Anna Williams

Page added 22nd March 2016

Anna Williams
Courtesy of Samuel Johnson Museum

The worst disaster experienced by the British navy occurred on November 2 1707. The entire fleet under the delightfully named Sir Cloudesley Shovell wrongly navigated their position whilst returning home from Gibraltar and foundered on rocks close to the Scilly Isles. Five huge vessels were lost along with a conservative estimate of two thousand lives including their commander.

It was this disaster that led the British Government, some years later, to offer a reward to anyone who could find a way of successfully measuring longitude whilst at sea.

And thus, into this story step Anna Williams of Rosemarket, born in 1706, and her father Zachariah. Anna’s grandfather had been vicar of Rosemarket and appears on the list of vicars in the church. Zachariah was a doctor but considered himself more of an inventor and joined the throng hoping to claim the £20,000 longitude prize, moving to London with Anna in 1727.

The dimensions to this story expand massively from this point and are only poorly contained in this précis.

Whatever Zachariah’s perhaps naive image had been of presenting his ideas to the Admiralty Board, they were soon dashed. It became very evident soon after their arrival that some inventors had already been waiting for years, queuing every day outside the relevant offices and hoping to be called.

Money ran out and Zachariah was admitted to the Charterhouse. He gained entry into this prestigious haven for destitute gentlemen as a result of his close friendship (possibly distant relative) with the Philippses of Picton Castle, a daughter of which family one generation before had produced the wife of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister at the time of Anna and Zachariah’s arrival in London.

But because the Charterhouse was only for men, Zachariah’s efforts to hide Anna in the building led to the two of them being expelled. From this point Anna tried to earn enough for the two of them to exist by resorting to needlework, the problem being that Anna’s eyesight was already extremely limited due to pronounced cataracts.

In desperation, Zachariah sought help from Samuel Johnson in presenting his work. Both Johnson and his extremely eccentric wife ‘Tetty’ befriended the Williams pair and they became frequent visitors.

Samuel Johnson's house, Gough Square
Courtesy of Samuel Johnson Museum

In between working on his dictionary Johnson helped to prepare Zachariah’s thesis for publication but it seems (according to Zachariah) that a member of the Admiralty Board named Molyneux stole his ideas and presented them as his own. Neither presentation progressed any further due it seems to Zachariah’s unusual solution which involved compass readings at various European cities. He had also however a far more practical invention to his name; that of extracting salt from seawater, but this too was overlooked or ignored by the Admiralty.

Johnson’s friendship extended to the extent of arranging (and paying for) an operation by the best surgeon of the time, Mr Samuel Sharp, in the hope that Anna’s eyesight might be restored and which was performed on his dining room table in Gough Square. The operation was a failure and Anna was from that point, in the words of James Boswell (biographer of Johnson), ‘stone blind’.

After the death of Zachariah and Tetty in the mid 1750s, Johnson took Anna into his home, partly out of declared guilt at having been the initiator of the eye operation. She acted as his household accountant for almost thirty years and accompanied him to literary events around London. She wrote her own poetry, the sale of which gave her a small independent income and which Johnson promoted through his contacts.

Anna died on 6th September 1783.

For many years I have been intrigued with the tale of Anna Williams and some years ago wrote a play based on her life and association with Johnson. For those equally drawn to it, the unabridged volumes of Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ give some information about Anna.