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"Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts." Boswell: Life
The great wit Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) was speaking of those ‘innumerable little lanes and courts’ to be found around Fleet Street, where he chose to live and work for close to 50 years. A great advocate of London, known for the aphorism ‘when a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life’, Samuel Johnson was a prolific writer who excelled as an essayist, journalist, poet, critic, biographer, and debater. Of course, he is best remembered as the author of the monumental Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the first comprehensive English dictionary.
Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire in 1709, he moved to London in 1737 to try his hand as a writer. Lurching from one commission to the next, he secured regular work with Edward Cave, the founder and editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, situated in nearby Clerkenwell (the room can still be seen today, forming the archway of St John's Gate).
Over the next 10 years, Johnson proceeded to build up a reputation as a writer and a great man of words, and his contributions to the magazine earned him such a reputation as an authority on language and literature that he was approached by a consortium of six local publishers, who commissioned him to write a new, ground-breaking dictionary. Initially a commercial rather than academic endeavour, this would be the work that sealed Johnson’s reputation as one of the greatest authors of the English language.
Over the course of nearly 50 years in the capital, Johnson would have over 17 addresses, assiduously recorded by James Boswell in his great biography The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D (1791). With one exception, they were all located in and around Fleet Street, for the sole reason that this would mean he was always close to, and on hand to receive work from, the numerous printers and publishers whose workshops were well-established in the area.
Of these many houses, only one remains: 17 Gough Square. This house, the grandest house he ever had or would ever live in, has operated as a museum since 1911. It is dedicated to celebrating the life and work of Johnson, known today as ‘Dr Johnson’s House’. It lies to the west-end of Gough Square, situated in the heart of the City of London.
Fleet Street, once the centre of literary London, now has few reminders of the city that Samuel Johnson knew. Yet, turn off the main thoroughfares into the quiet lanes and walkways, and you will find the layout has changed little since medieval times. Away from the bustle of Fleet Street, Dr Johnson’s House gives those in the know a welcome respite from the pressures of modern living, as it once did Johnson and his various literary and printing associates.
Johnson had known that for centuries Fleet Street and its surrounding area was the heartland of printing, of writing, and the dissemination of intellectual ideas. It would maintain this status until very recently. Most important, he was well aware of the importance of writing, and of printing, as a foundation of knowledge:
‘A gentleman maintained that the art of printing had hurt real learning, by disseminating idle writings. Johnson: ‘Sir, if it had not been for the art of printing, we should now have no learning at all; for books would have perished faster than they could have been transcribed.’ (Boswell: Life)
It is for this reason that The Cradle of English project is so important, so that local, and international, history is not only preserved, but explored and celebrated.
Celine Luppo McDaid, Curator, Dr Johnson’s House
Tucked away in Gough Square, scarcely 100 paces to the north of Fleet Street, Dr Johnson’s House looks very much as the great lexicographer would have recognised it all of 270 years ago. It is easy to imagine his small but dedicated team working away on the upper floors.
Located just to the right of the ground floor front door as you enter, the sitting room is a haven of 18th century tranquillity amidst today’s hubbub just beyond the window. Around this very table, the first Mitre Nights podcast was recorded for the Cradle of English.
Located at the western end of Fleet Street, St Clement Danes occupies a site on which there have been churches for over a thousand years. Among its many historical associations, it was the church that Dr Johnson attended – a fact marked by the statue at its eastern end, gazing down Fleet Street.