In Gough Square, just up from Fleet Street, there’s a statue of a cat called Hodge. Hodge didn’t do anything particularly spectacular like save someone from a burning building or hang around at his owner’s grave for 20 years. He sits on his pedestal looking at one of his master’s houses during his time in London.
Hodge belonged to Dr Samuel Johnson, the man who wrote the dictionary (among other things). Johnson lived in 20 Gough Square while he wrote it, renting it for £30 per year (this is roughly £3,000 in our money, so still pretty cheap for London). It is a lovely four storey building mostly made from timber (on the inside at least) brought back from America as ballast aboard emigrant ships, returning empty.
As usual I met Mirinda for lunch and, after a lovely panini and surprising wander from the Strand to High Holborn, I decided to check out Dr Johnson’s house. I’ve been meaning to go for ages but today was really the only chance I’ve had.
First of all, it’s quite difficult to find. Gough Square nestles inside a maze of little streets and alleys which turn you round and confuse you completely. But then you find Hodge and all is revealed. Across the square is the house.
The volunteer at the desk was more than happy to fill me in on lots of detail about the house, telling me the video on the third floor was well worth a watch, as I think I was probably one of only a few people he’d talked to all day. Anyway, armed with his words and a guide book, I set off through the rooms.
The house was basically left to rot until 1911 when it was restored. The Germans had a good go at levelling it during the bombing raids but, fortunately, were unsuccessful. The rooms are pretty empty of furniture though a few bits (like Dr Johnson’s chair from the house of Elizabeth Carter which he found so comfortable he asked her for it and she let him have it) while not being particularly amazing, have great stories attached to them.
The restoration was undertaken by Cecil Harmsworth MP who, going against the advice of his two brothers, bought the house and set to work on it. He also built a house across the square to be for a curator. It was Harmsworth who decided that the house should remain as original as possible and instructed the builders to use the existing panels at the property. This presented a bit of a jigsaw puzzle for them as panels were strewn all higgledy piggledy everywhere throughout the house.
The video, when I reached the third floor, was interesting, with two actors playing at being Johnson and James Boswell, his biographer, getting out of a black cab at the front door and taking the viewer through each room, chatting about things that happened to them back in the 18th century. It had a few laughs in it but generally was just informative and not very well acted, to be honest. Though, to be fair to the actors, the script wasn’t that easy to work with! It was, however, an informative half hour.
Johnson lived in the house between 1748 and 1759 while he wrote the dictionary. His first estimate was three years but it ended up taking nine! Subsequently, his time there was pretty dire, steeped in poverty. Mind you, he managed to have six clerks working on the top floor pretty much all day, writing up his notes and adding quotations he supplied from his extensive library. Apparently, Johnson had a wonderful memory and could just go to a source document for information. For instance, he would know if the word ‘cat’ appeared in Shakespeare, which play it occurred in and where to find it within the text. He would grab it and give it to the guy doing ‘cat’ to add to the book.
Funnily enough, I can never quite picture Dr Johnson without thinking of the Blackadder version, remembering Baldrick helping to re-write the burned manuscript. Blackadder gives him ‘C’ to do. When asked what he’s managed to come up with, Baldrick responds with “big blue wobbly thing.”
The Blackadder Johnson is a mean and nasty man who beats people with a stick and has the pox on his face. The portraits of him throughout his house tend to confirm this version…apart from the beating with a stick bit!
The reason he chose the house was because the top floor has windows all around it, giving lots of natural light. He had a huge table placed in the centre for all his assistants to sit at while they scribbled, earnestly away.
The house, overall, is really quite lovely with the original and narrow staircase winding its way up and specially constructed doors closing off various levels – I assume for warmth.
And here’s a picture of the noble looking Hodge with, what appears to be, oyster shells at his feet. Which seems a somewhat excessive diet for a cat.