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Essex Head Club (act. 1783–1794) was founded, according to Samuel Johnson, ‘in frequency and parsimony’ (Tyers, 910), characteristics it did not share with the Club or Literary Club that was established nearly twenty years earlier, also largely for the eminently clubbable Johnson's benefit. By 1783 Johnson rarely attended the Club, which then had thirty-three members, most of them prominent in letters or public life, and was, in his eyes, ‘a mere miscellaneous collection of conspicuous men, without any determinate character’ (Boswell, Life, 3.106); nevertheless he could not bear solitude: the ‘great business of his life (he said) was to escape from himself’ (ibid., 1.144–5). At the age of seventy-four, he had lost his sociable quarters with the Thrale family and his household of lodgers at Bolt Court had been thinned by death, so, as he wrote to Hester Thrale on 27 December 1783, the ‘wearisome solitude of the long evenings did indeed suggest to me the convenience of a club in my neighbourhood’ (Letters of Samuel Johnson, 4.264)

This new, convenient club was founded jointly by Johnson and his physician and friend Richard Brocklesby. It first met on 8 December 1783 at the Essex Head tavern kept by Samuel Greaves, a former servant of the Thrales, in Essex Street, off the Strand: very much closer to Johnson's house in Bolt Court, Fleet Street, than was fashionable Sackville Street, where the Club met. Its rules, drawn up by Johnson, stipulated that there should be twenty-four members; they would meet for supper thrice a week on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday; two members, by rota, should attend each meeting between 8 and 10 pm; any member failing to attend for three months was considered to have abdicated; and election of new members was by simple majority, six being the quorum. There would be no general reckoning, but each member was required to spend at least 6d. and leave 1d. for the waiter; every absent member would forfeit 2d. (this forfeit was soon raised to 3d.). Such parsimony might be compared, for instance, with the 16s. 6d. that Boswell (not an extravagant man) spent on dinner at the Club on 26 April 1785 (Boswell: the applause of the jury, 354).

The first members of the Essex Head Club in addition to Johnson and Brocklesby were John Ryland, a former member of the Ivy Lane Club; William Scott and William Windham, members of the Club; and Daines Barrington, James Barry, Charles Burney (1757–1817), Richard Clark, William Cooke (d. 1824), William Cumberland Cruikshank, John Hoole, Samuel Horsley, Richard Paul Jodrell, Arthur Murphy, John Nichols [see under Nichols family], John Paradise, William Seward, William Strahan, Thomas Tyers, James Wyatt, Edmund Allen (d. 1784), Edward Poore, and Francesco Sastres (d. 1822). In view of Johnson's age it is unsurprising that two-thirds of the members were young enough to be his sons. Windham was a rising politician soon to enter parliament, Scott was a rising lawyer (though he never attended a club meeting), and Barrington, another lawyer, was a noted naturalist and antiquarian. Others had established reputations: Barry as artist, Hoole as translator (the same profession as Sastres), Murphy as actor and dramatist, and Wyatt as architect. Strahan was an MP; he was also a printer, as were Nichols, Poore, and Allen. Allen was also Johnson's landlord and neighbour. Doctors Brocklesby and Cruikshank wrote on medicine and Horsley wrote on science. Nearly all the others were writers of one sort or another.

This was a gathering of men less conspicuous than those in the Club at this time, though they were undoubtedly more talented and respectable than was implied by Reynolds when, speaking of Johnson's fear of solitude, he added:
Any company was better than none; by which he connected himself with many mean persons whose presence he could command. For this purpose he established a Club at a little ale-house in Essex Street composed of a strange mixture of very learned and very ingenious odd people. (Leslie and Taylor, 2.455)
Johnson invited Reynolds to join, saying that the company was numerous and miscellaneous, the terms lax, and the expenses light, but adding as a caution that Brocklesby had nominated James Barry (Letters of Samuel Johnson, 4.257). This was enough to deter Reynolds, who disliked Barry. Sir John Hawkins, a survivor of the Ivy Lane Club, snobbishly deplored what he saw as a degradation of Johnson's powers in ‘a six-penny club, at an ale-house’, where ‘the clink of the tankard’ was associated ‘with moral disquisition and literary investigation’ (Hawkins, 566–7). Tyers and Strahan resigned in 1784 and Scott never attended, so they were replaced by William Bowles (1755–1826), a landed gentleman, Philip Metcalfe (1733–1818), a brewer and MP, and James Boswell. Also in 1784 Allen died: his replacement may have been George Steevens or William Heberden, both of whom were mentioned by Reynolds as members of the Essex Head Club. Having told Bowles that the basis of the club's constitution was commodiousness, Johnson seems to have recruited him too eagerly, for he lived in Wiltshire, could not attend the club, and incurred fines of 9d. a week, which Johnson insisted on paying for him. Johnson's own irregular attendance was the result of his failing health. He paid his fines scrupulously.

Johnson died in 1784, but the Essex Head Club survived at least until 1794 and for an unknown period afterwards. Boswell announced in 1792 that ‘we go happily’ and, as a riposte to Hawkins, now dead, ‘there are few societies where there is better conversation or more decorum’ (Boswell, Life, 4.254 n. 2). Between 1786 and 1794 he attended it more than twice as often as he did the Club. Significantly he wrote on 19 February 1794: ‘Staid from the Literary Club this day as I did last meeting merely to save expence but went to Essex Head’ (Private papers, 18.264). In its emphasis on conviviality rather than the celebration of influence and fame, which often came to characterize the Club, the Essex Head Club perhaps came closest to meeting Johnson's ideal of a club.

James Sambrook


Boswell, Life · The letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. B. Redford, 5 vols. (1992–4) · Nichols, Lit. anecdotes, 2.553 · Aldebaran [G. Steevens], ‘Rules of Dr Johnson's club in Essex-street’, GM, 55 (1785), 99 · C. R. Leslie and T. Taylor, Life and times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 (1865), 455 · J. Hawkins, The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1787) · The private papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle, ed. G. Scott and F. A. Pottle (1928–37), vols. 16–18 · Boswell: the applause of the jury, 1782–1785, ed. I. S. Lustig and F. A. Pottle (New York, 1981), 354 · T. Tyers, ‘Biographical sketch of Dr Johnson’, GM, 54 (1784), 899–911 · W. Cooke, The life of Samuel Johnson ... to which is added, Johnsoniana, 2nd edn (1785)