Henry Thrale's death

  • Posted on: 26 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

Henry Thrale died on 4 April 1781 between 5am - 6am, with his wife and Samuel Johnson by his side.

Hester Thrale's account

1 & 2 April 1780

On the Sunday 1st of April I went to hear the Bishop of Peterborough preach at May Fair Chapel: & though the Sermon had nothing in it particularly pathetic, I could not keep my Tears within my Eyes: I spent the Evening however at Lady Rothes's, and was chearful; found Sir John Lade, Johnson and Boswell with Mr Thrale at my return to the Square: on Monday Morning Mr Evans came to breakfast, Sir Philip and Dr Johnson to Dinner--so did Baretti: Mr Thrale eat voraciously--so voraciously--that encouraged by Jebb & Pepys1 who had charged me so to do--l checked him rather severely, & Mr Johnson added these remarkable Words,

Sir—after the Denuriciation of your Physicians this Morning, such eating is little better than Suicide.

He did not however desist, & Sir Philip said he eat apparently in Defiance of Controul, & that it was better for us to say nothing to him: Johnson observed that he thought so too, & that he spoke more from a Sense of Duty than a Hope of Success. Baretti & them two spent the Evening with me, & I was enumerating the People who were to meet the Indian Ambassadors on the Wednesday—I had been to Negri's & bespoke an elegant Entertainment.

3 & 4 April 1780

On Wednesday 11, was buried my dear Friend Thrale who died on Wednesday 4, and with him were buried many of my hopes and pleasures.

Dr. Samuel Johnson 13 April 1781.

On the next day Tuesday 3d Mrs Hinchliffe called on me in the Morning to go see Webber's Drawings of the S: Sea Rareties--we met the Smelts, the Ords, & numberless Blues there, & displayed our Pedantry at our Pleasure: going & coming however I quite teized Mrs Hinchliffe with my lowspirited Terrors about Mr Thrale, who had not all this while one Symptom worse than he had had for Months; tho' the Physicians this Tuesday Morning agreed that a Continuation of such dinners as he had lately made, would soon dispatch a Life so precarious & uncertain. When I came home to dress--Piozzi,--who was always admitted to the Toilette, & sate in the next Room teaching Hester to sing; began lamenting that he was engaged to Mrs Locke on the following Evening when I had such a World of Company to meet these fine Orientals: he had however engaged Roncaglia & Sacchini to begin with--and would make a point of coming himself at nine o'Clock if possible.

I gave him the Money I had collected for his Benefit 35£ I remember, it was—a Bankers Note, and I burst out o'crying & said I was sure I should not go to it: the Man was shocked, & wondered what I meant; Nay—says I—'tis mere lowness of Spirits, for Mr Thrale is very well now, & gone out in his Carriage to spit Cards as I call'd it—sputar le Carte2.

Just then came a Letter from Dr Pepys, insisting to speak with me in the Afternoon; & tho' there was nothing very particular in the Letter considering our Intimacy—I burst out o'crying again, read the Letter to Piozzi who could not understand it, & threw myself into an Agony, saying I was sure Mr Thrale would dye. The tenderhearted Italian was affected, bid me not despair so, but recollect some precepts he had heard Dr Johnson give me one Day; & then turn'd to me with a good deal of Expression in his Manner, rather too much-it affected me.—and sung Rasserena il tuo bel Ciglio &c &c Well! he left us in a quarter of an hour, & Miss Owen came to Dinner, and Mr Thrale came home so well! & in such Spirits! he had invited more People to my Concert or Conversatione or musical party of the next day, & was delighted to think what a Show we should make. He eat however more than enormously;—six things the Day before, & eight on this Day, with Strong Beer in such Quantities! the very Servants were frighted, & when Pepys came in the Evening he said this could not last—either there must be legal Restraint or certain Death. Dear Mrs Byron spent ye evening with me, & MrCrutcheley came from Sunninghill to be ready for the morrow's Flash. Johnson was at the Bishop of Chester's.

