How the Johnson Society of Australia was born

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  • Post published:October 8, 2009
  • Post category:About Us

The gestation period for the Johnson Society of Australia was long, but far from painful.

Conception occurred in November, 1984, at a seminar held by the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne, marking the bicentenary of Johnson’s birth. After the event, three of the participants, Dr John Wiltshire, Dr Rusi Khan and Bryan Reid, began to discuss a long-held idea of Bryan’s to form a Johnson Society of Australia.

Nothing more happened for seven years, apart from sporadic resolutions to “do something about it” expressed at various luncheon meetings in Melbourne. Then, at another CAE seminar, marking the bicentenary of the publication of The Life, Professor Clive Probyn, Head of the English Department at Monash University, joined the speakers’ panel and the group of Johnson society enthusiasts. There followed a series of meetings, generally over lunch and always convivial, until in 1993 it was decided to hold a third Johnsonian CAE seminar at which the group would move to form a Society.

This took place on October 9, 1993, when 26 people –nearly all the audience– signed up as members after John Byrne, Australia’s leading collector of Johnson and Johnsoniana, moved, with Clive Probyn as seconder, that:

“A society be formed, to be called The Johnson Society of Australia, to have as its objectives the study and enjoyment of the life and works of Dr Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and their circle, to provide for an annual seminar and publication of matters arising out of the Society’s activities.”

Clive Probyn was elected President, Bryan Reid Secretary, John Byrne Treasurer and Kevin Hart, then Associate Professor in the Monash University English Department, Editor. Committee members were Pauline Brasch and Carla Hawley.

The Johnson Society of Australia is in correspondence with many other Johnson societies throughout the world, including The Johnson Society (Lichfield), The Johnson Society of London, The Johnson Society of the Central Region (Chicago) and the Samuel Johnson Club of Japan.

Several overseas members have from time to time visited Melbourne specially to present seminar papers. Notable among these has been Genny Gebhardt, who has twice made the very long flight from Seattle to Melbourne for JSA seminars. Genny is an expert on 18th Century boxing and street theatre, and has also addressed the Johnson Society of London on these subjects.

The JSA’s Christmas party is the opportunity for members to indulge some of their wilder fancies, as well as observing the proper traditions with carol-singing and other seasonal music. Dramatic sketches and monologues, readings from the Johnsonian and Boswellian texts, and much general jollity have made the Christmas party a highly popular occasion.

The resolution for the founding of the JSA stipulated “study and enjoyment”. The Society has always been careful to ensure that “enjoyment” gets its fair share.