When Boswell, Dr. Johnson’s faithful friend, was setting out on a grand tour of Europe the great man decided to see him off. They travelled through Essex to Harwich, where Boswell caught the boat to Holland.
Early in the morning of August 5, 1763, Dr. Johnson and Boswell left London in the stage-coach for Harwich. Boswell, somewhat reluctantly, was setting out on a grand tour of Europe, and the great Dr. Johnson, much to Boswell’s delight, had offered to accompany his young friend to Harwich to see him off on the boat for Holland. They must have set off from the King’s Arms in Leadenhall Street, whence the Harwich coaches departed three times weekly at five o’clock in the morning. Among their fellow travellers were a Dutchman and a “fat, elderly gentlewoman,” with whom they got into conversation. Upon her remarking that she had never allowed her children to be for a minute idle Dr. Johnson replied “I wish, madam, you would educate me too; for I have been an idle fellow all my life.”
As reading matter for the journey Dr. Johnson had brought in his pocket a Latin book called Pomponius Mela de Situ Orbis, a work on ancient geography, which he occasionally read very intently. No doubt to the learned doctor this seemed the kind of light reading suitable for a coach trip. His absorption in this subject, however, did not prevent him from noticing when Boswell over-tipped the coachman and administering a just reprimand. Rogues Traveller’s Assistant, published in the same year as Boswell and Johnson made their journey into Essex, describes, somewhat tersely, the route to Harwich: “At Bow you enter Essex over the river lea.... At 13 ½ miles you pass Epping Forest,” It is mostly the river crossings that are noted, something the modern traveller is scarcely aware of but no doubt often a hazard in the eighteenth century.
The route follows more or less the present A12 through Burnt Wood (Brentwood) and Ingatestone to Chelmsford. After Chelmsford, Rogue draws attention to the only gentleman’s seat that he thinks worthy of notice on this route – “Newhall Park, the Earl of Albemarle’s.” This would be the third earl, who in 1746, as aide-de-camp to the Duke of Cumberland, had borne dispatches to London announcing the victory at Culloden. New Hall, Boreham, now a religious house, can still be seen from the A12 soon after leaving Chelmsford. The two friends stopped for the night at Colchester, where Johnson, says Boswell, “talked of that town with veneration, for having stood a siege for Charles I.” Visitors to Colchester today can see in Siege House the bullet holes dating back to the civil war.
The inn where they stayed was the White Hart (by Bank Passage), which then enjoyed the best of the coaching trade. Later it was superseded by its competitors, the George, the Red Lion, the Three Cups and the Fleece, but in Dr. Johnson’s day it was still in the ascendancy, and local balls were held in its two assembly rooms. At supper at the White Heart Dr. Johnson “talked of good eating with uncommon satisfaction,” from which one might deduce that he was pleased with the fare provided. “Some people,” he said, have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.” The Dutchman from the coach was their companion at supper. He sought to commend himself to the doctor and his friend by explaining upon the superiority of criminal law in England, where accused persons were not, as in Holland, put to torture. Dr. Johnson, who in the coach had amazed Boswell by defending the Inquisition, now caused equal astonishment by supporting the Dutch custom of torture. Such was his love of argument that he was prepared to defend any cause for the sake of contention.
The next day saw the completion of their journey, the coach taking them through Ardleigh, Manningtree, “Ramsey Street” and “over the Ray” to Harwich. When they arrived they booked Boswell’s passage on the packet-boat for Helvoetsluys and put his baggage on board. Boswell, apparently unimpressed by the attractions Harwich had to offer, remarked that it would be “terrible” if his friend could not find a speedy opportunity for returning to London and found himself confined in so dull a place. To this Johnson retorted that Boswell should not get into the habit of using “big words for little matters.... It would not be terrible, though I were to be detained some time here.”
They then dined in the inn by themselves. This inn was almost certainly the Three Cups, which is still situated in Church Street. It was at that time the best know inn in Harwich, and had a large share of the trade of those stopping overnight before embarking for the Continent. The church being close to the inn it was natural that after dinner they should visit it, and when they were inside Johnson, “whose piety was constant and fervent, “ordered Boswell to his knees to pray for heavenly protection before leaving his native land. The present church of St. Nicholas is not the one which Johnson and Boswell visited, since this was rebuilt in 1825; the Norman font and monuments are, however, from the old church. Upon emerging from the church the two friends indulged in a little philosophical discussion, then walked down to the beach. Here they parted company, some display of emotion on Boswell’s part being countered by the doctor’s characteristic common sense. Then as the vessel put to sea, says Boswell, “I kept my eyes upon him for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner; and at last I perceived him walk back into the town, and he disappeared.”
Sources: James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791); Rogue, Traveller’s Assistant (1763); Lowndes, Guide to Stage Coaches (1782); Geoffrey Martin, Colchester (1959); senior assistant librarian, Harwich branch library
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