As a member of the Johnson Society in his birthplace, Lichfield, I've had the chance to attend some of his September birthday celebrations, which usually involve an annual dinner in the Guildhall. A few years ago, as my partner and I sat down to steak and kidney pie and glasses of Johnson's favourite punch, we were slightly startled by our neighbour leaning over and asking: 'Are you Johnson or Darwin?' It seemed like a bizarre question, but in retrospect this was just another version of that old 'town and gown' debate that's been going on since the early Middle Ages... The house of the great scientist and member of the Lunar Society, Erasmus Darwin, is located in the cathedral close, on rising ground to the north of the town, whereas Samuel Johnson's house (now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum) is on the market square right in the centre of town. What part of Lichfield had we allied ourselves with - he was asking - the town or the cathedral?!
I live in the English cathedral city of Lichfield, which, despite having a population of fewer than 5,000 during the Georgian period, was home to many important artists and intellectuals including Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Erasmus Darwin. I generally blog about the short 18th century (1715-1789), feisty Georgian ladies and Lichfield's 18th-century heritage. If you have any comments, feel free to email me at woffington [at] gmail [dot] com.
Virtually forgotten today, Margaret Woffington (also known as Peg or Peggy) would rise from humble origins to become one of Georgian London’s most famous actresses, sharing the stage with the likes of David Garrick and excelling in so-called ‘breeches roles’. Born around the year 1720 in Dublin, her childhood years were marred by the death of her father, which plunged her family into poverty. Having reputedly sold watercress barefoot in the streets of the Irish capital, she was soon talent-spotted by a tumbler known as Violante, who staged populist entertainments in booths around the city. Violante had a troupe of child actors called the Liliputians, and before long Woffington was making her debut as Polly Peachum in their version of The Beggar’s Opera. Moving to London, she gained plaudits for both her outstanding beauty and her talent – particularly in comedy – appearing at both Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Known for her quick wit and no-nonsense attitude, she had high-profile affairs with Garrick, Lord Darnley and Charles Hanbury Williams; she was also a generous benefactor, supporting her elderly mother and may even have endowed some almshouses in Teddington, where she had settled at the height of her success. She died, unmarried, in 1760, having suffered a long wasting illness, and is buried in Teddington's parish church of St Mary’s.
Step into the past...
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