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.

12 comments on “London Puzzles 2: Dr Johnson’s House”

  1. Jo W says:

    Err,Chris,did Dr.Johnson bar the poor or the door against creditors?

  2. Rachel Green says:

    Thanks, Jo. I was really confused by that.

  3. Andrew Holme says:

    May I suggest that when writing ” a massive iron chain with which he would bar the poor,” that Admin’s subconscious was thinking of another Mr. Johnson.

  4. admin says:

    Actually it was a direct quote from the London writer Peter Jackson, so now I’m confused.

  5. Roger says:

    Having been poor himself, Johnson was very sympathetic to the poor.
    “Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”

    What signifies, says some one, giving halfpence to beggars? they only lay it out in gin or tobacco. “And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence (says Johnson)? it is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer, and are not ashamed to shew even visible displeasure, if ever the bitter taste is taken from their mouths.”

    I quote them as the opinions of the greatest Tory who ever lived. They don’t go down too well with contemporary Tories. Johnson shared his house with an assortment of poor people when he could afford to.

  6. Jan says:

    I never quite got to this place as it was sited just on the edge of the City and Holborn which is of course the centre of the Charles Dickens London Theme Park. I was too authored out to bother with visiting it.
    So is it a faithful reproduction or a early 20 C reinvention of same?

  7. Debra Matheney says:

    I think it would be well worth your time. Seeing where Johnson worked on the dictionary was moving to me. Hate Dickens, but still read Johnson for his morality. He practically ran a rooming house for poor and infirmed. The Club by Leo Ramrosch is a great overview of Johnson, Boswell and their contemporaries and is elegantly written by an 18th century scholar.

  8. snowy says:

    Johnson moved around a bit, Gough Sq./Johnson Ct./Bolt Ct. to name but 3, all could be legitimately be called Dr. Johnson’s House. So the illustration may be both exactly right and exactly wrong at the same time, [Try sticking it a box with a cat and an unstable isotope and see what comes out.]

    The Gough St. house is 17C and will have certainly been modified several times, roof/roofline certainly, window/door openings probably. The last was an Edwardian restoration that may or may not have been entirely sensitive about or focused on historical verisimilitude.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    I like the statue of ‘Hodge’, with his dish of oysters. He’s welcome to them.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Is the statue of Hodge at this house or one of the others that Johnson lived in? We all move around in our lives so we shouldn’t be surprised that he did.
    And surely that is a typing error that has Johnson barring the poor instead of the door. Reading meaning can be confusing no matter how careful we are. Try Debra’s interesting sounding book recommendation and tell me if the author is a scholar who lived in the 18th century or a modern scholar who studies the 18th century (or an even earlier scholar who wrote science fiction).
    I read Rasselas as part of the Honours Eng. degree I was working on at the time and enjoyed it in spite of the long esses in the copy I used. That was over 50 years ago, though and I don’t remember very much so perhaps I should go back and reread it.
    (Just realized that Vancouver library never let me know Theatre of Blood was available. Perhaps I should go over there and rattle a cage or two.)

  11. Ian Luck says:

    The statue of Hodge is at Gough Square, and dates from 1997. It’s charming in it’s simplicity.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    But not visible in the above photo. It may be obscured by the lettering near the bottom, of course.

Comments are closed.