In contrast to some of the grand homes we’ve featured as part of this series (and there are many more that we haven’t, meaning we might have a future series solely dedicated to them!), comes the rather more humble City home of lexicographer and renowned wit Samuel Johnson.

Gough-SquareThe brick townhouse at 17 Gough Square – which lies between Fleet Street and Holborn – was actually built in the late 17th century (before the Hanoverian accession) for wool merchant Richard Gough.

Johnson – who apparently had at least 17 different London residences – didn’t move in here as a tenant until 1748 and stayed for more than a decade until 1759 (seven years after the death of his wife – for more on Johnson, see our earlier ‘Famous Londoners’ post). It was during his tenancy here that he compiled his famous text, A Dictionary of the English Language. The first comprehensive English language dictionary, it was published in 1755.

The four level property, which is now a museum and has been set up as it was in Johnson’s day, was used by the writer as a residence as well as a workplace and the top floor garret is where six copyists worked transcribing the entries for the dictionary.

As well as the rather spectacular staircase, the property features furnishings from the period as well as portraits, prints and other Johnson-related memorabilia. There is a plaque which was placed on the exterior of the property by the Royal Society of Arts in 1876.

After Johnson vacated the premises, the property was used for various purposes including as a small hotel, B&B and a printer’s workshop. It had fallen into disrepair by the early twentieth century but was saved by MP Cecil Harmsworth who restored it and opened it to the public in 1914 (the small curator’s house was built after this). The house was damaged during World War II bombings – when it was used as a canteen by fireman – but survived. It is now operated by a charitable trust.

Outside the house in Gough Square is a statue of Johnson’s cat Hodge (see our earlier post here) and the property is only a short walk from the historic pub Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (see our earlier post here).

WHERE: Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square (nearest Tube station Chancery Lane, Temple, Farringdon and Blackfriars);  WHEN: 11am to 5.30pm (May to September); COST: £4.50 adults/£1.50 children (5-17 years)/£3.50 concession/£10 family; WEBSITE: www.drjohnsonshouse.org

Renowned around the world for its associations with journalism (not to be mention, it’s desirability as a Monopoly property), the origins of Fleet Street’s name go back to a river which still runs through London today.

The River Fleet (the name Fleet is believed to come from a Saxon word, fleot, which means ‘flood’) these days actually runs under London, flowing from Hampstead Heath in the city’s north via sewers to spill into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge.

A significant river in Roman times, by the medieval period the river had become polluted, thanks to the growth of industry along its banks. After the Great Fire of 1666, it was converted into the New Canal but this rather quickly fell out of use and sections of the river were covered for various urban projects from the 1730s onwards (the final sections, near the headwaters, were apparently covered in the 1870s).

Fleet Street, which takes its name from the river, has been known as such since medieval times and along its length, which runs east from where The Strand ends at Temple Bar to Ludgate Circus, is the location of a number of significant properties – from the Temple, formerly the property of the Knights Templar and now site of two Inns of Court, through to St Bride’s Church, St Dunstan-in-the-West and several old taverns, including Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

The street’s association with publishing goes back to the early 1500s when Wynkyn de Worde, apprentice to William Caxton, set up shop there and other printers and publishers followed. London’t first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was published there from 1702 and the street subsequently became home to many national newspapers (the press in the UK is still referred to as ‘Fleet Street’ although these days no newspapers are based there – the last media outlet, Reuters, moved out in 2005).

There have recently been suggestions that the river Fleet could once again be uncovered as part of a bid to revitalise London’s “lost” waterways.

There’s a number of contenders for this controversial title and a number of different ways of looking at the question. So, rather than take sides, we’ll just canvas a few of them.

Our initial contenders are:

• Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (145 Fleet Street, the City). Built in 1667 after the Great Fire of London, the current building replaced one previously on the site. The cellar is apparently 13th century and forms part of the remains of an old monastery on the site. Dr Samuel Johnson, who lived just around the corner while creating his famous dictionary, was a regular here and the pub is also said to have been frequented by writers Mark Twain, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

The Spaniards Inn (Spaniard’s Road, Hampstead). Located on the edge of Hampstead Heath, the Spaniard’s Inn dates from around 1585. The story goes that it was named after the Spanish ambassador to the court of James I who lived here for a time (another version says it was two Spanish brothers who first converted the building into a pub in the 1700s). Other historical figures associated with the inn include the highwayman Dick Turpin (some say he was born here while others say he used to wait here while watching for vulnerable coaches to pass by), the poets Byron and Keats and the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds – who apparently visited, and Charles Dickens who mentioned the inn in the Pickwick Papers (it also gets a mention in Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

• The Lamb and Flag (33 Rose Street, Covent Garden). The building has been occupied since Tudor times but it’s only been a licensed premises since 1623. The pub, certainly the oldest still standing in Covent Garden, was previously associated with prize fighting and was apparently once called the Bucket of Blood. The poet John Dryden is said to have been involved in a fight here.

The George Inn (77 Borough High Street, Borough). Located on the south side of London Bridge, the George Inn is a rare surviving galleried coaching inn. Now owned and leased by the National Trust, the current building dates from 1676 after the previous inn was destroyed by fire. The inn is mentioned in Dickens’ Little Dorrit and the author himself was apparently a regular visitor.

UPDATE: It seems we left one of the list which is certainly worth mentioning –  The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping (57 Wapping Wall). There’s been a tavern on this site on the bank of the Thames since 1520 and during its early days it became known the ‘Devil’s Tavern’ due to its rather dodgy clientele, alleged to have included smugglers, prostitutes and thieves as well as more famous people such as diarist Samuel Pepys, the notorious Judge Jeffreys, known as the ‘Hanging Judge’, and much later, Charles Dickens. Later destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt and given the new name, The Prospect of Whitby, after a ship that moored nearby. The building now incorporates a ship’s mast.

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.