Dr Johnson’s House

In a copy of the Museum of London’s magazine I discovered that this year was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Dr Johnson the dictionary compiler. The dictionary was published in 1755 which means it was only 200 years old when I was born. Doesn’t that make me feel old? Well actually no, but it does make me realise how much things have developed in such a short space of time. There are all manner of dictionaries on the market these days: general dictionaries, specialist dictionaries, monolingual dictionaries and bilingual dictionaries. We can now buy dictionaries on CD Rom or access them on-line. All these types of dictionary are the stock in trade of a translator so as I was in London for the Language Show I thought I would trot along to 17 Gough Square and see the garret where the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language was compiled.

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17 Gough Square

The City of London on a Saturday afternoon was a very tranquil spot. When I arrived at the house I had to ring the bell and wait to be let in. It was like arriving at a private house and for a minute I wondered if it really were open to the public, but the sign on the fence clearly showed it was. There are 4 floors including the ground floor and the garret on the top floor where the dictionary was compiled. It was not quite my idea of a garret. For a start it ran across the entire front of the house and the ceiling was normal height. There was certainly enough room for Johnson and his 6 amenuenses to work comfortably and with four large windows there was plenty of light. The house was not crowded but there was a steady stream of visitors.

I was interested to discover that the house had provided a refuge for the men and women of the auxiliary fire service during World War II, these people being barred from the centres reserved for the regular fire service.

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Opposite the house there is a small statue, which on closer inspection turned out to be a statue of Dr Johnson’s cat Hodge, who is depicted sitting on the dictionary. The dictionary is closed and makes a very comfortable seat for a cat. Hodge is quite a famous cat, being mentioned in James Boswell’s life of Johnson.

After leaving Gough Square I proceeded to Fleet Street. It is very many years since I have walked down this road and I have rarely seen it so traffic free. So many wonderful old buildings, some incredibly narrow, that Johnson would have known are still in use.  Issuing from the air force church of Saint Clement Danes at the end of Fleet Street was the magnificent sound of bell ringing. It was some of the most melodious and joyful bellringing I have ever heard. At the back of the church, facing up Fleet Street is Samuel Johnson’s statue. A pigeon was standing on his head. Appropriate for a cat lover, I thought.

Samuel Johnson's statue

I walked back to Waterloo along the Embankment. The last day of October, autumn leaves on the ground, but it was warm and there were plenty of people about. The restaurants by the Festival Hall were displaying their Christmas menus in their windows but outside the tables were full of visitors enjoying a glorious afternoon. London can be a vibrant city. Johnson’s words still ring true ” When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

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