A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Doctor Samuel Johnson

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty Eight

The Ivy Lane Club

This was a relatively short-lived club, founded in the 1740s, the brain child of Samuel Johnson who wanted to fill his leisure hours with good conversation and a forum in which to impress his comrades with the breadth of his knowledge and acerbity of his tongue. The assembled company met on Tuesday evenings at the King’s Head, a tavern and beefsteak house which was to be found in the eponymous Ivy Lane, off to the left of Paternoster Row, if you were looking down it from the west, under the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

As well as the good Doctor, its members included his good friend, Dr Richard Bathurst, the author John Hawkesworth, the publisher John Payne, John Hawkins, an attorney, and the Archdeacon of Norwich, Dr Samuel Salter. Evenings were engaged in literary discussions, Johnson often using the occasion to try out his latest theories or road test his compositions. Inevitably, food and drink were partaken.

Occasionally, the club would move venue, as it did upon Johnson’s suggestion to celebrate the publication of the first book by one of his literary proteges, Charlotte Lennox, The Life of Harriott Stewart, Written by Herself. Although the idea was hatched at the Ivy Lane the club members together with Charlotte and her husband assembled at the Devil Tavern in Fleet Street at 8 o’clock. There were twenty there in all. Johnson had arranged for a magnificent hot apple pie to be baked in Lennox’s honour, topped with bay leaves symbolising the fact that she was now an authoress. Invoking the Muses with all due ceremony, Johnson placed a crown of laurel leaves on the astonished woman’s head.

Sir John Hawkins picked up the story. “The night passed, as must be imagined, in pleasant conversation and harmless mirth, intermingled, at different periods, with the refreshments of tea and coffee”. About five in the morning, Johnson was beaming, although he had only imbibed lemonade. The restraint shown by Johnson was not replicated by his companions who were with difficulty persuaded to forsake the delights of Bacchus for another round of coffee. When it came to getting the bill, there was another difficulty. “The waiters were so overcome with sleep, that it was two hours before we could get a bill, and it was not till near eight that the creaking of the street-door gave the signal for our departure.”

One of the benefits of being a member of a club is the connections one makes. John Payne was looking to establish a literary magazine, the Adventurer, which, although running from 1752 to 1754, was one of the most influential periodicals of the 17th century. He appointed his fellow Ivy Lane clubman, John Hawkesworth, who was then a jobbing journalist. But Hawkesworth had learned at the feet of Johnson and he learned to emulate the moral and literary voice of his master, so much so that readers were scarcely able to determine what was Johnson’s and what had been written by Hawkesworth. In many ways, the Ivy Lane club was Hawkesworth’s finishing school.

Alas, though, things didn’t last. Hawkesworth was said to have made much of his close association with Johnson which pissed the Doctor off and they fell out in 1756. The club disbanded and when Johnson in 1783, a year before his death, tried to reassemble as many of the old crew as were left, he found that the old landlord of the King’s Head was dead and the pub shut down. And that was the end of that.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Forty Five


John Hill (1714 – 1775) and his Pectoral Balsam of Honey

Our latest quack, John Hill, was a noted botanist in his time and was a prolific writer, perhaps best known for his 26 volume The Vegetable System – its full title running to 58 words required a volume in itself. He was also a man of letters but was very disputatious and vexatious, traits which earned him many an enemy. Samuel Johnson described him as “an ingenious man but [who] had no veracity” and the actor David Garrick wrote of him, “for physics and farces, his equal scarce there is;/ his farces are physic, his physic a farce is.” The Swedes, the race that is not the vegetable, seemed to like him awarding a knighthood.

For a quack Hill was unusual in that he had a medical degree and he put this and his botanical knowledge to good use by creating a number of herbal-based remedies including the pectoral balm of honey. He used the monies earned from his medicines to fund the publication of his books and earned a considerable fortune.

Honey has a long medicinal history, the ancient Egyptians using it for embalming bodies and dressing wounds as well as an offering to the gods. Holisitic practitioners consider it to be one of nature’s best all-round remedies but scientific claims for its efficacy are unproven other than for the care of wounds and the suppression of coughs. When I have a tickle in my throat, I like to suck a honey flavoured lozenge.

The trouble with honey, though, is that concentrated honey was difficult to obtain in a quantity and at a cost that made a honey-based balsam commercially viable. The actual base for Hill’s balsam, according to the Modern Domestic Medicine of 1827 was an ounce of balsam of tolu – a South American resin which is still today used in cough syrups – a drachm of gum storax, fifteen grains of purified opium, four ounces of best honey and a pint of rectified spirit of wine. The brew was left to mix for five or six days and then strained. Voila.

