Aha to Doctor Johnson!

In which I visit an old friend and get too drunk for tea.

“The chief glory of every people arises from its authors: whether I shall add any thing by my own writings to the reputation of English literature, must be left to time: much of my life has been lost under the pressures of disease; much has been trifled away; and much has always been spent in provision for the day that was passing over me; but I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.”

I first encountered Samuel Johnson at university, where I read Journey to the Western Isles: an account of his famous tour with James Boswell. I have to admit that I rather liked him. I was expecting pomposity but what I found was someone witty and extremely skilled with language.  He must have seemed rather an odd figure: he was tall and heavy, childhood scrofula had left him hard of hearing and blind in one eye, as well as giving him obvious scarring (scrofula is an infection of the lymph nodes that results in large, purple swellings on the head and neck). He was clumsy, displayed strange gestures and hand movements, and suffered from extreme facial and vocal tics, which, some now believe, are indicative of Tourette’s syndrome. Rather than being part of a literary establishment, he was an outsider: a misfit who produced one of the most important books ever written in the English language. After visiting his house I like him even more. He liked pubs and cats and tea; he was fiercely opposed to slavery and entertained a variety of other misfits at his home in Gough Square.

Samuel Johnson’s House, Gough Square

In 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson with the aim of creating a Dictionary of the English language. The task went on to occupy him for the next decade. He hired a team of amanuenses, set them to work in the attic of his house in Gough Square, and estimated he would have the Dictionary ready for publication in three years. But the task he had given himself was close to impossible. Johnson was writing during The Enlightenment: a time of rapid progress in Science and industry. Newton had through the creation of his ‘laws’ in 1725 rationalised and ordered the universe.  Johnson, likewise, attempted to rationalise and order the language, with his Dictionary. He soon came to realise, however, that this couldn’t be done; the best that he could hope to do was to record the way in which English was used and had been used in literature. English  defies categorisation. Think about the verb ‘to take’ for example. How many meanings can you think of? steal, obtain, extract, possess, overthrow, capture, occupy, use, agree, buy, make, remove …. Then there are phrasal verbs: take on, take over, take up, take down, take ill …  once you start to think about it, the meanings seem to be endless. Johnson found 134 different meanings for the verb ‘to take’. The work began to overwhelm him and he started to suffer from frequent bouts of depression. This not only prevented him from working but also stopped him from socialising, which meant he was not involved in the conversation and discussion that had previously inspired him. On top of all this, in 1750, his wife became ill and needed a full time nurse. Johnson was unable to continue paying his amanuenses, and had to continue to work on the dictionary on his own. Then, in 1752, after a long illness she had been treating with alcohol and opiates, Johnson’s wife, Hetty, died.

Johnson's House
Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

Life in Gough square then took a strange turn. The house began to fill up with strange and wonderful people: a 15 year-old freed slave named Francis Barber became Johnson’s servant. Johnson had always been a vociferous and outspoken opponent of slavery and he seems to have treated Francis more like a son than an employee; even making him the major beneficiary in his will, leaving him the sum of £750. Anna Williams, a blind poet, Robert Levet, a ‘doctor’  who ‘learned’ medicine by eavesdropping conversations at a medical school in Paris, and Mrs. Johnson’s nurse, who continued to live in the house and, according to some sources, became Johnson’s lover. This newly vibrant household seems to have reinvigorated Johnson; he started to socialise, become known in the taverns and coffee shops of Fleet Street and to recommence work on his dictionary. He completed most of it in two years, finally publishing it in 1755, nine years after work had begun.

I had long been aware of the little museum in Gough Square, nestled away behind Fleet Street; I’d passed it hundreds of times, each time thinking “I really must go and visit that someday.” I worked in Holborn for 12 years, and never took the time to go round this small, friendly little house. Sir John Soane’s Museum, I must have visited ten or twelve times; The British Museum, I went to every couple of weeks or so; Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, frequently. I mentioned this to the young woman who ushered me in. “Lots of people say that,” she replied “We’re tucked away so nobody knows we’re here.” There were very few people there on the day I visited: 3 or 4 different parties at most, which makes it a pleasure to wander around: to appreciate the house (or any museum for that matter) at its best, one needs quiet and space to move and time to think. You should be able to hear ticking clocks and creaking floorboards. The house feels cosy and personal: a real lived-in home rather than an exhibit. There are few personal effects, most of the original furniture being long lost, but you can still feel Doctor Johnson’s presence in every room. I particularly enjoyed the library, with its small collection of books; the dining room, complete with David Garrick’s costume chest and a number of Reynolds portraits, including one of Francis Barber.

