Dr Johnson’s House

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Turn off Fleet street and wend your way through a maze of small streets and courtyards and you’ll arrive at Gough Square. Although most of the buildings around the square are relatively modern,  No. 17 is a fine example of an early Georgian Town house – the former home of Dr Samuel Johnson – who is, apparently, the second most quoted person in the English language (after Shakespeare).

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Built in 1700 by wool merchant Richard Gough. Johnson lived and worked in the house from 1748 to 1759, when he compiled his famous A Dictionary of the English Language .

Our National Trust membership got us half price entry, so we went inside to have a look round. it was a relatively modest house. Four storeys, two rooms wide either side of a central staircase but only one room deep. Georgian town houses usually have a relatively small footprint, with much of the living space created by building upwards. The windows reduce in size going up the building with the smallest on the top floor, again very characteristic for the period.

This website has some interesting material about Johnson and the house by Morwenna Rae, the Deputy Curator and Education Officer at the Dr Johnson’s House Trust, including a video of a lecture she gave, her transcript and her Powerpoint slides.

The front door was solid and had a rather large chain across it. Security against ruffians or, perhaps, Dr Johnson’s creditors and the bailiffs.

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This was the small drawing room on he ground floor

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There was a reproduction of a self-portrait of the society portrait painter Joshua Reynolds over the fireplace – he was a friend of Dr Johnson. Funnily enough we saw exactly the same image – a copy of the original – in Kenwood House the very next day.

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The first floor, or piano nobile, was normally the most important room in Georgian houses. Guests would be entertained here. In Dr Johnson’s house there were wooden screens that could be pulled across to divide the large room into two smaller ones with a hallway between.

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On the next floor we found his library

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And in the attic, a copy of his dictionary to peruse

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Before the visit, I didn’t know that much about Dr Johnson other than he wrote his dictionary and was a noted wit. My image of him was largely formed by his portrayal by Robbie Coltrane in Blackadder the Third. I also knew that he was a Tory, which is usually enough to put me off anybody. But the information in the house made me want to find out more about him. Politics in his time, and political labels, were not as clear cut as today. I discovered that politically he was a man of contradictions with some radical views on women,nationalism and also on slavery. The latter was particularly illustrated by the case of Francis Barber who arrived in Johnson’s household in 1752, when he was ten years old  shortly after the death of Johnson’s wife. He was a slave, brought from a Jamaican plantation by the Bathurst family, who were friends of Johnson.

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Portrait of Francis Barber (source: Wikipedia)

Morwenna Rae tells us

Johnson hated slavery, did not want a servant anyway, and promptly sent the boy to boarding school for a decent education. Over the years, he spent hundreds of pounds educating Barber, who was freed upon the death of Colonel Bathurst a few years later. Barber spent most of the next 32 years as Johnson’s manservant and companion, was at his bedside when he died and was the main beneficiary in the childless Johnson’s will.

He was a generous man too. Although not exactly wealthy for most of his life he was noted for his generosity towards the poor in the streets of London.

Never experiencing great wealth himself, Johnson showed generosity and kindness to beggars, prostitutes, children and animals. One example is given in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, where he found a poor, tired woman lying in the street, carried her home and at ‘considerable expense’ had her taken into care. (Source BBC website)

We spent longer in the house than I expected, reading through the various materials available for visitors in all the rooms. A very interesting visit that increased my knowledge and changed my view of Dr Johnson. I discovered that he was a fanatical tea drinker, so he definitely can’t have been so bad!

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