DR JOHNSONS HOUSE
Heritage Category: Listed Building
List Entry Number: 1192738
Date first listed: 04-Jan-1950
Date of most recent amendment: 12-Jun-2009
Statutory Address: DR JOHNSONS HOUSE, 17, GOUGH SQUARE EC4
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Statutory Address: DR JOHNSONS HOUSE, 17, GOUGH SQUARE EC4
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
County: Greater London Authority
District: City and County of the City of London (London Borough)
National Grid Reference: TQ 31367 81267
627/7/79 GOUGH SQUARE
04-JAN-50 (West side)
Dr Johnson's House
(Formerly listed as:
GOUGH SQUARE EC4
(Formerly listed as:
GOUGH SQUARE EC4
16A AND 17
DOCTOR JOHNSON'S HOUSE)
This list entry has been amended as part of the Bicentenary commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act.
Dr Johnson's House takes up the west side of Gough Square. The house is late C17, probably originally built for a merchant; altered later C18. It was restored 1911-12 under the direction of architect Alfred Burr, and opened as a museum. The house is still open to the public;
EXTERIOR: Red brick, the window surrounds and platbands in rubbed brick. Slate roof. Sash windows. Three storeys plus basement, and attic, separated by platbands. Former gables joined by parapet. Four bays to east elevation facing square; three windows only in attic storey (of which one is blocked), the roof slanting across the left-hand bay. Front door of c1775, with fanlight. Two bays in south return, originally three, the westernmost bay nearly obscured by chimney shaft of adjacent house. Parapet to roof. Steps lead up to side door, a C20 copy of front door, also with fanlight. The north return, which faces Pemberton Row, is of three bays (one blank), with parapet to roof, and is rendered and painted. On the east elevation, at ground-floor level, a plaque commemorating Dr Johnson and his residence in the house, erected by the Royal Society of Arts in 1898.
INTERIOR: Each of the principal three storeys has a large room to south and a smaller room to north, with the staircase, at the back of the house, opening into a central room or landing. The wooden staircase has original handrail, and original balusters in the uppermost flight. In the south room of the ground floor, a partitioned cupboard, or cellarette, is set into the back wall. On the first floor, an ingenious set of hinged dividing doors, which allowed the floor to be partitioned into three areas, or opened into a single space (the doors are always left in this latter position at present). In the northern first-floor room, early plaster decoration at cornice and dado. The attic suffered damage during the Second World War, and has been substantially restored. Little of historical interest remains in the basement. Much early panelling on principal three floors, and early floorboards. Fireplaces all replaced. Decorative and defensive spikes behind fanlights of doors to exterior; the east door fitted with a heavy chain and hook.
HISTORY: The house now known as Dr Johnson's House was probably originally built for a City merchant. Its most famous resident, and one of the most distinguished figures in English literary history, Samuel Johnson (1709-84), rented it from 1748 to 1759. The son of a Lichfield bookseller, early illnesses left Johnson scarred; he was scrofulous, partially deaf and poorly sighted. Throughout his life his huge body was racked by involuntary convulsions, and he was frequently the victim of melancholy. His early years were relatively unproductive; a spell at Oxford lasted little over a year, early attempts at writing were largely fruitless, and a school he opened in 1735 closed shortly afterwards.
It was in 1737 that Johnson made his way to London, sharing a horse with his former pupil, the actor David Garrick. Three months later Johnson returned for his wife Elizabeth, or 'Tettie' (the couple had married in 1735); London was to remain his home for the rest of his life. Here, he gradually became established as a writer of extraordinary gifts and versatility, though his financial circumstances were always uncertain. As a journalist he contributed to and assisted in editing the Gentleman's Magazine, and wrote two celebrated series of essays, 'The Rambler' (1750-2) and 'The Idler' (1758-10). He catalogued the vast Harley library and, together with the antiquarian William Oldys, compiled the 'Harleian Miscellany' (1744-6). His celebrated work, 'London: a poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal' was published in 1738; his play 'Irene' was staged in 1749; and his novel 'Rasselas' appeared in 1759. He published an edition of Shakespeare's plays in 1765, and a series of prefaces later known as the 'Lives of the Poets' in 1779-81. But it was his 'Dictionary of the English Language' which established his reputation, and for which he is best remembered.
In 1746 Johnson signed a contract with a group of booksellers, agreeing to produce the Dictionary in three years. He received 1500 guineas, enabling him to take the house in Gough Square, near his printer; the garret was fitted out 'like a counting house' for his five or six assistants. The house was the most substantial of all Johnson's London residences, and the one at which he remained longest. The monumental task took nine years to complete. The Dictionary's patron, the Earl of Chesterfield, failed to give help when it was needed, and received a letter of dignified rebuke which is seen as signalling the liberation of writers from dependence on aristocratic patronage. The Dictionary made a great impression when it appeared in 1755, and soon became established as the standard authority; it is still regarded as a work of immense importance for the history of the English language.
