Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
So said Dr Samuel Johnson, the writer and all-round literary giant most famous for creating the highly influential Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. We stumbled upon his house by accident when we were exploring London last year, but it was closed; so when we found ourselves with a bit of time to kill after our lunch at the Happenstance when we were in London over the summer, it was the obvious choice.
Dr Johnson was a rough contemporary of Mozart, and lived in this house at number 17 Gough Square, just off Fleet Street. You can find it by aiming for Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub and continuing down the passageway to the side of that. It’s signposted, but you probably wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking for it. I love places like that.
Gracing Gough Square is a delightful little statue of Dr Johnson’s cat, Hodge, which you can see in the photo below (taken last year). The inscription is really sweet, describing him as “a very fine cat indeed”. Further information on the statue and its subject, which reveals something of Johnson’s character, is to be found on the website for Dr Johnson’s House, which states:
The statue, by sculptor Jon Bickley, features Hodge sitting on a dictionary next to some empty oyster shells, in reference to Johnson’s habit of buying the cat oysters to eat. This was not as extravagant as it sounds – oysters were cheap and eaten by the poor during the eighteenth century. What drew comment from contemporaries was that Johnson went out himself for the food. He feared that if servants were sent on an errand for the cat, they might come to resent and mistreat it.
Admission to the house is a very reasonable £6 for adults, but as National Trust members, we got in at half price – such a bargain! We had the house to ourselves, and there are no guides in the rooms, so it was delightful to wander from room to room without being disturbed.
It’s a shame about the hideous fire extinguisher spoiling the atmosphere in this room!
Lee found a nice spot to perch and watch the world go by.
I liked this stained glass, though Dr Johnson looks a bit grumpy in it!
The house has had various uses since Dr Johnson lived in it, including a B&B, a printer’s studio, and even a place for firemen to rest during the Second World War. Back in 1911 it was described as being in a very sorry state of dilapidation, but you wouldn’t think it now – it’s beautifully restored. The house had a lucky escape in the war, as its roof was damaged several times during the Blitz and other air raids.
There are four storeys of rooms to discover, including a well-stocked library.
I wonder what Dr Johnson would have thought of that ugly modern building looming up behind his picturesque little square?
Dr Johnson was a tenant of the house from 1748 to 1759, and it was here that he wrote the dictionary. We spent a fair while perusing these facsimile copies of the original dictionary, which was most interesting and entertaining.
Apparently Dr Johnson had a whopping 18 residences in London during the course of his life, but this is the only one to survive.
It was the perfect place to get away from the crowded London streets, and I definitely recommend it as one of the lesser-known museums in London; it is, after all, often the lesser-known ones that are the most delightful (the John Soane is another). Find out more about Dr Johnson’s House and plan your visit here.