The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Boswell, Johnson, and the Boar's Head Tavern

Author: James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Source: George Birbeck Hill, ed., Boswell's Life of Johnson. Volume 5 of 6. (New York: Bigelow, Brown & Company, Incorporated, 1887), pp. 281-2. Published simultaneously at Oxford and New York. This volume is based on James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Third Edition, Revised and Corrected. (London: Charles Dilly, 1786).

See: Notes On The Boar's Head Carols

Sept. 23. 1773. p. 281.

I mentioned a club in London at the Boar's Head in [p. 282] Eastcheap, the very tavern [1] where Falstaff and his joyous companions met; the members of which all assume Shakespeare's characters. One is Falstaff, another Prince Henry, another Bardolph, and so on. JOHNSON. 'Don't be of it, Sir. Now that you have a name, you must be careful to avoid many things, not bad in themselves, but which will lessen your character.[2] This every man who has a name must observe. A man who is not publickly known may live in London as he pleases, without any notice being taken of him; but it is wonderful how a person of any consequence is watched. There was a member of parliament, who wanted to prepare himself to speak on a question that was to come on in the House; and he and I were to talk it over together. He did not wish it should be known that he talked with me; so he would not let me come to his house, but came to mine. Some time after he had made his speech in the house, Mrs. Cholmondeley [3], a very airy [4] lady, told me, "Well, you could make nothing of him!" naming the gentleman; which was a proof that he was watched. I had once some business to do for government, and I went to Lord North's. Precaution was taken that it should not be known. It was dark before I went; yet a few days after I was told, " Well, you have been with Lord North." That the door of the prime minister should be watched is not strange; but that a member of parliament should be watched, or that my door should be watched, is wonderful.'

We set out this morning on our way to Talisker, in Ulinish's boat, having taken leave of him and his family. Mr. Donald McQueen still favoured us with his company, for [p. 283] which we were much obliged to him. As we sailed along Dr. Johnson got into one of his fits of railing at the Scots. He owned that they had been a very learned nation for a hundred years, from about 1550 to about 1650; but that they afforded the only instance of a people among whom the arts of civil life did not advance in proportion with learning; that they had hardly any trade, any money, or any elegance, before the Union; that it was strange that, with all the advantages possessed by other nations, they had not any of those conveniences and embellishments which are the fruit of industry, till they came in contact with a civilized people. 'We have taught you, (said he,) and we'll do the same in time to all barbarous nations,—to the Cherokees,— and at last to the Ouran-Outangs;' laughing with as much glee as if Monboddo had been present. BOSWELL. 'We had wine before the Union.' JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; you had some weak stuff, the refuse of France, which would not make you drunk.' BOSWELL. 'I assure you, Sir, there was a great deal of drunkenness.' JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; there were people who died of dropsies, which they contracted in trying to get drunk [5].'


1. Not the very tavern, which was burned down in the great fire. P. Cunningham. [Ed. This is not Boswell's footnote, but, rather, the footnote of a later editor.]

2. I do not see why I might not have been of this club without lessening my character. But Dr. Johnson's caution against supposing one's self concealed in London, may be very useful to prevent some people from doing many things, not only foolish, but criminal. Boswell.

3. See ante, iii. 362.

4. Johnson defines airy as gay, sprightly, full of mirth, &c.

5. 'A man would be drowned by claret before it made him drunk.' Ante, iii. 433.

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