I went down in the Course of the Afternoon to see after my Master as usual, and found him, not asleep, but sitting on his Bed with his Legs up—because as he express'd it. I kiss'd him, & said how good he was to be so careful of himself—he enquired who was above; but had no Disposition to come up Stairs. Miss Owen & Mrs Byron now took their Leave; the Dr had been gone about 20 Minutes when Hester3 went down to see her Papa, & found him on the Floor. what's the meaning of this? says She in an Agony—I chuse it, replies Mr Thrale firmly;

I lie so o'purpose;

The best Consolation is the perfect Amity in wch we have lived 17 Years together, the few disputes or Subjects of Complaint either of us have endured from the other.

Hester Thrale 1781.

She ran however to call his Valet who was gone out—happy to leave him so particularly well as he thought—when my Servant went instead, Mr Thrale bid him be gone, in a firm Tone: & added that he was very well, & chose to lie so. by this Time however Mr Crutchley was ran down at Hetty's Intreaty, & I had sent to fetch Pepys back; he was got but into Upper Brook Street, & found his Friend in a most violent Fit of the Apoplexy from which he only recovered to relapse into another, everyone growing weaker as his Strength grew less till six o'Clock on Wednesday Morning 4: April 17814. Sir Richd Jebb, who was fetched at the beginning of the Distress, seeing Death certain, quitted the House without even prescribing; Pepys did all that could be done, & Johnson who was sent for at 11 o'Clock never left him, for while breath remain'd he still hoped. I ventured in once, & saw them cutting his Clothes off to bleed him, but I saw no more.

5 April 1780

The next Morning early I drove to Streatham, but finding myself pursued thither by officious Friendship, I ran forward to Brighthelmston where Mr Scrase, who like me had lost all he cared for in earnest; was a comfortable & useful Companion. There I had Time to collect my scattered Thoughts, to revise my past Life, & resolve upon a new one. the best Consolation is the perfect Amity in wch we have lived 17 Years together, the few disputes or Subjects of Complaint either of us have endured from the other, & the Notion I always perswaded myself into, of having been an humble Instrument in the Almighty's hand-to turn the heart of my Husband towards heaven whither he is gone, & whither I hope one day to follow him.

He has been very generous to me in his Will, but my being entangled with the Trade perplexes me greatly--perhaps I may rid my hands of it however, perhaps we may sell it without much Loss: my Coadjutors5 are all willing to assist while I carry it on, and willing to quit when I wish to part with it: never were Men more obliging to be sure, & I am half inclin'd to hope for Happiness once more, when I see their Disposition to comply with my Desire.

God forbid though that my Pride or Delicacy should so far influence me as to make me quit the Business at any Rate: My Children have a Claim to all that I can do & suffer-yet how will they be benefited by keeping their Money at hazard? Mr Scrase says 'tis Madness to try at carrying on such a Trade with only five Girls; so says Cator, so says Crutcheley: Mr Johnson did wish my Continuance in Business, but I have pretty well cured him of his Wishes; though when I was obliged Yesterday to go & court a dirty Goaler to suffer our Brewhouse to serve his Tap, & when I complained even with Tears to Mr Johnson of the Indignity; Dearest Lady says he your Character is exalted by it; I tell you it advances in Heighth, Yes replied I, it advances indeed, & rises from the Side Box to the upper Gallery.

1 May 1780

Streatham. I have now appointed three Days a Week to attend at the Counting house, & wish I could defecate my Mind of Borough Dirt, when I pass the Laystalls at the Stones End; but it will not be yet, it will not be-- > The vile Ideas where I fly pursue: Rise in the Grove, even in the Thicket rise, Stain all my Soul, and grovel in my Eyes.