I had enjoyed half of the museum in blissful, contemplative silence and was midway through the first floor, looking in wonder at the ingenious arrangement of moveable walls, allowing for the space to be changed from a large entertaining space into smaller private rooms, when my assigned annoying person arrived. As the museum goers amongst you will know, on entering a museum, library or stately home, you are assigned an annoying person, or family, who will accompany you throughout your visit. No matter what speed you go round, what route you take or how many rooms you miss out, they will always be with you and have some ingenious way of pissing you off. This couple, for example, consisted of two females, an older and a younger.  The older woman would read from the information leaflet in each room in a loud authoritative voice, as if she were recalling it all from memory; the younger, in response would ask questions, which foxed her companion completely.  I was first alerted to their presence as they ascended the stairs to the first floor, complaining about how steep they were. I slipped away and went up to the attic, figuring that they wouldn’t be tackling any more stairs just yet.

The attic was sparsely furnished and served more as an exhibition space than a recreation of Johnson’s home. The house was heavily bombed during the Second World War and Johnson’s original garret was more or less obliterated. There were some facsimile copies of the dictionary here, which visitors were invited to leaf through, and I spent a happy few minutes, looking up some of Johnson’s definitions, until I heard some familiar voices on the stairs, saying something like: “Ah yes! Unusually, Johnson chose to have his attic located at the top of the house” and “it’s very steep, why did he have stairs?” At which point, I decided it was time to leave. Besides, I had a luncheon appointment.


I had arranged to meet Mr. S, at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, in order to continue the Johnson theme of the day. On my way to the pub, I paused to have a look at the statue of Hodge. Johnson was extremely fond of cats and had several throughout his life. The statue depicts the cat, sitting on a copy of the Dictionary, surrounded by oyster shells. Hodge was, apparently, particularly fond of oysters. It was a weekday lunchtime when I visited and the square was well used. Office workers and labourers sat by the statue to contemplate it and enjoy their lunch. I always love seeing people enjoying art in the open air; it means they are not inside the pubs and museums I want to visit

I made my way into Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, pausing a while in the doorway to allow my eyes to become accustomed to the dark. The pub is cosy and dimly lit and has the most astounding literary heritage, being in the heart of the journalistic and publishing quarter of the city, it has attracted a huge array of literary customers. I have previously written about some of them in a short pub guide, which you can read here. Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith both used the tavern; in a later age, it became popular among Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and Charles Dickens. Mark Twain dined here during his frequent visits to London. The Rhymers Club, a group of poets founded by WB Yeats had their meetings here & PG Wodehouse writes about favouring the pub over the more formal, stuffier Gentlemen’s clubs. Trollope uses it as a setting in his novels, as does RL Stevenson, and it features in A Tale of Two Cities: Sidney Carton brings Charles Darnay here to celebrate the latter’s release. Hercule Poirot meets a new client here in Agatha Christie’s short story The Million Dollar Bond Robbery.

Subterranean and dark yet cosy and convivial: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Today, I made my way down to the labyrinthine basement, where there are several rooms. The passageways between them lead to a large food servery, where one can order traditional pub fare. Now, I very much enjoy meeting Mr. S: a plain-speaking, down-to-earth sort of chap, in the way that people from his home city of Liverpool tend to be. We enjoyed our lunch, and the associated conversation over a pint of Sam Smith’s, so much so that we ordered more drinks. We enjoyed the second even more than the first and so ordered a few more and, before I knew where I was, the afternoon had bled into evening and it was well past time to go.

Dr. Johnson, St. Clement Danes

By the time I left the Cheshire Cheese, I was somewhat pie-eyed. I had wanted to pop into Twinings on the Strand for fresh tea supplies but this never happened. If any other tea lovers out there have not visited Twinings, I strongly suggest you get yourselves down there right away. They have an astounding variety of tea and coffee available and offer tastings and tuition. They also have a vast array of all the paraphernalia required for a proper brew (teapots, caddies, tea strainers, etc). The smell is heavenly! There is a statue of Johnson opposite, in a little courtyard outside St. Clement Danes church, where he was a worshipper. To finish off a day visiting his part of the city, it’s worth remembering that he described himself as:

“a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant …who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.”

One thought on “Aha to Doctor Johnson!

  1. Samuel Johnson was a strange mixture.

    On the one hand, he was actually quite bigoted towards Scots in general, and made a lot of very inaccurate observations on Gaelic culture (Johnson’s commonly repeated notion that Ossian was entirely the invention of James MacPherson is wrong – Ossian was already well known to the Gaels, and stories about him were recorded in writing centuries before MacPherson was even born. MacPherson just used this as a springboard for his own work.)

    On the other hand, Johnson was incredibly progressive when it came to black people. He said of the American Revolution “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”, and actively campaigned for an end to the slave trade.

    Liked by 1 person

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