As we have grown accustomed to expect, the advertising that accompanied the balsam was effusive in its praises. “..the unequalled efficacy and safety of this elegant Medicine in the immediate relief and gradual cure of coughs, colds, sore throats, hoarseness, difficulty of breathing, catarrhs, asthma and consumptions.”   A large tea-spoonful mixed in a wine glass of water made a dose “converting the water into a most pleasant balsamic liquor, to be taken morning and evening.” Bottles sold at 3s 6d and bore the signature H.Hill – adverts warned the reader to be wary of imitations – and were available from 150, Oxford Street and a couple of outlets in the City and one in Borough.

Whether it worked or not is unclear but the mix of wine, opium, honey and tolu would not have been unpleasant to the taste, at least. But the principal ingredient of the balsam was tolu not honey as the Medical Observer of 1808 pointed out. “The Balsam of Tolu, from its fragrant aromatic smell, is a ready and cheap substitute [for the faff of producing concentrated honey]. This deception was first begun by Sir John Hill who..did not lose sight of a balsam of honey which is nothing less than a balsam of tolu sold under this name. We regret that a man of Sir John Hill’s abilities should have been put to such shifts.

Hill’s ability to stir up a hornet’s nest survived his death but he did very nicely out of the sales, thank you very much.

What Is The Origin Of (89)?…


Strike a chord

When we use this phrase we generally mean that something provokes a memory or evokes some form of an emotional response.

The literal meaning of the phrase, not unsurprisingly, comes from the world of music. When the key of a piano is pressed and, indeed, when a note on a stringed instrument is played, the string vibrates at a certain rate. This vibration can cause other stings to vibrate too, usually those whose harmonics are most in common with the note played, a phenomenon known as sympathetic vibration or sympathetic resonance.

The Paduan, Bartolomeo Cristofori, is credited with the development of the modern day piano at the turn of the 18th century.  His instrument was called un cimbalo di cipresso di piano e forte – you can see where pianoforte came from. Much louder than other keyboard instruments the piano soon became the instrument of choice for public performances.

An early example of the literal use of our phrase came in William Holder’s A Treatise of the Natural Grounds and Principles of Harmony of 1731. In discussing the unity of motions in musical strings which were harmoniously sounding, he wrote, “to this purpose strike a chord of a sounding instrument and at the same time, another chord supposed to be in all respects equal…”

Music has the ability to stir the emotions and so, perhaps, it was a natural development for our phrase to be used figuratively but this did not occur until the start of the 19th century. This figurative usage appears in a French translation of extracts from English periodicals called Bibliotheque Britannique of 1797 as “vibrer une corde sensible”. possibly the first extant usage of the phrase in printed form in English appeared in the Boston Weekly Magazine of August 1803, “I am now in perfect  good humour with all the world and will not, by peeping into these letters, run the risk of striking a chord, which not being in unison with my present feelings, might put the whole machine out of tune”.

There are a number of usages in the first decade of the 19th century, most of which are associated with vibrations or musical notes. “Every successive instance of agitation in the congregation strikes  a chord in their heart” (1804), “They knew well they struck a chord whose vibrations are universally extensive” (1807)and “the tear swelled in his eye; he had struck a chord that was too moving” (1808). The figurative use of the phrase, gradually losing its association with vibration and music, was well on its way to cementing itself in our argot.

Something which touches our heartstrings is something which triggers an emotional response, often one of sadness. The word dates back to the 15th century when anatomical theory was sketchy at best and was used to describe a nerve that was supposed to sustain the heart. The great Doctor Johnson defined it in his ground-breaking lexicon of 1759 as, “the tendons or nerves supposed to brace and sustain the heart”.   

William Shakespeare had already made the leap to a figurative usage in Richard III. Queen Elizabeth responds to Richard thus, “Harp on it still shall I, till heart-strings break”. The poet, L B Flanders, used our two phrases in close proximity in 1877 in his poem Lines (Sorrow’s Music strains), “then, poet, would you strike a chord/ whose notes should penetrate the soul,/ Play on the quiv’ring heart-strings where/ Sorrow awhile hath held control”. By 1960 the Monthly Bulletin of the New York Chamber of Commerce, in its robust defence of capitalism, was able to use the two phrases, “These are the heart-strings upon which business can play to strike a chord..” But the genesis of the two terms was completely independent of each other.

So now we know!