If an Angel from Heaven had told me 20 Years ago, that the Man I knew by the Name of Dictionary Johnson should one Day become Partner with me in a great Trade, & that we should jointly or separately sign Notes Draughts &c. for 3 or 4 Thousand Pounds of a Morning, how unlikely it would have seemed ever to happen!— unlikely is no Word tho'—it would have seemed incredible: neither of us then being worth a Groat God knows, & both as immeasurably removed from Commerce, as Birth Literature & Inclination could set us. Johnson however; who desires above all other Good the Accumulation of new Ideas, is but too happy with his present Employment; & the Influence I have over him added to his own solid Judgment and Regard for Truth, will at last find it in a small degree difficult to win him from the dirty Delight of seeing his Name in a new Character flaming away at the bottom of Bonds & Leases.


The funeral took place on 11 April 1781. The bill for the funeral expenses, including the cost of '6 Men in mourning on horseback', '2 mourning Coaches & Six Horses', and the lining of the pews of St Leonard's Church in black, amounted in all to £130 5s. 4d6. Henry was buried in the crypt of St Leonards Church, Streatham. Henry's epitaph was written by Samuel Johnson. In line with the fashion of the day, friends of Henry Thrale, including Samuel Johnson, were given mourning ring in fish skin case.


Samuel Johnson

After Henry Thrale's death, Johnson said…

I felt almost the flutter of his pulse, and looked for the last time upon a face that for fifteen years had never been turned upon me but with respect and benignity”;.

... and …

I am not without my part of the calamity. No death since that of my wife has ever oppressed me like this. … My part of the loss hangs upon me. I have lost a friend of boundless kindness at an age when it is very unlikely that I should find another”;.

Johnson wrote in his Prayers and Meditations on Good Friday, 13 April 1781…

On Wednesday 11, was buried my dear Friend Thrale who died on Wednesday 4, and with him were buried many of my hopes and pleasures. On Sunday 1st his Physician warned him against full meals, on Monday I pressed him to observance of his rules, but without effect, and Tuesday I was absent, but his Wife pressed forbearance upon him, again unsuccessfully. At night I was called to him, and found him senseless in strong convulsions. I staid in the room, except that I visited Mrs. Thrale twice. About five (,I think), on Wednesday morning he expired; I felt almost the last flutter of his pulse, and looked for the last time upon the face that for fifteen years had never been turned upon me but with respect or benignity

Johnsons entered a prayer for the family on 22 June 1781, and an unfinished 'meditation' about Thrale's death on 2 September 1781.

Arthur Murphy

Henry's good friend, Arthur Murphy, wrote …

…a more ingenuous frame of mind no man possessed. His education at Oxford gave him the habits of a gentleman; his amiable temper recommended his conversation, and the goodness of his heart made him a sincere friend.

James Beattie

The poet James Beattie, wrote …

He was a most respectable character; intelligent, modest, communicative and friendly.

James Boswell

In his biography of Johnson, James Boswell mentions Henry Thrale's worthy principles, sound scholarship, business acumen, general intelligence and polished manners. He also added his impressive looks, dignified bearing and generosity towards his wife in his allowance to her for entertaining those guests of her own choosing7. A week after Henry's death, Boswell wrote his disrespectful Ode by Dr. Samuel Johnson to Mrs. Thrale upon their Supposed Approaching Nuptials.

Hester's remarriage proposals

After Henry's death, Hester received a proposals of marriage from:

  • the brewer Samuel Whitbread MP (1720-1796);
  • Baronet Sir Richard Musgrave of Tourin, Irish MP for Lismore (1757-1818) in November 1782; and,
  • Mr Swale in May 1782 (and possibly Messrs. William Seward and Selwin too?).
  • 1. Sir Lucas Pepys - physician to the King 1742-1830.
  • 2. To leave visiting cards.
  • 3. Daughter Queeney.
  • 4. When he died - Mrs Thrale.
  • 5. Executors - Johnson, Crutchley, John Cator M.P. for Ipswich, and Henry Smith, Mr. Thrale's cousin, of New House, St Albans.
  • 6. £130.27.
  • 7. Life I, 494-95.

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