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Johnson Collection

The Johnson Collection was formed to celebrate the association of Dr Samuel Johnson with Birmingham and now numbers about 2000 volumes of works by Johnson and books and periodicals about him. It includes almost all the first editions, such as the Dictionary, 1755, as well as a good range of later editions and critical works from the 18th century to the present date.

Samuel Johnson. Portrait engraved by E.Mitchell, 1823

Since the foundation of Birmingham Reference Library a particular interest has been taken in Samuel Johnson, who had close links with Birmingham during his early career. The collection of Johnsoniana has a history of steady growth from the 1860s to the present. In 1886 it was already large enough to have a separate heading in the library catalogue and it is now one of the most comprehensive Johnson collections in Europe, containing about 2,000 items.

Johnson's connection with Birmingham is of considerable interest. His mother was born in Kings Norton and married Martin Johnson, a bookseller in Lichfield where Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 and brought up. He often visited his godfather, Dr Swyfen, in Birmingham, and came to live here himself from 1732 to 1735 at the house of his friend the bookseller Thomas Warren in High Street. During this time he met his future wife, Elizabeth Porter, and his first original essays appeared, in Warren's Birmingham Journal.

During his stay in Birmingham, Johnson was working on his first book, a condensation and translation of Father Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia. It was not published until he had left Birmingham for London, but was printed in Birmingham for his friend, Thomas Warren. The library is fortunate enough to possess a copy.

Johnson made a brief return to Lichfield in 1736 when he founded a school nearby. The future actor David Garrick was among his pupils, and remained a lifelong friend, but Johnson was not a successful schoolmaster, and, perhaps fortunately for his future literary career, the school failed. Although he continued to visit Birmingham at intervals, Johnson's life from then on was centred on London.

The Library of Birmingham has an almost complete collection of first editions of Johnson's works, including a copy of Irene, the tragedy with which he first attempted to make his name in London in 1737. This failed to interest the London theatre managers and was not published until 1749. Much of his early work appeared anonymously in the Gentleman's Magazine, of which the Library has a complete set and it was the proprietor, Edward Cave, who arranged publication of Johnson's first great success, the poem London. The Library has the second edition of this rare work, which was published anonymously and only earned the needy author £10 for the copyright. We have, however, a first edition of Johnson's next success, the life of his friend the poet Richard Savage, published in 1744.

Johnson's Dictionary, the work, which established his reputation, was first planned two years later. This monumental and scholarly task engaged him and his assistants until 1755. The Library has the first edition, 1755, in two large folio volumes, the scarce original Plan and numerous later editions, large and small including the Rev. H J Todd's revised edition of 1818, a version which remained popular throughout the nineteenth century.

While working on the Dictionary, Johnson produced The Vanity of Human Wishes, 1749, in imitation of the tenth satire of Juvenal, a work, which reflects in its despondency the considerable personal and financial difficulties under which Johnson was living at the time. This was the first work, which bore Johnson's name on the title page. Johnson's two collections of occasional essays, The Rambler (1750-52) and The Idler (1756-60) followed. The Library has not only the original issues in parts but also the first collected edition of The Rambler, and the first collected edition of The Idler.

History of Rasselas, 1794, engraved title page



Johnson next work was the very popular novel The Prince of Abissinia (sic) or Rasselas, written in a week, and published in 1759, allegedly to pay the expenses of his mother's funeral. The Library has all the first five editions of this work, and many others.

The work, which after the Dictionary consolidated Johnson reputation with his contemporaries, was his edition of Shakespeare. Johnson began work on this in 1756 but found it hard to sustain his interest. He worked on it intermittently until 1765 when his edition was finally published. Johnson's notes to the text are somewhat pedestrian, a sign of his flagging interest, but the preface is still considered an important piece of criticism. The Library has the rare Proposals for the project (1756) and the first and many later editions.


Rasselas Prince of Abissinia 1796

Perhaps the most interesting of Johnson's works to the modern reader is his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775, a vivid account of his remarkably intrepid journey, undertaken at the age of sixty-four and in poor health, over rough country, in indifferent weather. The Journey records a way of life that was vanishing from the Highlands with the repression of the clan system after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and includes Johnson's account of his meeting with Flora Macdonald. Of equal interest is his companion James Boswell's account of the journey, told in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, in which he records in fascinating detail all his hero Dr. Johnson did and all his noteworthy remarks. The Library has the first and later editions of both these works.

The Library also has the first and many other editions of Boswell's much admired Life of Dr. Johnson, 1791, together with the accounts of Johnson by his rival biographer, Mrs Thrale, the wife of Henry Thrale of Streatham, at whose house Johnson largely lived between 1765 and 1783, when his friendship broke up over Mrs Thrale's re-marriage on her husband's death. Johnson himself died a year later.

There are in the collection a number of other biographies, and of particular interest are the collections of Johnson's sayings and of anecdotes about him, for his reputation among his contemporaries rested at least as much on the wit and brilliance of his conversation as on his published work.

In addition to this extensive collection of Johnson's works and of early Johnsoniana, the Library maintains a collection of modern criticisms.

An appointment is necessary to see the 18th century and certain private press editions.

The collection is housed in the Library of Birmingham in Archives, Heritage and Photography

Full details of images on this page

  • James Boswell. Life of Samuel Johnson, 1823. Portrait engraved by E.Mitchell from a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds
  • Samuel Johnson. History of Rasselas, 1794, engraved title page
  • Rasselas Prince of Abissinia 1796 Engraving from drawing by T.Stothard