Famous Londoners: Samuel Johnson

September 14, 2010

The man behind what is perhaps the most famous quote about London – “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” – Samuel Johnson was a noted writer, critic and raconteur of the 18th century whose work included a then unparalleled English language dictionary.

Often simply referred to as “Dr Johnson”, Johnson was also the subject of one of the most famous biographies ever written – that of his friend James Boswell’s aptly named Life of Samuel Johnson.

Born in 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire (the home is now a museum), Johnson – who often struggled with poor health and depression – was the son of a bookseller who managed to help fund his brief time at Pembroke College in Oxford before lack of funds meant he had to leave without a degree (he was later awarded an honorary degree).

He worked with his father and as a tutor before eventually, in 1737, heading to London with his friend and former pupil, actor David Garrick, and there worked for the rest of his life as a writer producing works including magazine articles and essays, poetry, sermons, and biographies.

In 1746, he was commissioned to produce the dictionary and rented  a property at 17 Gough Square, not far from Fleet Street, where he would spend the nine years working in it. Published in 1755, the dictionary was a remarkable work which not only won him acclaim ever since but also resulted in King George III granting Johnson a modest pension for the rest of his life (he had previously been arrested for debt).

The Gough Square house is these days open to the public and includes an exhibition on Johnson’s life, particularly with regard to his time there (there’s a statue of his cat Hodge in the square itself). Other sites which Johnson is known to have frequented include Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the Anchor Inn in Bankside, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) in Bow Street where the Beefsteak Club met, and St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell where he once had an office.

Johnson married an older widow, Elizabeth Porter, in 1735, but she died in 1752 and it was following her death that Francis Barber, a former Jamaican slave, moved in as his servant, eventually becoming Johnson’s heir.

Johnson’s friends included some of the great luminaries of the time, including artist Joshua Reynolds, philosopher Edmund Burke, poet Oliver Goldsmith, and, of course, Boswell.

Following a series of illnesses, Johnson died in 1784 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The 300th anniversary of his death was marked with a series of events last year including a re-enactment of the walk Johnson and Garrick made from Lichfield to London.

Dr Johnson’s House (17 Gough Square, nearest tube is Temple, Holborn or Chancery Lane) is open Monday to Saturday, 11am-5.30pm (5pm from October to April). Entry costs £4.50 an adult, £3.50 for concessions, £1.50 for children and family tickets are available for £10. For more information, see www.drjohnsonshouse.org.

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