Johnson was famed, both before and after his death, for his agile conversation and profound wit. The Literary Club, composed of the leading figures in almost every field, provided the perfect forum for Johnson's erudition and conviviality. Amongst its members were some of Johnson's close friends - Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith; Charles Burney, Garrick, and his biographer James Boswell, with whom he made the remarkable Scottish tour which resulted in 'A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland' (1775). Other important friendships included that with Hester Thrale; and much earlier, with the enigmatic poet whom Johnson immortalized in 'The Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage' (1744).
Following the death of Johnson's wife in 1752 the house in Gough Square, and Johnson's subsequent lodgings, became home to an assortment of his acquaintances. These included at various times the blind poet Anna Williams, the surgeon Robert Levet, a widow named Elizabeth Desmoulins, and Poll Carmichael, who may once have been a prostitute - it was an eccentric and often turbulent household. 1752 also saw the arrival of one who was to be a constant friend to Johnson - his black servant Francis Barber. Johnson died at his home in Bolt Court, very close to Gough Square, in 1784.
Francis Barber, thought originally to have been called 'Quashey', was born into a slave family. The place and date of his birth are not known; but he was aged about eight in 1749, when the Jamaican sugar plantation on which he lived, the Orange River Estate, was sold by Colonel Richard Bathurst. A favourite slave, the boy was taken to England by the Colonel, where he was baptised as Francis Barber. In 1752 the Colonel's son, Dr Richard Bathurst, sent Francis to live with his bereaved friend, Dr Johnson, at Gough Square. Francis, or 'Frank', as Johnson called him, became the great man's servant, though legally he remained a slave until freed by Colonel Bathurst's will three years later.
From the first, Frank was a valued member of Johnson's often turbulent household, being treated in some ways more like a friend or even a son than a servant. Johnson paid for his education, and sent him away to school, telling him, 'You can never be wise unless you love reading'. His duties were relatively light; Johnson bought food for the cat, Hodge, himself, 'so that Frank's delicacy be not hurt, at seeing himself employed for the convenience of a quadruped'. Barber went to work for an apothecary in Cheapside in 1756; Johnson complained that 'My boy is run away', but Barber visited his old master regularly. In 1758 he joined the navy, but Johnson used his influence to have him discharged. Barber married Elizbeth Ball in 1773; the couple had five children. Their eldest son was named Samuel, after Johnson; this child died, and the next son born was also named Samuel. In 1783 the whole family came to live with Johnson in Bolt Court, adjacent to Gough Square.
When Johnson died in 1784, the residue of his estate was left to Francis Barber. Having been told that a nobleman might leave a faithful servant a £50 annuity, Johnson declared, 'Then shall I be noblissimus, for I mean to leave Frank seventy pounds a year'. Johnson had advised Barber to remove himself from the temptations of London; he moved to Lichfield with his family, but failed to curb his extravagance. His last years were spent keeping a school in the nearby village of Burntwood. He died in 1801 and was buried at St Mary's, Stafford.
Johnson's House in Gough Square is of additional special historic interest as being one the first places in England where a former slave is known to have lived as a respected, independent individual. Barber's position was due largely to his having joined the household of Samuel Johnson, known for his disapproval of slavery. In 1759 he wrote, 'Of black men the numbers are too great who are now repining under English cruelty', and commenting on the American War of Independence (1775-83) he asked, 'How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?'
The house in Gough Square has known a variety of occupants since Johnson's departure in 1759. In 1832 Thomas Carlyle found it being run as a lodging house; it was later an hotel, and in the late nineteenth century, a printing house. In 1911 the house was bought, in a derelict condition, by Cecil Harmsworth, later Lord Harmsworth, who restored it and opened it to the public as a museum. At this time the 'Wrenaissance' style cottage was built to the rear of a small paved yard to house the curator. This is separately listed (qv) and linked by a low wall enlivened by two blank oeil-de-boeuf windows; at the front of the yard, iron railings and gate.
This remarkable house, then, a unique survival of its kind in this area of London, which, with its largely unmodified interiors and unobtrusive displays does so much to preserve the memory of its illustrious tenant, probably owes its own preservation to Dr Johnson.
SOURCES: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography C Harmsworth, Dr Johnson's House, Gough Square, London: A History of the House (1924, 1996) www.samueljohnson.com Boswell's Life of Johnson (1799, 1953) REASONS FOR DESIGNATION: Dr Johnson's House is designated at Grade I for the following principal reasons: * Fine example of a substantial late C17 house in the City of London, of particular interest for having remarkably well-preserved interiors, with early joinery, including an extremely unusual set of hinged dividing doors * It was in this house that Samuel Johnson compiled his Dictionary; this connection with the great lexicographer makes the house of particular historic interest * Connection with Johnson's servant, Francis Barber, adds to the historic interest of the house.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
Legacy System number: 199489
Legacy System: LBS
Books and journals
Boswell's Life of Johnson, (1799, 1953)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2005)
Harmsworth, C, Dr Johnson's House, Gough Square, London. A History of the House, (1926, 1996)
, accessed from
This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
End of official listing