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date: 25 October 2021

Club [Literary Club, Johnson's Literary Club]free

(act. 1764–1784)

Club [Literary Club, Johnson's Literary Club]free

(act. 1764–1784)
  • James Sambrook

Club [Literary Club, Johnson's Literary Club] (act. 1764–1784), was a supper and conversational club founded by Joshua Reynolds in February 1764, partly to furnish 'The great delight of [Samuel Johnson's] life … conversation and mental intercourse' (Hawkins, 219). It consisted of Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, and seven of their friends: Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, John Hawkins, Topham Beauclerk, Anthony Chamier, Bennet Langton, and Christopher Nugent. Shortly afterwards Samuel Dyer joined them as first elected member. Hawkins and Dyer had been members of the Ivy Lane Club, a supper club centred on Johnson active between winter 1748–9 and the mid-1750s. Johnson, Reynolds, and Goldsmith were now eminent in their professions; Burke, not yet an MP, was known as a writer, as Hawkins would be; but the others were not public figures and their chief claim to remembrance is that they were friends of Johnson. Reynolds's new club, known simply as the Club (though members and others often called it the Literary Club), met once a week for supper and conversation until late in the night at the Turk's Head tavern, kept by one Charles Swinden in Gerrard Street, Soho. (Photographs of the first-floor rooms in 1965, presumably those used by the Club and little altered in 200 years, are in Sheppard, pl. 65.) Hawkins resigned from the Club before February 1768, having been ostracized because he abused Burke. After his withdrawal it was agreed to increase membership to twelve: every new member was to be elected by ballot, with one black ball sufficient for exclusion. The new members introduced on 15 February 1768 were Robert Chambers, Thomas Percy, and George Colman. Chambers was a promising young lawyer befriended as an Oxford undergraduate by Johnson; the other two were established writers.

Years later Percy attested that Johnson's explanation as to why the Club began with so small a number and was for many years not allowed to exceed twelve was because

It was intended the Club should consist of Such men, as that if only Two of them chanced to meet, they should be able to entertain each other without wanting the addition of more Company to pass the Evening agreeably.

29 Feb 1788, Correspondence, ed. Waingrow, 209

A later member, Charles Burney, wrote:

It was Johnson's wish that our Club should be composed of the heads of every liberal and literary profession, that we might not talk nonsense on any subject that might be started, but have somebody to refer to in our doubts and discussions, by whose Science we might be enlightened.

16 July 1791, ibid., 331

Burney echoes Johnson's and Boswell's conceit that the Club in 1773, when it numbered sixteen, could provide a complete and competent faculty for an imaginary college at St Andrews. Johnson's intentions do not contradict one another but they bring into question the optimum size of a conversation club. According to Hawkins, he originally wanted only nine or ten members and there were no more than twelve before March 1773, but then a series of elections rapidly enlarged the Club to twenty-one by December 1775. The new members, in order of election, were James Caulfeild, first earl of Charlemont, David Garrick, William Jones, James Boswell, Agmondesham Vesey (d. 1785), husband of the literary hostess Elizabeth Vesey, Charles James Fox, George Fordyce, Sir (Thomas) Charles Bunbury, George Steevens, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, and Thomas Barnard. These accessions were offset by the deaths of Dyer, Goldsmith, and Nugent. Johnson told Boswell in March 1776 that the Club 'was now quite spoiled by the introduction of too many members' not 'agreeable to all the rest' (Boswell: the ominous years, 260); one such was Smith who bubbled his wine in his mouth. Gibbon was blackballed once, probably by Boswell, before election in 1774, but there is no evidence that Johnson ever used his black ball to restrict the Club's growth. The twelve new members included six writers and three politicians; perhaps the only nonentity was Vesey.

In April 1775 a minute book was opened to record the Club's affairs: particularly to register attendance at its newly instituted regular dinners because members living in London and failing to attend a dinner without an excuse paid a forfeit of 5s. From January 1776 dinners were fortnightly at 4.30 p.m. during sessions of parliament; informal evening meetings, with supper at 10 p.m., continued as before in the weeks when there was no dinner. The Club had its own stock of wine, sold to diners at 1s. 6d. for a bottle of claret and 1s. for a bottle of port. There was also an irregular levy for replenishment, which in 1781 was 2 guineas, though some members were excused: for example Boswell because he was not in London in 1780, Johnson because he was not a wine drinker, and Barnard because he had given the Club a hogshead of claret in 1778.

The Club continued to grow. Between January 1777 and December 1778 membership increased to thirty with the election of Joseph Warton, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, John Fitzpatrick, second earl of Upper Ossory (1745–1818), Richard Marlay (c.1728–1802), dean of Ferns, John Dunning, later Baron Ashburton, Sir William Scott, later Baron Stowell, Joseph Banks, William Windham, and George John Spencer, Viscount Althorp, afterwards second Earl Spencer. Garrick, Beauclerk, Chamier, and Dunning died between 1779 and 1783 and the last spurt of growth took membership of the Club to thirty-five between November 1780 and February 1784. The new members were Jonathan Shipley, Edward Craggs-Eliot, later Baron Eliot, Edmond Malone, Charles Bingham, first Baron Lucan (1735–1799), Thomas Warton, Edmund Burke's son Richard Burke (1758–1794), Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston, Sir William Hamilton, and Charles Burney (1726–1814). By 1784 the Club included seven peers, three bishops, and a dean, and men of affairs for the first time outnumbered men of letters. A resolution on 9 May 1780 in favour of the latest increase also stipulated that membership should not exceed forty.

