Who was Quashey?

This question was answered after our AGM in February, when Graeme Clark, Museum and Heritage Officer at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum gave thirty members a most entertaining illustrated talk on the life of Francis Barber (Quashey), Johnson's "servant". The story of his life was the stuff on which Hollywood films are based. Born around 1742, a slave in Jamaica, he survived the bankruptcy of his master, Col. Bathurst's estates in 1750 and accompanied him to England, where he was baptised Francis Barber. Schooled initially in Yorkshire, he returned to serve Col. Bathurst's son, Richard when he was introduced to Johnson. His outgoing character was just what Johnson needed as he recovered from the death of his wife. Thus the lifelong relationship began, with Johnson, the guardian, regarding Francis as part servant and part son.

The relationship had its ups and downs with Barber leaving the often chaotic Jonhson household on more than one occasion to seek his fortune elsewhere. For instance, 1758 he enlisted in the Navy, only to be discharged two years later largely at Johnson's instigation. By 1767 Jonhson placed him (at the age of 25) in Bishop Stortford Grammar School, where Jonhson was "determined to make him a scholar". Subsequently, his education was enhanced further by joining Johnson on his travels. In 1776 he married Betsy, fourteen years his junior, but continued to work for Johnson, who was increasingly reliant on him after his stroke in 1783.

As Johnson's full time carer, he was present at his death in 1784 and to the surprise of many, benefited from substantial bequests in Johnson's will. He became a rich man. Yet the mystery arises as to how he managed to spend his way rapidly through the modern day equivalent of 100,000 and die a pauper. By 1786 his money was gone and begging letters revealed the extent of his plight. First living in Stowe Lane, the family gravitated to Burntwood where Johnson's educational investment in him paid off and he became a teacher. He was buried at St. Mary's Church Stafford in 1801, predeceasing his wife by 15 years. She lies at rest in St. Chad's churchyard here in Lichfield, although the grave site has been lost.

Graeme's talk left us breathless. In one hour we were treated to a whistle stop tour of a fascinating life that touched on that of the Great Man himself. Let's have more!!

Roger Hockney
February 2008