LOCAL HERO


GM Humanist 10. Sept. 95.

Sometimes called "Little Samuel Johnson" by local people, perhaps to avoid confusion with the good Doctor to whom he was eighteen years senior, Maggoty was one of Cheshire's most colourful characters, and maintains his fame for his eccentric behaviour rather than his talents. He began as a "Merry Andrew", one of the last court-jesters, and was well liked as an entertainer who danced divinely and played the fiddle to perfection.. His singing was less good, being difficult to hear when he faced a wall to hide his pockmarked face (hence the nickname, "Maggoty"). His tongue-in-cheek efforts to disguise his ugliness only made it all the more glaringly apparent to all who saw him. Johnson provided dancing lessons to the gentry, and was constantly on hire for his humorous stories, stilt-walking, clowning, poetry and mini-dramas by rich notables in the Cheshire area; especially for parties and local festivals. He became friendly with another noted local poet, Amos Meredith, and was a colleague of John Byrom, the Manchester author of "Christians Awake!" In 1729 Johnson staged a comic opera at the Haymarket Theatre. "Hurlothrumbo" (The Supernaturals), regarded by historians as mildly amusing nonsense, ran for fifty nights to favourable reviews. Even Henry Fielding mentions it in Tom Jones. The play secured its finances and success from the patronage of the Duke of Montague, an example of the influence in high places that Johnson managed to attract.

Many commentators give extracts from Johnson's letters to the wealthy congratulating them in patronizing, condescending terms on their graciousness and splendour. Besides being something of a groveller, he had ideas above his station. Having played the central role of Lord Flame in Hurlothrumbo, he adopted the name afterwards at every opportunity, convincing many that he himself was of the peerage. Although never knighted, in later years he received the gift of Gawsworth Hall from the Earl of Harrington.

Much of Johnson's success is owed to his satires on the upper crust, rooted in envy and rivalry. His other plays were less successful, and vanished almost without trace.

Many people traveled from the south to visit Johnson at Gawsworth, increasing his egotism, recklessness with money and eccentricity. Some visitors, fellow actors, found him so drunk that they put him in the village stocks overnight as much for his safety as to teach him a lesson. This indignity, suffered before the eyes of the gentry he fawned on and at the hands of his own profession, made him resentful and reclusive. Determined "to leave no trace behind" and he entered a period of seclusion and retreat for the last thirty years of his life, showing hostility towards the villagers, particularly old women. Two stories illustrate this.

Johnson had a servant girl of whom he was very fond, though how far this went is unknown. In spite of his pretensions Maggoty was probably as lowly as she, and was able to relate to her as more than mere master. On her death, Johnson planned to have her buried in the woods nearby rather than in the cemetery, possibly at her wish. A plot of land was, it seems, specially secured, but as a result of her brother's angry protests, she was buried in the parish graveyard. Johnson himself was buried there, (in the graveyard) but later re-interred in the woodland plot. It is said that Johnson told friends that he wanted to be buried in the woods because of what might happen on Judgment Day; he feared getting into a squabble with some old women about who owned which thighbone or whatever. His epitaph, possibly written by him, bears this out.

"Here undisturbed and hid from vulgar eyes, A wit, musician, poet-player lies."

He particularly loathed an old woman called Hannah Bailey for reasons now unknown. In l8th century Macclesfield wedding parties were accustomed to singing a song including the line "O well is thee and happy thou shalt be." On one such occasion Maggoty approached the clergyman and announced for all to hear: "I think old Tom Friar would do to sing `O well is thee and happy thou shalt be if the devil was married to Hannah Bailey"'

His final resting place is now known as Maggoty Wood, off Maggoty Lane. The grave is difficult to find, as he might have appreciated.

Sources: Brown, Walter (an owner of the Hall): Gawsworth and its Worthies, Macclesfield Courier 1917 Mee, Arthur: The King's England - Cheshire, Hodder 1938

Richards Raymond: The Manor of Gawsworth, E. J. Morton 1957

Arthur Chappell