A man of many words | Dr Johnson

Dr Johnson is the world’s most famous lexicographer, and 2014 marks 100 years since the house where he worked was opened to the public. Andre Paine takes a tour and learns about Johnson’s literary life in Clerkenwell…

Samuel Johnson is an 18th century literary hero, a towering figure who is the second most quoted Englishman after Shakespeare. He created the most detailed and commonly used dictionary, and he’s responsible for that enduring quotation about never tiring of life in the capital.

If you really want to get to know Dr Johnson, it’s well worth visiting his four-storey house at 17 Gough Square, which opened to the public 100 years ago (this year also marks 230 years since his death, aged 75, on 13 December).
Dr Johnson lived in the house from 1748 to 1759, and he rented it to work on his A Dictionary of the English Language. His printer and agent, William Strahan, was based nearby at Little New Street. The dictionary, commissioned by a group of booksellers for 1,500 guineas, took Johnson nine years – six years longer than planned. Published in 1755, it became the standard volume for more than 150 years.

The house is the story of his dictionary, but as you work your way through the rooms it’s also a record of Johnson’s life and the social history of the capital. And you can do it in 45 minutes, which is more realistic than slogging through the 1,000-plus pages of Boswell’s celebrated The Life of Samuel Johnson.

“It’s quite quirky compared to a lot of historic houses,” says curator Morwenna Rae as she gives me the guided tour. Johnson was never a wealthy man (he was from a humble Staffordshire family) and this is not grand Georgian house. There was no attempt to create an exact replica as no descriptions existed, but it does capture the spirit of Dr Johnson.

After he moved out, the building was used as a hotel, warehouse space and printer’s workshop, so it was in a poor state by the time it was purchased, in 1911, by Cecil Harmsworth, a newspaper proprietor and politician. He had firm ideas about this literary shrine: it should be welcoming, cheerful and even available for tea parties. “Johnson was the life and soul of the party, witty and a great conversationalist, and kind and generous almost to a fault,” explains Rae. An adjoining cottage for a custodian, built during the restoration, is believed to be the smallest residential building in the City of London. “I’ve got the best commute in London,” adds Rae.


The main house’s wood paneling is 18th century and the staircase is original (around 1700), while the sturdy front door is dated at around 1785, so it was probably similar to the one Johnson barricaded with his bed when the milkman tried to have him arrested for not paying his bill. “Depend upon it, I will defend this my little citadel to the utmost,” he shouted to bailiffs from the window.

Despite his scholarly achievements as a lexicographer, as well as his essays, poems and biographical works, Johnson was not always self-disciplined when it came to work and money. He often slept in until midday having stayed up until the early hours in conversation to avoid late-night anxiety. Johnson experienced depression and possibly suffered from Tourette Syndrome (his biographer described tics and involuntary movements). He was a tall, burly figure, and his emphatic debating style is captured in a portrait by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds.

‘Johnson was the life and soul of the party’

The death of his wife Elizabeth, in 1752, brought on a protracted bout of depression and friends sent him a freed Jamaican slave, Francis Barber, as a valet. Johnson, an outspoken opponent of slavery, regarded Barber as a friend and companion more than a manservant. He paid for his education and made him his heir; the will is framed and a portrait thought to be of Barber is also in the house. Several of Johnson’s famous friends feature in paintings in Gough Square, including Edward Cave, founder and editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, based at St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell. Johnson moved to London in 1737, having worked as a Midlands schoolmaster and briefly studied at Oxford (the money ran out). His first writing job was for The Gentleman’s Magazine, which published Johnson’s creative retelling of MPs’ speeches at a time when parliamentary reporting was banned.

There are also paintings depicting the Sohobased Literary Club, which Johnson and Reynolds founded in 1764. Although teetotal for a large part of his life, Johnson was also a regular at Ye Olde Mitre (see p.22) and Ye Olde Cock Tavern in Fleet Street. “A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity,” was one of his popular quotes. 

Despite his sociable nature, Johnson is not thought to have entertained much at home, though his cat Hodge was a constant companion. There are just a few references to Hodge in Boswell’s biography (“a very fine cat indeed”, said Johnson), yet he has become a celebrity feline. A statue stands in Gough Square, while Nabokov includes a reference in his novel Pale Fire.

Visitors often allude to the famous feline in the guest book at the top of the house, though this garret is really all about Johnson’s towering achievement: the dictionary. The long, well-lit room would have been a perfect working space for Johnson and his clerical assistants. It suffered extensive damage from incendiary bombs in December 1940, but the house survived thanks to the swift response of auxiliary firemen, who used the house as social club during the war.

The dictionary has 42,773 words, which was not as much as some earlier dictionaries, but Johnson was the first to give detailed – and sometimes playful – definitions for every sense of a word. He also included 114,000 quotations from literature, but there are only a few mild rude words (visitors still search out smutty terms in the display facsimile edition).

Johnson’s many other works include his fable, Rasselas (1759), which is due to be performed in Gough Square for a Radio 4 broadcast, as well as his 1765 edited edition of Shakespeare’s plays – an exhibition will mark its 250th anniversary next year. Of course, the dictionary is what Johnson is best known for, but the house opens the door to his many achievements and charitable nature.

“I think he’s so human, he’s so complicated and contradictory and there are so many aspects to his personality,” says Rae. “He’s a good old British eccentric.”



Word search

There are more than 42,000 words in Dr Johnson’s dictionary, but here are 10 of his more colourful or curious definitions…

Bedpresser: a heavy, lazy fellow.

Dull: Not exhilarating; not delightful: as, to make dictionaries is dull work.

Fopdoodle: a fool; an insignificant wretch.

Kickshaw: A dish so changed by the cookery that it can scarcely be known.

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Network: Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Politician: A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.

Preapprehension: An opinion formed before examination.

Zed: the name of the letter z. “Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter.” (Shakespeare)