsworth, which is still owned by the Duke of Devonshire and one of the most visited stately homes in the country, Kedleston is now owned by the National Trust and receives nowhere near the same number of visitors (though still it receives a good amount), only receiving just over one hundred and twenty six thousand visitors in 2010 and over one hundred and forty five thousand visitors in 2011. There’s a place called ‘The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery’ that receives more visitors than Keddleston. And I’ve no idea who the Burtons were/are or where their gallery is. Although Kedleston is not the most unpopular visitor attraction in the country by any means, I can really see why Dr J. hated the place so much. It is, for want of a better word, ugly. Just take a look at it on the National Trust website: here.  It seems to me as if the place has very little style. It just looks, from the pictures that I can find, that the entire building has just been dumped in a field. It doesn’t have the same grandeur that other homes such as Chatsworth or Blenheim or Castle Howard have. Those buildings sit well in their landscape and they look good for it. Kedleston, on the other hand, just doesn’t. As Dr Johnson says, it looks cheap. To me it looks less like a stately home and more a town hall or the main building of well to do private school.

After that Dr J. and his companions visit a silk mill in Derby and all we have is a scant description of driving motion from a horizontal wheel turning a vertical wheel. In Derby today there is a museum called ‘The Derby Silk Mill.’  The Derby museums website calls it ‘the world’s first factory.’ That might not be entirely true but what is certainly clear from reading up on the subject is that it was actually one of the first full scale industrial mills in Britain, if not the world, and as a result of this it became quite the tourist attraction. It’s documented on the net that Boswell visited this silk mill in 1777, a few years after this diary was written. I find it hard to see, if this was the must see silk mill in Derby at the time, why Dr J and the Thrales would go see another one if that was the main attraction. And also, looking at the text, he simply calls it ‘the silk mill.’ Perhaps he was the one who recommended it to Boswell? What I find interesting here, however, is that even now this mill is a tourist attraction. That must surely make it one of the longest running tourist sites in the country, which is, in any case, remarkable. The whole area is in fact a UNESCO World heritage site and therefore attracts visitors from around the world (forty thousand the last full year the museum was open… There are no stats I could find for the whole site so the number is probably more for the whole), and it will continue to bring visitors until either UNESCO revoke the site’s status (unlikely) or the whole of Derby sinks into the Derwent (More unlikely) or gets destroyed by a hitherto unknown super-volcano lurking under the city centre (Impossible). I’m sure if Dr J was around today he might be thrilled to see that the place is still there and much as it was back when he was gallivanting around with the Thrales. I assume that he liked it. He doesn’t say anything specifically bad which is probably a good sign.

After the mill the doctor mentions how Mr Thrale’s bill for dinner at an inn was eighteen shillings and tenpence. Using a converter I found that the meal in today’s monetary values (adjusting for inflation) would be £575.68… However, if we take inflation out of the equation 18 shillings and tenpence would be somewhere around 95 pence, Which works out cheaper than most things you can buy in a certain well known fast food chain. Though I’m willing to bet that Mr Thrale’s meal was considerably healthier and not as revolting. That price is also cheaper than your average supermarket burger and I’m also willing to bet that Mr Thrale’s meal contained less horse. Looking at prices for the times, it does seem to be at the high end of the food spectrum and Mr Thrale’s meal was most likely to be a very good one, or as good a one as you could expect to find at an inn during this period. It was generally very similar to what you might call ‘traditional’ pub food today- Joints of meat, game or pies, usually accompanied by something such as ‘honey sauce’ or gravy, and served with cooked vegetables and/or potatoes. If Dr J and the Thrales were at a typical country pub today they would probably find themselves quite at home with the menu, or to a certain extent at least. What they would make of something like chilli con carne, spicy fried squid or smothered chicken is anyone’s guess.

Finally, on July 20th Dr J and the Thrales leave Derbyshire, going by way of Poole’s Cavern at Buxton. (Labelled as Pool’s Hole in the diary). It appears Dr J had a few issues with the cave owing to what could have been his age and health condition (he was sixty five and riddled with gout, flatulence and what some historians reckon was tourettes syndrome). He found the going both difficult and dangerous so in the end he turned back and didn’t go all the way in. He does seem to have a tendency to bitch about a lot of things so there is a small chance this could be one of those occasions but I’m inclined not to think so. Like with the silk mill at Derby, Poole’s Cavern is a place that still draws in the tourists, although Buxton itself wasn’t really well known as a spa and mineral water town such as it is today. These days, owing to various rules and safety regulations a man with Dr J’s health issues would have no trouble exploring the place. The website has an ‘accessibility’ section (here) and it specifically mentions the place as being suitable for all ages and ‘happy to assist’ any visitor, such as Dr J, who requires help. I think it’s good to see that, two hundred years later, they’ve addressed the fundamental issues that meant Dr J couldn’t enjoy his visit. A man in his position today can be guided round the caverns without a care in the world, which shows that there has at least been one improvement in our society since the 18th century.

On the same day the travellers cross the border into Cheshire and arrive at Macclesfield.  Dr J doesn’t say much about Macclesfield. He mentions briefly that it is ‘a very large town in Cheshire, little known.’ and comments that it has a silk mill, a handsome church and a town hall. Today Macclesfield is still as large town and has a town hall. The town hall, it must be said, could be anywhere. It’s a rather bland looking building, grey and without any style. However, this isn’t the same town hall that Dr J saw. This is the ‘newer’ town hall, which was built in 1823, possibly on top of the old one. I must say that this building actually looks worse than Kedleston. As to the church… Well I couldn’t quite find it for certain as Macclesfield has so many churches. It could be ‘St Michael’s church,’ as that is the one that is most prominent within the town. And the silk mill? Well, in the 19th century Macclesfield became quite well known for it’s silk, becoming ‘the worlds biggest producer of fine silk garments.’ In 1832 it had a total of seventy one silk mills, four of which are now museums. And today I would hazard a guess and say it is perhaps a little more well known now than it was in the time of Dr Johnson. For starters it has a football team, Macclesfield town, who came bottom of league two in the 2011-12 season. Famous residents include BBC Journalist Nick Robinson and Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. You’ve also got the Lovell telescope which, although a good distance away, is still technically a part of Macclesfield. It’s also been reported to be the least cultural place in the entire country.

I’m sure that there’s quite a bit more to Macclesfield than is reckoned but over the last few decades or so it appears that the town has become a casualty of the decline in British industry. It’s become lost in that void somewhere between a successful, thriving settlement and ultimate decline and extinction. This is the exact opposite situation to Dr Johnson’s day where towns such as Macclesfield were exploding with life and industry and new opportunities. Since the 1980’s the rate of population growth in Macclesfield has slowed to its lowest level since the 1820’s and, although the actual population still grew a little between 2001 and 2011, may be on the cusp of beginning to decline. A lot of towns in the same situation as Macclesfield, having lost of most of their industry, are in a similar situation. Some are even declining in population already, places like Barrow in Furness and Burnley for instance. Although these towns have only really developed in the two hundred+ years since Dr Johnson’s time, it is probable that in another two hundred years many of these towns may have declined so completely that they no longer even exist as settlements. It’s possible that in 2274, as in 1774, few people in Britain will ‘know’ or have heard of Macclesfield.

I think it’s best if we leave off here for now and come back to this journey another day as it’s getting late. So far Dr Johnson and the Thrales have covered over two hundred and fifty miles in two weeks and I think you’ll agree that so far it has been quite interesting. On the next leg of the journey they will pass through Cheshire and Shropshire before crossing the border into Wales itself.


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