Part of the letter written by Samuel Johnson
Part of the letter written by Samuel Johnson

A letter written by one of Lichfield’s most famous sons has been found among a cache of documents in a Gloucestershire country house.

The location of the letter penned by Samuel Johnson had been a mystery until it was found during a routine valuation by Chorley’s auctioneers.

It was tucked away with others in a cupboard, with the current owner of the house being unaware of their historical importance.

He penned the missing letter to a Sophia Thrale, the daughter of Hester Lynch Thrale, a British author and patron of the arts who he corresponded with so regularly and in so much detail, that her letters later became historically important published resources into 18th century society and the great mind of Dr Johnson.

In the letter, the elderly Johnson chides Sophia for not thinking of herself as his favourite:

“My favour will, I’m afraid never be worth much, but its value more or less, you are never likely to lose it.”

He also praised her arithmetical ability:

“Never think, my Sweet, that you have arithmetick enough, when you have exhausted your master, buy books, nothing amuses more harmlessly than computation.”

The letters between Johnson and the family began in 1765, but their correspondence ended following Hester Lynch Thrale’s second marriage following her husband’s death to an impoverished Italian music teacher who had taught her children. Johnson did not approve, and their correspondence ceased in 1783.

They would reconcile just before Johnson’s death in 1884 and following this, Hester published a book based on their letters – Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson.

The letter is expected to fetch between £8,000 and £12,000 when it is sold at auction on 19th September.

Werner Freundel, director at Chorley’s auction house, said:

“Initially, I was asked to value a collection of books and rugs for a family who had recently taken over their ancestral family home.

“I spent a long afternoon between the library and drawing room, collating volumes of Tillotson, Defoe, Kipling and Scott that had been separated throughout the years, during their time in the various generations of the family.

“One of the cupboards in the library yielded several manuscript volumes detailing the household expenditure during the late 18th and 19th centuries. There were also fascinating diaries, accounts of society gossip, family feuds about inheritance, as well as advice on etiquette, marriage, and grumbles about failing health.

“I then came across a volume of over 100 letters that the family weren’t aware of and I asked if I could take them away to go through. Later, alongside a manuscript specialist we examined everything in more depth and it wasn’t long before our curiosity was piqued by the mention of Sarah Siddons, Hester Thrale-Piozzi, several members of the Hoare banking family and Samuel Johnson.

“Finally, a letter from and signed by, the famous Dr Johnson appeared towards the end of the volume. We were thrilled to discover that it was a missing letter written by Dr Johnson himself to Sophia Lynch Thrale, which is currently listed as ‘current location unknown’.

“We felt honoured to handle such a historic document by one of the greatest contributors to the history of English. Johnson developed what we know as the English dictionary, not as a student’s tool, but as a literary work. His creation of the English dictionary was the impetus for all subsequent dictionary genres.

“It is a complete mystery as to how the letters came into possession of the family, but they were found with another volume on the Laws of London, signed by Robert Hoare, so one can assume there is a link between the current family and the Hoare banking family.”

Founder of Lichfield Live and editor of the site.