This is Samuel Johnson’s walking stick, presented to the Museum by A.C. Lomax in 1909. It is a fine sturdy piece, unpretentious and serviceable. It is made from Malacca cane which comes from the stem of an East Indian rattan palm. It has an ivory handle with a pleasing symmetrical pattern marked on it by metal studs. The hole through the handle must have once had a cord threaded through it once to carry it on the wrist. The ferule is quite large, metal and shows heavy wear. The stick is 98cm (just over 3 feet) long, which suggests its owner had been tall. As indeed Johnson was - nearly 6 foot.
From at least 1720s and throughout Johnson’s life, carrying a stick was very much part of a gentleman’s normal dress. From the time when a little boy was breeched (put into male clothes and out of the infant petticoats) he would expect to carry a cane or on special occasions perhaps a sword. Johnson’s style of cane is quite plain. He was not really a follower of fashion, but for many the cane was an essential accessory. The head could be of gold, silver or a semi -precious stone; amber was especially popular. Sometimes the heads could unscrew and in the space inside might be a mirror or scent. Ribbon streamers might be attached, in the case of gentleman usually black. The ferrule in such elegant examples might be of silver.
In the cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson from 1786 we see Johnson and Boswell roaring up the High Street in Edinburgh. Johnson is carrying an oak stick. Such oak walking sticks were sturdy and intended more to help the walker or defend him. They were not fashion accessories.
We can get an idea of Johnson on his travels from the description Boswell gives us when they were in the Hebrides. ‘He wore a full suit of plain brown clothes, with twisted-hair buttons of the same colour, a large bushy greyish wig, a plain shirt, black worsted stockings, and silver buckles. Upon this tour, when journeying, he wore boots, and a very wide brown cloth great coat, with pockets which might have almost held the two volumes of his folio dictionary; and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick’
Boswell relates a sad story of his friend’s walking stick when they were in the Hebrides. We gather that the journey had been hard - those ‘wild peregrinations’ -and the stick had been very important ‘for he has not been able to walk easily.’ On the morning in question the stick ‘was intrusted to a fellow to be delivered to our baggage-man’ but they never saw it again, and it was presumed stolen by Johnson. This stick had not only helped Johnson walk, but it had added worth ‘It had too the properties of a measure; for one nail was driven into it at the length of a foot; another at that of a yard’- which he uses as a measuring tool! It is amusing now to read that he stated that he would have made ‘a present of it to some museum’
Johnson was not above using his stick as a weapon. Back on home territory in Lichfield, Thomas Davies the Bookseller tells Boswell about the close shave that one Mr Foote of the theatre had with the wrong end of Johnson’s stick. Foote intended to exhibit ‘living characters,’ and ‘had resolved to imitate Johnson on the stage, expecting great profits from his ridicule of so celebrated a man’ When Johnson was told of this, he armed himself with the best oak stick and made it clear that if ‘Foote means to take me off, … I am determined the fellow shall not do it with impunity.’ The story ends peaceably as Davies kindly warns Foote, but Boswell adds ‘I have no doubt that, old as he was, he (Johnson) would have made his corporal prowess be felt as much as his intellectual’.
By Annemarie Powell, Birthplace Museum Volunteer