Samuel Johnson in Gough Square
Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
This L-shaped court formed a remarkably quiet enclave, considering its proximity to Fleet Street, as it was sheltered by houses along the small lanes that once gave access including Wine Office Court. A guidebook described it in 1761 as “A very small oblong square, with a row of handsome buildings on each side.” The area is now pedestrianised and Gough Square is reached from its northern side in the direction of Holborn. Here Samuel Johnson lived at no. 17 between late 1747 and, probably, the late summer of 1758. This was one of the longest single periods of occupation at any of the twelve or more addresses where he lived during his sojourn in London of almost half a century. It is the only one of these surviving today, happily preserved as a museum of all things Johnsonian. Gough Square could also be reached through an arch that led from Johnson’s Court, a straggling alley which would be the writer’s home a few years later (though this name no personal link). His final residence at Bolt Court lay immediately adjacent.
Standing on the west edge of the square, it formed one of a group thought to have been built a generation earlier by Richard Gough (1655–1728), a rich merchant and director of the East India Company, who profited from the Hanoverian accession by gaining a knighthood and a seat in parliament. Johnson leased the property from Gough’s son Henry, who had been made a baronet after his father’s death and also inherited the seat in 1728. The rent was moderate at around £26 per annum. It was a red brick structure of four bays, with three main floors as well as a basement and a garret. The former contained a kitchen and servants’ quarters, while the latter was the site of Johnson’s library and work area. Here most of the work on the Dictionary was done, aptly because literary drudgery was traditionally associated with such a locale. In the picturesque description of Henry Hitchings, the attic became “a sort of backstreet abattoir specializing in the evisceration of books.” Desks were needed for the amanuenses who assisted in compilation, with a rickety chair lacking one of its legs. There was even a cockloft, which may have been reached by a ladder used for storage. In the middle storeys there were bedrooms and living areas. After Johnson took up residence his wife Elizabeth or “Tetty” probably occupied the southern room on the second storey on her intermittent presence in the house, while he slept in a room on the floor above. There was of course no bathroom.
Although the panelled walls give the building an elegant air today, it was far from a decorative showpiece at this date, especially after Tetty’s death, with accommodation needed as time went on for the manservant Frank Barber, the blind poet Anna Williams and possibly a maid. Visitors appear to have been rare—indeed Hitchings suggests that “the only other people to cross the threshold of 17 Gough Square were Johnson’s newly recruited helpers, a clutch of Grub Street’s poorest citizens.”
The Dictionary was not the only fruit of these years. Johnson wrote the Rambler and some of the Idler here, as well as embarking on the edition of Shakespeare together with much journalism. But there seems to have been friction, both domestically and with other residents of the court. According to information that Boswell received from Johnson’s lifelong friend Edmund Hector, after the great man died, “Sir Harry Gough was obliged to put him out of one of his houses in Gough Square for the Neighbours complained they could not get rest for a man who walked all night and talked to himself.” There was only a small garden at the side of the house, so if this is true these must have been circuits of the square. Boswell kept this to himself, but It sounds plausible when we recall the night walks that Johnson engaged in with Richard Savage. The identity of his fellow inhabitants remains a mystery, except for John King, a clock and watch maker. There are signs that the social tone of the neighbourhood was beginning to decline by the 1750s.
At all events, a different explanation is offered by Sir Joh Hawkins for the sudden departure in 1758. Hawkins was the only one out of all Johnson’s major biographers, moreover, who knew him at this time. He writes that it was a time of hardship when the still struggling author had few means of subsistence: “and we may suppose them hardly adequate to his wants, for finding the balance of the account for the ‘Dictionary’ against him [he had been paid more than the return on the work at this date], he quitted his house in Gough square, and took chambers in Gray’s inn.” A further disruption was that “Mrs. Williams, upon this removal, fixed herself in lodgings at a boarding school in the neighbourhood of their former dwelling.” Jonson spent only a year at Gray’s Inn before moving on to Inner Temple Lane and then to Johnson’s Court. All these locations kept him close to most of the book trade, especially his usual printer, William Strahan, who ran his business from New Street, just round the corner from Gough Square.
The house went through sundry incarnations during the next hundred and fifty years. By 1911 it had descended to use as a storehouse and was threatened with demolition. It was saved when the politician and press baron Cecil Harmsworth stepped in to restore the fabric, under the direction of the well-known Edwardian architect Alfred Burr, and open it to the public in 1914.
During World War II the houses in Gough Square escaped a direct hit in the Blitz until 29 December 1940, when incendiary bombs caused severe damage. The accommodation allotted to the curator Phyllis Rowell and her family received the first strikes, and with great presence of mind her daughter Betty climbed up a ladder and pushed off the bombs with a broom, although many had lodged in unreachable places. A water main had been struck and the area had to be evacuated, with the family ordered to move to a shelter. They gathered up Johnson’s letters from the house, plus some personal effects. To make matters worse, Mrs. Rowell’s mother had a mild heart attack during the hazardous journey to safety.
Fortunately, the firefighters had located a large tank in the area from which water was transported in canvas containers to Gough Square. A jet of water was directed on to the roof and more water was relayed up the stairway into the attic. The amount of harm done was remarkably little, although some paintings were water-damaged and some furniture was destroyed. Later in the war some flying bombs landed nearby and caused some damage. Repairs were carried out to the roof before the museum reopened when peace returned.
A good account of the house and Johnson’s activities there can be found in James L. Clifford, Dictionary Johnson: Samuel Johnson’s Middle Years (1979). A fuller narrative of events during the Blitz in 1940 is supplied in Neil Bright’s blog on the Blitzwalkers site.