05 August 2023
Why I never tire of visiting
Dr Johnson’s House
while visiting London
‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,’ Samuel Johnson once famously said, ‘for there is in London all that life can afford.’
And when I am in London, I never tire of visiting Dr Johnson’s House at No 17 Gough Square, one of the small courts in the labyrinth of tangled lanes and ancient alleyways on the north side of Fleet Street.
Samuel Johnson lived and worked in the house from 1748 to 1759, paying a rent of £30, and there he completed compiling his Dictionary of the English Language. He shared the house in Gough Square with Francis Barber (1742-1801), the freed slave who was his black manservant and heir, and his cat Hodge.
Dr Johnson’s House was built at the end of the 17th century by a City wool merchant, Richard Gough. The timber-framed, brick townhouse, was part of a development in Gough Square, but Dr Johnson’s House at No 17 is the only one to survive.
The four-storey building has retained many of its period features, including its panelling, an open staircase, wooden floorboards, a cellarette cupboard, coal holes and the original door handles.
The 18th-century front door still has its curious anti-burglary devices intact, including a heavy chain with a corkscrew latch and a spiked iron bar over the fanlight.
After Johnson left in 1759, No 17 Gough Square had a variety of uses. It had other lodgers, was used as a small hotel and bed and breakfast, and was once a printers’ workshop and studio.
It had fallen into a sad state of disrepair by 1911, with water leaking through the roof. But it was saved and restored by Cecil Harmsworth, a Liberal politician and newspaper magnate.
The house became a social club for auxiliary firemen during World War II, offering respite during the Blitz. During the air raids, the house was struck on several occasions. The garret, where Samuel Johnson worked on his Dictionary, was badly damaged and a new roof had to be built after the war.
Today, the house is open to the public with its collection relating to Johnson, a research library, restored interiors and its many original features. Visitors often describe the house as a hidden gem, but No 17 Gough Square is also a tranquil spot in the heart of the bustling City.
We stopped at a number of reminders of Samuel Johnson in Gough Square. At the opposite end of the square, facing the house, Hodge is remembered in Jon Bickley’s bronze statue of Hodge, unveiled in 1997 by Sir Roger Cook, then Lord Mayor of London.
The statue shows Hodge sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous Dictionary, with the inscription ‘a very fine cat indeed.’ The inscription praises Hodge in Johnson’s own words as ‘a very fine cat indeed,’ and declares: ‘The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.’
Visitors walking by the statue often place coins in the oyster shells. To mark special occasions and anniversaries a pink piece of counsel’s ribbon may be seen tied to one of the oyster shells or around Hodge’s neck.
Jon Bickley believes he has a kinship with Johnson. ‘It seems Dr Johnson and I were meant to come together … He was born in Lichfield, in the Midlands, and I was brought up just outside it. I can close my eyes and picture his birth house.’
Bickley modelled the cat on his own pet, Thomas Henry, and explains: ‘I made Hodge about shoulder height for the average adult, which is just about right for putting an arm around.’
Close to Hodge, Francis Barber House is on a corner of Gough Square and Hind Court, that leads on into Wine Office Court.
The name of the house recalls Francis Barber, who born Quashey in Jamaica, and who was Johnson’s manservant in London from 1752 until Johnson died in 1784. Johnson made him his residual heir, with £70 a year, and expressing the wish that Barber move from London to Lichfield. Johnson also left Barber books, papers and a gold watch. Barber was also Johnson’s assistant in revising his Dictionary and other works.
After Johnson’s death, Barber moved to Lichfield, where he opened a draper’s shop and married a local woman. Barber became an important source for James Boswell about Johnson’s life, and his descendants still live in the Lichfield area.
Did Samuel Johnson or Francis Barber ever stroll from Gough Square through Hind Square and the labyrinthine alleys into Wine Court Close for a drink in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese?
We had to work our way through the alleys and the laneways to find out for ourselves. But more about that tomorrow.