Swimming with Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale: Sport, Health and Exercise in eighteenth-century England

By Julia Allen

An exploration of the history of British sport, viewed through the lens of the life and work of Samuel Johnson and his friend and correspondent Hester Thrale.

ISBN: 9780718892760


In Swimming with Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale, Julia Allen takes a sideways look at sport, health and exercise in the eighteenth century, and in so doing reveals unfamiliar sides of the eponymous characters she uses as guides and commentators. Samuel Johnson does battle with the rough breakers at Brighton as energetically as he did with any of his verbal opponents; and Hester Thrale – herself ‘a good waterspaniel’ – provides wry observations, notably on what men decided women might decently be allowed to do in that foreign country that is the past.

Allen starts with the medical theories underpinning notions about exercise, the role of the physician and the surgeon, the conditions in which exercise was taken, its place in child-rearing and education, and its efficacy as a remedy for depression. Chapters on the various sports and forms of exercise associated with Johnson and Mrs Thrale follow, from boxing and swimming to dancing and coach travel, including biographies of the star performers, and eye-witness accounts of the events they took part in. This book offers a wealth of research for anyone interested in peering into some of the obscurer recesses of eighteenth-century life.

Additional information

Dimensions 234 × 156 mm
Pages 310

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Trade Information LGENPOD

About the Author

Julia Allen read English at Bristol University and has worked as a teacher, librarian, translator, lexicographer and copy-editor. She wrote Samuel Johnson’s Menagerie (2002) and published “Beyond ‘the civilities of Cambridge’: the afterlife of the ‘young Cantabs’ who hosted Johnson’s visit of 1765” in the 2010 centenary edition of Transaction of the Johnson Society of Lichfield. In 2009 she curated the Cambridge University Library exhibition jointly commemorating the University’s 800th anniversary and the 300th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. She lived in France for eighteen years and now lives in Cambridge.



Part I
Dr Johnson & Mrs Thrale – some mostly medical notes
Doing things ‘differently’

Part II
1. Boxing
2. Cricket
3. Dancing
4. Foot-racing

5. Riding
6. Skating
7. Swimming
8. Coach travel

Part III
Who was who
Rambler 85


Endorsements and Reviews

[Julia Allen] has now turned her curious gaze on a perhaps surprisingly athletic Johnson, who recognised that ‘much happiness is to be gained’ and ‘much misery escaped by frequent and violent agitation of the body’ …
Mary Smith, in Transactions of the Johnson Society, 2012

There is surely no-one better to write this book than Allen, whose passion and unrivalled knowledge shine through on every page … [Swimming with Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale] will reward those dedicated readers who desire an insightful look into a much different time …
Tom Edwards, in Swimming Times, April 2013

… probably just the sort of book that Johnson would have employed in his compilation of the Dictionary. … Inspired by her knowledge of lexicography and a desire to rescue Johnson from caricature as a ‘stout, elderly-looking man in a wig’, Allen reproduces a collection of curious gobbets to illustrate the physical activities enjoyed by Johnson and his contemporaries.
Kate Chisholm, in The Times Literary Supplement, 3 May 2013

… let yourself be pulled out of the present … and enjoy the pleasure of lingering amidst the images and poetic thoughts provided by the characters.
Diana Garrist, in British Journal for the History of Science, Vol 47, Issue 2

Swimming with Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale was a throughly engaging, well-written account on several aspects of eighteenth century English life. … its main priority was to reveal some of the ‘obscure recesses of eighteenth century life by shining a search light on aspects of sport, health and exercise’ this it achieves admirably by revealing that the past is where they do things differently.
Claire Parker, in Sport in Society, Vol 16, Issue 5