Samuel Johnson (1709–84) was born the son of a bookseller in Lichfield, Staffordshire. After a series of false starts, his big break finally came when he was hired by Edward Cave (proprietor of the popular Gentleman’s Magazine) to report upon parliamentary debates and translate books. Yet his most notable work was the Dictionary (1746–55) – which constituted the first real attempt to produce a full compendium of the English language – for which Johnson was rewarded with an enhanced reputation and a degree from Oxford. His fame then received a further boost following his death with the publication of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791)- a biography which showcased the full extent of Johnson’s wit and titanic personality. As such, he has now come to be seen almost as an embodiment of the eighteenth century, and all the humor, frankness and vitality which that age represented.
St Werburgh’s church is of significance to the Johnson story because it was here that he married Elizabeth Porter (née Jervis) on July 9th, 1735. Elizabeth (or ‘Tetty’) was a widow- and twenty years older than the youthful Johnson. This therefore aroused the suspicion of her family, who presumed that Johnson only had eyes for her money (a suspicion which was almost certainly baseless, since the historical evidence seems to confirm that the marriage was indeed grounded in mutual love). Thus it made sense for the couple to have the ceremony well away from Birmingham- the base of the bride’s hostile family. It may also be that Johnson had some sort of association with the vicar of St Werburgh’s (a certain Rev. William Lockett), although the evidence is somewhat patchy in this regard. Either way, the couple’s marriage would ultimately last until 1752, whereupon Elizabeth’s death threw Johnson into a protracted period of grief. Bibliography: ‘Johnson, Samuel’, in Birch, D., The Oxford Companion to English Literature Seventh Edition (Oxford University Press). Lewer, A.I., ‘Johnson, Samuel’, in Cannon, J., The Oxford Companion to British History (Oxford University Press). Reade, A.L., Johnsonian Gleanings, vol. VI. Rogers, P., ‘Johnson, Samuel’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).