There are arguably three people with a London connection, that have had the most significant impact on the English language and literature, and I have discovered (through doing my London walks) that often (but not always) people have certainly heard of two of them. The mention of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens are universally met with nods of agreement and understanding, but the name Samuel Johnson, an 18th century writer, poet, essayist and lexicographer (amongst other things) is often met with blank looks.
Most Saturday mornings, we wander past a museum called Dr Johnson's House, that can be found by exploring the alleys off Fleet Street and it was here in 1755 that Samuel Johnson (and a small number of assistants) completed a monumental task; they had compiled the first ever definitive English dictionary.
I recently finished reading a book by Henry Hitchings called 'Dr Johnson's Dictionary - The extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World' and it dawned on me that although I frequently mention Samuel Johnson and of course the museum that bears his name, I'd never actually written anything about it here. So ... I'm rectifying that.
As with many of these posts; the man himself, his life, his achievement and the manner in which it occurred is far too rich, colourful and complicated to do justice here, so I shall be reasonably brief and instead, use these words to direct you towards the museum, and perhaps spark your own interest in finding out more about Johnson, the dictionary and perhaps even lead you to paying a visit to Dr Johnson's House.
Johnson was born in Lichfield in 1709 and arrived in London in 1737, finding work as a writer and editor of numerous magazines. He is known to have lived in 17 different places in London, and moved to Gough Square upon being commissioned to undertake the dictionary assignment; a task he thought would take three years, but actually took nine. I had always thought this to be a significant chunk of time, until I discovered that the French equivalent took fifty five years ... it had been compiled by committee.
I think it was felt that there was a need for such a book, not only to cement and solidify unruly spellings and grammar, but to almost package the English language as a commodity that could spread across the world and anchor this rather small country of ours and its place within the far larger picture. In a way, it was a precursor to imperialism and a way of laying the foundations for what was to become the British Empire.
Dr Johnson's House on Gough Square is an independently run museum, dedicated to Johnson and his remarkable dictionary, which was gradually pieced together in the attic of the very house the museum now occupies. The house itself is the only surviving building from the original Gough Square, built at the end of the 17th century. Johnson moved out in 1759 and the building had various uses and tenants including a hotel and a printers workshop and studios. By the early 20th century the house was in quite a sorry state and during the Blitz became a social club for the Auxillary Firemen. Despite considerable bomb damage in the area and 17 Gough Square itself, being hit ... it has survived.
The house today is open to the public with lots of Johnson related material, a research library and boasting many of the building's original features. Aside from the permanent collections which include prints and drawings from a number of Johnson's contemporaries, they organise events and exhibitions. On Wednesday 27th November, they will be having an evening of readings from contemporary authors including Man Booker Prize Winner Julian Barnes, in the garret room where the dictionary was compiled.
So, if you do pay Dr Johnson's House a visit, make sure you see the famous statue of the great man's cat Hodge, 'A very fine cat indeed', and if you want to immerse yourself fully in the whole experience, pop in to Johnson's local pub, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, which is just around the corner and was rebuilt the year after the Great Fire of London in 1667.
Dr Johnson's House - 17 Gough Square, London, EC4A 3DE
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