1854-June 1855

The Collected Letters, Volume 29


TC'S DRAFT MEMORIAL TO LORD PALMERSTON; 30 April 1855; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18550400-TC-DMLP-01; CL 29: 299-302


[late April-early May 1855]

The Undersigned beg respectfully to submit to Lord Palmerston a statement of reasons which appear to them to constitute, on behalf of the two aged surviving daughters of Mauritius Lowe therein described, a claim to such small yearly pension as in his Lordship's judgment may consist with other claims and demands for the ensuing year, upon the Fund appropriate to Literature.1

In Doctor Samuel Johnson's last will is this passage:

“I also give and bequeath to my God-children, the son and daughter of Mauritius Lowe, Painter, each of them one hundred pounds of my stock in the Three per Cent Consolidated Annuities, to be disposed of by and at the discretion of my Executors, in the education or settlement in the world of them my said legatees.”

The Mauritius Lowe, mentioned here, who was once a man of great promise in his art, favourably known in the Royal Academy and in the world as a man of refined manners and real talent and worth (though probably with something of morbid, or over-sensitive, in his character), died in ten years after Johnson, without fulfilling the high hopes entertained of him. The Godson, or younger Lowe, mentioned in the Will,—who at one time (1810–13) appears to have held some small appointment in Barbados, creditably to himself, but with loss of health, the crown and consummation of other losses he had met with,—is also long since dead. Of these Lowes, and their hopes and struggles, there is now nothing to be said; they are sunk under the horizon; nor can they pretend to have any hold on the world's memory, except what is derived from the Father's intimacy with Johnson; of which, and of Johnson's helpfulness and real esteem and affection for the man, there are still abundant proofs, printed and not printed, besides this of the Will.

But the God-daughter mentioned in the Will has not yet sunk under the horizon. She still survives among us; a highly respectable old person, now in her 78th year, with all her faculties about her; living, with her younger sister, aged 72, the only other remnant of the family—in a house they have long occupied, No. 5, Minerva Place, New-Cross, Deptford,—with numerous memorials of Johnson in their possession, which vividly bring home to us, and present us a still living fact, their connection with that great man. They have lived there for many years, in rigorous though not undignified poverty; which now, by some unforseen occurrences, threaten to be come absolute indigence in these their final years.

They are gentlewomen in manners; by all evidence persons of uniformly unexceptionable conduct; veracity, sense, ingenious propriety, noticeable in them both, to a superior degree. The elder, especially must have been a graceful lively little woman, something of a beauty, in her young days, and by no means wanting for talent:—she still recollects in a dim but ineffaceable manner, the big awful figure of Samuel Johnson, to whom she was carried, shortly before his death, that he might lay his hand on her head, and give her his blessing; her awe and terror very great on the occasion. Both sisters are in perfect possession of their faculties,—the younger only is slightly hard of hearing:—the elder (on whose head lay Johnson's hand) has still a light step, perfectly erect carriage, and vivacious memory and intellect: the younger, who is of very honest and somewhat sterner features, appears to be the practical intellect of the house; and probably the practical hand, for in their poverty they keep no servant of any kind. They are very poor; but have taken their poverty in a quiet, unaffectedly handsome manner; and have still hope that, in some way or other, intolerable want will not be permitted to overtake them. They have an altogether respectable, or we might say (bringing the past and the present into contact) a touching and venerable air. There, in their little parlour at Deptford, is the fir Desk (capable of being rigorously authenticated as such)2 upon which Samuel Johnson wrote the English Dictionary, the best Dictionary ever written, say some.

It is in behalf of these two women, of Johnson's god-daughter fallen old and indigent, that we venture to solicit from the Government some small public subvention, to screen their last years from the worst misery. It may be urged that there is no public fund appropriated for such objects, and that their case cannot, except in a reflex way, be brought under the head of Literary Pensions: But in a reflex way, it surely can; and we humbly submit withal, that this case of theirs is, in some measure, a peculiar and unique one.

Samuel Johnson is such a literary man as probably will not appear again in England for a very great length of time. His works and his Life, looked at well, have something in them of heroic, which is of value beyond most Literature, and much beyond all money and money's worth, to the Nation which produced him. That same English Dictionary, written on the poor fir Desk above spoken of, under sternly memorable circumstances, is itself, a proud possession to the English Nation; and not in the Philological point of view alone. Such a Dictionary has an Architectonic quality in it; and, for massive solidity of plan, manful correctness and fidelity of execution,—luminous intelligence, rugged honesty and greatness of mind, pervading every part of it, is like no other. This too is a Cathedral of St. Paul's, after its sort; and stands there, for long periods, silently reminding every English soul of much that it is very necessary to remember!

Samuel Johnson himself is far beyond reach of our gratitude: he left no child or representative of any kind, to claim pensions or distinctions from us:—and here, by accident, thrown up on the vast sea beach, is something venerably human, with Johnson's mark still legible upon it; Johnson, as it were, mutely bequeathing it to us, and to what humanity and loyalty we have for the few years that may still be left. Our humble request, in the name of Literature withal, is, that the English nation will, in some small adequate way, respond to this demand of Johnson's