Miraculously preserved house of literary giant in the heart of London
Dr Johnson’s House is tucked away in the secluded Gough Square, hidden away in a corner which is probably quieter today than it was when he lived there. Surrounded by glassy modern office blocks, the city buzzes away around it, and many people probably pass within feet of it without realising it is there. However, I urge you to seek it out. A relatively unimposing Georgian house, the building was home to Johnson between 1748 and 1759, when he was in the process of compiling his famed dictionary.
Equally as fascinating as his work on the dictionary are the friends he gathered around him. Notable for his genuine appreciation of the intellectual powers of women, Johnson hosted numerous great female minds of his day, including Charlotte Lennox. There is also an interesting set of exhibits throughout the house detailing the pivotal role of women in the preservation and public opening of the house – something I feel Johnson would have enjoyed.
Entry to the house is a mere £7 for adults (concession tickets are available, and National Trust members are entitled to a discount). One enters as if one were a visitor in Johnson’s day, ringing a doorbell on the side entrance to gain entry. A volunteer buzzes you into the little shop, containing the usual memorabilia and books, as well as reprints of pamphlets and essays by Johnson and his associates, and various people connected with the house.
You progress from here into the rooms of the house proper, starting in the hallway. The guide presence is mercifully minimal, with information cards in each room, and an optional audio guide (available for the princely sum of £2), offering adequate guidance to each room. The hall is a surprisingly fascinating place to start. The main door proves to be a delightful pocket of social history, as the purpose behind each element is explained. The small window above the door is complete with a spiked grate to prevent thieves from lowering child robbers through it into the house. The substantial chain barricading the door shut is secured on a corkscrew hook, so it requires two hands to open, and thus cannot be loosed by a hook lowered from above, no matter how dexterous the criminal. The chain itself is even an object of social history, having been manufactured by women chain-makers in the Midlands, who went on to fight for a five-day working week. These security features did not just keep out criminals; they also helped defend the infamously skint Johnson from his many creditors. He is said to have once been so in debt to his milkman that said man sought his arrest! A strange idea to modern minds, but a common issue at the time, when many people spent time in debtor’s jails such as Fleet Street Jail (a room of which can be visited in the fantastic Museum of London).
The rooms are fairly sparsely decorated, with an attempt to display them as Johnson would have known them, but with some notable absences, such as a bedroom. The room thought to fulfill this function is now set up as a library, containing a fine collection (collected in modern times) of various tomes, largely by Johnson, and including three books which actually belonged to him. A ‘first’ edition of his dictionary is under glass, a facsimile of which is on show for visitors to browse in the garret.
The house is very much modest in scale, and it is easy to imagine it as an intellectual hub during his residency. The garret housed long tables where he compiled the dictionary, with the help of assistants. Commissioned to complete the dictionary in three years, it actually took him eight, so it is perhaps no surprise that he ended up in financial difficulty.
The house includes interesting information about the reception of the house since Johnson’s time, including about its miraculous escape during the Blitz and subsequent conservation. The house is carefully and considerately presented in a low-key but informative way, and has a calm and pleasant feel to it. It presents an ideal stop on any tour of London’s historic sites, or, as I did, a relaxing break in a day of business meetings. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest, not only in Johnson himself and the history of the English language, but to anyone with even a passing interest in the history of London.