Exploring the rich and fascinating past of the historic counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. We uncover the history of the people, ideas and events that shaped the West Midlands and the world beyond.
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18th Century Lichfield: Cultural Capital of the Midlands

Lichfield Cathedral

During the 18th century Birmingham became the industrial and commercial centre of the Midlands, but in the absence of any regional university, Lichfield could claim to be its cultural capital. This was a remarkable achievement for a city where the population was only 3,088 in 1695 (Gregory King’s estimate) and 4,842 according to the 1801 census. Samuel Johnson emphasised its importance when he told his biographer Boswell that Lichfield was a city of philosophers; “we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with our hands”. This was a caricature, but Lichfield was the intellectual heart of the region in at least two different respects. First, a number of individuals who made their impact on British cultural life were born in Lichfield or educated locally. They included Elias Ashmole, the antiquarian, Gregory King, the statistician, Joseph Addison, the essayist, Samuel Johnson, the writer and David Garrick, the actor-manager. Secondly, Lichfield became the home of several residents who achieved intellectual importance whilst living in the city. They included the physician, Sir John Floyer, the antiquarian Richard Greene, Erasmus Darwin, doctor and scientist, Anna Seward, the poet, Thomas Day, the humanitarian campaigner and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the inventor and educationalist. Darwin, Day and Edgeworth were members of the Lunar Society who were part of a wider network of creative individuals in Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire. The “Lunaticks” met at each other’s homes at the time of the full moon and made central contributions to Enlightenment thinking and industrial innovation.

Eighteenth century Lichfield developed a series of attractions which contributed to its importance as a cultural centre. It was the home of two physicians of national importance, Sir John Floyer who practised in the city from the 1670s to 1734 and Erasmus Darwin who lived there from 1756 to 1781. Both were interested in the medicinal qualities of local water, but Lichfield only developed briefly as a spa town. Lichfield Races which relocated from Fradley to Whittington in 1702 was an annual event and the biggest race meeting in Staffordshire. There were three days of festivities which included balls and dinners for the respectable and cock-fighting and sports for others. At other times, music and dancing took place at the Guildhall in Bore Street, the George in Bird Street and the hall of the Vicars Choral in the Close. Professional theatrical companies visited Lichfield from the 1760s and used the Guildhall for their location. A purpose-built playhouse was constructed in 1790.

Lichfield’s importance as a “city of philosophers” did not last. In the 19th century it declined as an intellectual centre, despite continuing to develop socially and economically. Its population continued to grow from 4,842 in 1801 to 7,902 in 1901. Moreover the coming of Wyrley and Essington Canal in 1797 brought traders, cheap coal and additional industry, including a limeworks and boneworks to Lichfield. Railways, moreover, arrived in the 1840s. These changes did not compensate for the decline in Lichfield as a cultural centre. The city’s importance as a centre for leisure for the elite classes reached its height in the closing decades of the 18th century. The Races, once the high point of the local social calendar were in decline, probably from the late 1770. Lichfield’s Theatre which opened in 1790 struggled financially and closed in the 19th century.

More importantly, the departure of Erasmus Darwin for Derbyshire in 1781 robbed Lichfield of its main intellectual attraction. Lichfield like other places in England was affected by the conservative reaction to the French Revolution. It was dangerous to express and debate radical ideas in the three decades after the Priestley Riots of 1791. One of the sources of Lichfield’s effervescence was coaching traffic which brought visitors, wealth and conversation to the city. It was in decline even before Lichfield was connected with the railway network. The last long-distance service, the mail coach to Chester ended in 1838.

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