In the corner of Gough Square, just north of Fleet Street, is the home of Dr Samuel Johnson, and the place where hecompiled his great Dictionary of the English Language. Access to Gough Square is via a warren of alleyways and passages – a reminder of the street map of an earlier London – and visitors to the house on a weekday can also enjoy a reminder of the sounds of the city of Johnson’s day while they explore the house: people’s voices and footsteps across the square, and the grind and rumble of traffic on Fleet Street. At the opposite end of Gough Square is a statue of Johnson’s cat, Hodge, who sits atop a volume of the Dictionary, his gaze trained on No. 17.
17 Gough Square was built in 1700 by wool merchant Richard Gough, and Dr Johnson lived and worked in the house from 1748 to 1759. In the nineteenth century the house was used as a hotel, as well as a printers’ workshop and studio. It gradually fell into a state of squalor and disrepair, and in 1911 it was purchased by newspaper magnate and Liberal politician Cecil Harmsworth, who wanted to preserve the house, and it was opened to the public in 1914. During the Second World War, it was a social club for Auxiliary Firemen. It survived several bombs, though it did lose its roof (subsequently repaired).
The beautifully-restored four storey townhouse is full of period features, including wood-panelled rooms and a full height open staircase. It is simply furnished, in part to reflect the sometimes impoverished circumstances of its famous resident (Johnson was not good with money, often finding it difficult to pay his rent and fearful that the bailiffs would arrive to cart him off to debtors’ prison), and also because Cecil Harmsworth was adamant that the house should not be full of eighteenth-century clutter. The portraits, landscapes, engravings, books and artefacts – including a charming tea ‘equipage’ belonging to Mrs Thale (a good friend to Johnson and James Boswell) and a portrait of Johnson’s black manservant, Francis Barber – offer a fascinating insight into the life of one of Britain’s most witty, charismatic, and much-quoted and studied literary figures. The large, airy attic room at the very top of the house was the place where Johnson worked on the Dictionary, close to a window due to his short-sightedness. There are enjoyable little quirks and features around the house, such as a disguised sink under the window on the second-floor landing (a reminder that the house was used as a B&B in the nineteenth century), and a special cubby hole where Johnson would have sat to have his wig dressed and powdered each morning.
The manageable scale of the house and welcoming atmosphere make it easy to imagine it full of people, as it would have been in Johnson’s day, dropping in to meet the great lexicographer, calling by for tea and conversation. Another of Harmsworth’s stipulations was that the house and its collection should be appropriate for the cheery home of an impecunious writer: he turned down the offer of Johnson’s death mask, deeming it too gloomy!
Vistors have access to all the rooms in the house, and there are plenty of wicker chairs and window seats where one can sit and enjoy the tranquil atmosphere, or take time to peruse Johnson’s great Dictionary, and discover the meanings of words such as jiggumbob, fopdoodle and bedpresser.