As early as 1777 Johnson told Boswell that he was now glad of this augmentation, 'for as we have several in it whom I do not much like to consort with, I am for reducing it to a mere miscellaneous collection of conspicuous men, without any determinate character' (Boswell, Life, 3.106). His attendance decreased after 1778, though he was not the only member to dine infrequently: Sheridan and Fox, for instance, stayed away for years on end, accumulating and paying off their 5s. fines. Other members were far away for long periods: for instance Jones and Chambers in India, Boswell and Smith in Scotland, Gibbon in Lausanne.

Perhaps some of the members Johnson did not like to consort with were whig politicians, because when, in or before April 1781, he prompted John Hoole to form a City club at the Queen's Arms in St Paul's Churchyard he stipulated that it should include no ‘patriots’. Of his own club he wrote on 19 April 1783 that it 'is now very miscellaneous, and very heterogeneous, it is therefore without confidence, and without pleasure. I go to it only as to a kind of publick dinner' (Letters of Samuel Johnson, 4.126). By November 1783 the landlord of the Turk's Head and his widow who had kept on the tavern were dead and the house had reverted to private use, so the Club moved to Prince's, in Sackville Street. It was, however, probably Johnson's growing loneliness, rather than uncongenial Club members and a changed venue, that prompted him, in November 1783, to organize dinners, at the no longer fashionable hour of 3.30 p.m., with the three other living former members of the old Ivy Lane Club, and in the following month, aged seventy-four, to establish the Essex Head Club. Johnson died in 1784 and after a few more years the Essex Head Club sank from view. Johnson's death marked the end of Johnson's Literary Club in the sense that he could only be its focus in memory; additionally, for many years it had not provided Johnson with the companionship he sought. In 1791 it was made famous by Boswell's Life of Johnson, even though Boswell's inimitable dramas of Johnson's conversational triumphs were far more often set at the Mitre tavern or the dinner tables of friends, such as General James Oglethorpe or Henry and Hester Thrale, than at the Club, which Boswell and Johnson attended together perhaps no more than eight times. Yet as an institution the Club not only survived Johnson, but flourished. Its attraction for men who were highly conspicuous in public life became, if anything, stronger after Johnson's death, a tendency that seems occasionally to have caused misgivings. When the bishop of Peterborough, the duke of Leeds, and the bishop of Salisbury were all elected in 1792 Boswell gleefully told Barnard they were 'choice accessions' (16 Aug 1792, Correspondence, ed. Fifer, 272), but when the next vacancies arose Barnard (himself a bishop) protested to Boswell:

We have already Peers and Bishops full enough … Find me Two Men of Known abilities, Unblemished Character, Polite and Easy Manners, whose conversation is at the Same Time Pleasant, and Improving, and who are already no Strangers to the Majority of the Club.

25 March 1794, ibid.

As with Johnson's intentions for the Club, these categories are not contradictory. No doubt with Barnard's desiderata in mind, the Club elected men of letters, philosophers, lawyers, physicians, scholars, divines, and occasionally an artist, as before, but politicians predominated. Before 1773 the Club included one MP; by 1802 over half its members were MPs or peers; in 1806 it included six members of the government, including the three principal secretaries of state, as well as two former ambassadors; and in the next 100 years it included more than half the future or incumbent prime ministers from the earl of Liverpool to Asquith. In the twentieth century the mix of members remained much the same as before, except that politicians were fewer. Membership rose to forty in 1914 (with the election of Rudyard Kipling) and rose sometimes to fifty in the latter part of the twentieth century. The prophetic toast of its founders, (Esto perpetuaHawkins, 424), like the resolution of 1780 on numbers, has fallen into disuse, and it has changed from the Literary Club envisaged by Reynolds for Johnson, but it continues to satisfy Johnson's Dictionary definition of a club as 'an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions'.


  • Annals of the Club, 1764-1914 (1914)
  • J. Hawkins, The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1787)
  • The letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. B. Redford, 5 vols. (1992–4)
  • The correspondence and other papers of James Boswell relating to the making of the ‘Life of Johnson’, ed. M. Waingrow, 2nd edn (2001) [Boswell's Correspondence, vol. 2]
  • The correspondence of James Boswell with certain members of the Club, ed. C. N. Fifer (1976) [Boswell's Correspondence, vol. 3]
  • The correspondence of James Boswell with David Garrick, Edmund Burke, and Edmond Malone, ed. G. M. Kahrl and others (1986) [Boswell's Correspondence, vol. 4]
  • The correspondence of Thomas Percy and Edmond Malone, ed. A. Tillotson (1944), vol. 1 of The Percy letters, ed. C. Brooks, A. N. Smith, and A. F. Falconer (1944–88)
  • Boswell: the ominous years, 1774–1776, ed. C. Ryskamp and F. A. Pottle (1963)
  • Boswell in extremes, 1776–1778, ed. C. M. Weis and F. A. Pottle (1970), vol. 10 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell, laird of Auchinleck, 1778–1782, ed. J. W. Read and F. A. Pottle (1977)
  • The Windham papers, 2 vols. (1913) [with an introduction by the earl of Rosebery]
  • M. E. G. Duff, The Club, 1764–1905 (1905)
  • F. W. Hilles, The literary career of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1936)
  • F. H. W. Sheppard, ed., The parish of St Anne, Soho, Survey of London, 34 (1966), 388–91
  • C. N. Fifer, ‘The founding of Dr Johnson's Literary Club’, N&Q (1956), 302–3


  • BL, annals of the Club (four volumes, 1775–1921, on loan from the Club)
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Notes and Queries
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J. Boswell , ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (1934–50); 2nd edn (1964); repr. (1971)
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British Library, London