Dr Johnson's House

October to April, Monday - Saturday, 11am - 5pm; May to September, Monday - Saturday, 11am - 5.30pm

£6 entry for adults, £2.50 for children. Cash only.

 Johnson's friendship with his black manservant is vividly described in the house, and recognised by this plaque outside

Johnson's friendship with his black manservant is vividly described in the house, and recognised by this plaque outside

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Dr Johnson was, to use a word that almost certainly didn't appear in his famous and pioneering dictionary, 'woke'. He was "unusual for his time in having a high opinion of the intellectual possibilities of women, and was very appreciative of their talents". He also "showed an enlightened attitude to racial inequality" and "expressed from an early age the belief that no one...was superior to another". He lived this, befriending his black manservant Francis Barber and insisting on buying the oysters for his cat (pictured, with oysters) himself in case Mr Barber should find doing so demeaning. 

His attitude towards those north of the border was, perhaps, less enlightened. His definition of 'oats' described it as "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people". 

The house is, we thought, slightly sparsely furnished, but that space is filled by the abundance of information provided in each room. Indeed, as you climb the creaky stairs it's hard not to imagine Dr Johnson's heavy footsteps trailing in front of you. You learn, of course, about his dictionary and his friendship with James Boswell, but it's the extra titbits that make the house really worth the visit. His relationship with Frances Barber fascinates, the insight into his mental health hints at OCD, and the library contains some of the books he owned. Boswell wrote that "Johnson had marked...passages with a black-lead pencil", marks which apparently were not easy to erase. It was rare that a person leant him a second book. 

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There isn't the same sense of time that, for example, the thoughtfully prepared Dickens museum offers, where each room gives a real insight into the day-to-day life that the writer would have led. There is, however, a plethora of information available (also in audio guide form if you don't want to sit and read the many laminated pages), and that is enough to make the visit worthwhile. 

Our interest in Dr Johnson was piqued last summer when we wandered through and up the Western Isles, tracing some of the journey Dr Johnson documents in his 'A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland' as our company. He emerges from that journal as a difficult and tempestuous man. That may be so, but a visit to his old house in Gough Square suggests there was much, much more to him. We left with the feeling that he would have fitted in just fine to modern-day, metropolitan London, and that he would probably have enjoyed visiting the house where he produced the first serious dictionary. He might even donate some of his old belongings...

 Johnson's old library, where he wrote 'A Dictionary of the English Language'

Johnson's old library, where he wrote 'A Dictionary of the English Language'