London Puzzles 2: Dr Johnson’s House
Dr Samuel Johnson once predicted the drawbacks of aviation.
In his philosophical novel The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) he thought about the advantages of flying and concluded; ‘What would be the security of the good if the bad could at leisure invade them from the sky?’
While he was working on his dictionary he was according to legend entirely unaided, but old textbooks of mine say he employed six copyists at 17, Gough Square, at 23 shillings a week. The work contains 42,733 entries over 2,300 pages and remains a colossal achievement, although it contains almost as many comic touches as Amrbose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. The word ‘lexicographer’ is defined as ‘a harmless drudge’, and ‘oats’ is said to denote ‘a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’
Dr Johnson’s ‘dictionary attic’ was bombed to bits in WWII but the rest of the house miraculously survived. Johnson paid 30 quid a year to live in this little gunnel off Fleet Street, and it’s pretty much as he left it today. In the restoration nothing old was removed and nothing new was put in. The massive iron chain with which he would bar the poor against creditors is still in place.
But there’s a puzzle: In early etchings the house is completely different, and today a plaque says that ‘Dr Johnson’s house once stood upon this site’.
The collection at the house has been built up since press baron Cecil Harmsworth purchased it and opened it to the public in the early 20th century. He says he simply restored the building from a state of dilapidation – yet it appears notably different now. When memories fade, where does the truth lie?
Harmsworth was adamant that the house should not be filled with ‘irrelevant 18th century bric-a-brac’. Items had to be connected to Johnson and appropriate for the cheery home of an impoverished writer (yay!). Harmsworth turned down some donations, including Johnson’s death mask (too gloomy) and Chippendale furniture (too fine). It’s still open to visitors.
It was certainly open to me. On the New Year’s Eve of the year 2000 I had gone with friends to see the so-called ‘River of Fire’ event on the Thames, and stood crushed on Blackfriars Bridge at midnight waiting for a spectacle that didn’t happen. The fire disastrously failed to ignite, and our entry into a new millennium was (symbolically, it seems) a gigantic flop.
And we couldn’t get off Blackfriars Bridge. My champagne bottle was empty and we couldn’t move.
Little did I know, the person I was to later marry was wedged on the same bridge but managed to get a lift home to Shad Thames on the back of a fire engine. Meanwhile, I and my friends searched for a way of escaping the crowds in order to have a proper celebration of our own.
Suddenly I remembered that my editor friend Michele was looking after the Samuel Johnson house while its curators were on holiday. I phoned her and found her there mulling wine by herself. Zipping into the maze of deserted little lanes, we discovered her at home and saw in the new century at the good doctor’s house.