The Society was founded in Lichfield in 1910, a year after the local bi-centenary celebrations of Johnson’s birth. Its members played a prominent part in the Birthday Celebrations (started in 1903 by the City Council) and they continue to do so. Activities are focussed around the September Birthday Weekend, but other events, lectures and outings are also organised and visits to places with Johnsonian associations have been an important activity for the Society from its outset. (see Events). Ever since the end of the Second World War the Society has annually published its Transactions which is distributed throughout its world-wide membership.
Each year a new president is installed at the Birthday Supper in the Guildhall. The current President is Henry Hitchings (pictured). Henry is an author and journalist who has written extensively about language and cultural history, but more particularly has published two books on Samuel Johnson. He was a King’s Scholar at Eton College before going on to Christ Church, Oxford and then to University College to research his PhD on Samuel Johnson. In May 2009, Henry became the theatre critic on the London Evening Standard, and he has also written for the Financial Times, the New Statesman, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and the Times Literary Supplement. He has also made radio, television and festival appearances. Henry was the writer and presenter of the documentary Birth of the British Novel which was broadcast on BBC 4 in 2011. He had previously been a featured contributor to the documentary Samuel Johnson: The Dictionary Man in 2006.
Henry Hitchins has written extensively. In 2005 he published Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World. In the United States, Defining the World won the Modern Language Association’s prize for the best work by an independent scholar in 2005. In April 2008, Henry published The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, a study of loanwords, calques and their cultural significance. In November 2008 The Secret Life of Words won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the first work of non-fiction to do so in six years. In March 2009, on the strength of The Secret Life of Words, Hitchings was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the year award. In June 2009 he received a Somerset Maugham Award. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2015.
Johnson Society presidents have been chosen from many areas of public life reflecting the wide-ranging appeal of Samuel Johnson (see listings). Prominent scholars have included R. W. Chapman, L. F. Powell, Mary Hyde, J. L. Clifford, Mary Lascelles, Donald Greene and Graham Nicholls. Figures from the world of broadcasting, the press, the church, industry, law, politics and literature include Margaret Drabble, Lord Harmsworth, Frank Muir, John Wain, Malcolm Muggeridge, Robert Robinson, Richard Ingram, Enoch Powell, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, Dame Beryl Bainbridge, biographer Adam Sisman, broadcaster, journalist and author John Sergeant, Lord Butler of Brockwell, writer and broadcaster Nigel Rees, and Professor Peter Martin.
In 1900, Lichfield City Council was presented with the house in which Johnson had been born in the Market Square. With its world-wide membership, the Johnson Society has been active in helping to preserve the Birthplace Museum and has frequently assisted the City Council in the purchasing of Johnsonian items.
The Society takes part in other appropriate events and commemorations. Examples include sponsorship of drama workshops for local schools.
The Johnson Society is a member of the Alliance of Literary Societies.
The official name of the Society is The Johnson Society (Lichfield). It is a registered charity and its registered charity number is 1078243.