Uttoxeter today heard how one of its key historic figures amazingly left his vast fortune to a Jamaican boy he had liberated from the shackles of slavery.
The annual commemoration of Dr Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first ever official English dictionary, saw traffic in Market Place brought to a standstill this morning, Monday, September 25.
But before town mayor Alison Trenery laid a wreath on the Dr Johnson memorial kiosk, onlookers were told a little-known story about the literary luminary. In the 1700s, the talented writer famously endured an act of penance where the kiosk now stands.
It is well known Dr Johnson stood out in the rain without his hat in self-enforced punishment for refusing to work on his dad's book stall decades earlier. But many readers will be unaware of the writer's incredible acts of generosity - including leaving his huge fortune to former slave Francis Barber.
Michael Bundock, president of the Johnson Society, told the story during a special service at St Mary's Parish Church, in Bridge Street.
He said: "From his very early days at Lichfield Grammar School, Samuel was recognised as someone who would make his mark on the world. He left for London when he was about 26 and started writing whatever he could to make some money.
"He penned poems, plays and stories, but one thing he wrote that made him most familiar was his dictionary of the English language, which defined £43,000 words and took him nine years to write. Around half way through this period, he met a 10-year-old Francis Barber – or Frank, as he was known.
"He was born in Jamaica in 1742 at a time when slavery was common. People in England had a taste for sugar and the back-breaking labour to deliver it was carried out in Jamaica. Slaves had to work for no pay for their master and were quite often treated with great cruelty.
"Frank's master was a man called Colonel Richard Bathurst, who brought him to England. It was decided he'd be a servant in Samuel Johnson's house as his wife had just died and Bathurst knew he enjoyed the company of young people.
"Samuel always took people in who were sick or suffering and provided food and shelter for them. He also hated slavery and thought it was absolutely wrong – and this was in a time when most people saw nothing at all wrong with it."
At the time, Frank couldn't read or write, so Dr Johnson paid for him to have lessons. The Johnson Society has the scraps of paper on which young Frank wrote his name over and over.
He lived with Dr Johnson for six years, answering the door, running errands and serving food, but his landlord was "very careful" not to give Frank demeaning tasks.
After a spell of boredom and arguments with others living in the house, Frank decided to seek his fortune in the Navy. In 1776, he boarded HMS Stag as a "land man", meaning he had no knowledge of sea-faring and had to be taught by more experience seamen. However, missing his old abode, Frank returned to serve Dr Johnson just two years later.
Mr Bundock said: "He became a friend as much as a servant and was married to Elizabeth Hall, who also moved into Dr Johnson's home. They had four children and named one Samuel, with the whole family continuing to live at Samuel’s house.
"As Dr Johnson became old, he was often unwell and unable to leave the house. Frank cared for him until he died in 1784. And Dr Johnson left all his money and property to Frank. It was worth £1,500, which would have been enough in those time to see Frank and Elizabeth never have to worry about money every again.
"They moved to Lichfield and it turned out they were a lot better at spending money than they were at saving it. Frank opened a school in Burntwood, but that did not appear to have made a profit, and the couple were eventually reduced to poverty.
"Frank's success in life was partly due to his own efforts and partly due to Samuel Johnson. His descendant, Cedric, is alive today and lives in Stoke-on-Trent and all those alive who descend from him have reason to be thankful to Samuel Johnson."
After a procession led by town crier Ken Knowles, who read a poem about the famous act of penance, Councillor Trenery climbed a step-ladder to place the wreath.
She said: "What a generous man Samuel Johnson was, looking after others who were in need. He had all kinds of his own problems to deal with, but support so many others as well."