Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.
In 1746 Dr. Johnson was commissioned by a syndicate of booksellers to write the first comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language. He rented at £30 per annum 17 Gough Square.
[W]ith the help of six amanuenses he compiled the dictionary in the garret. It was published in 1755. The painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, on a visit to view the great man at work noted that “besides his books, all covered with dust, there was an old crazy deal table and a still worse and older elbow chair having only three legs”, which Johnson managed to sit upon without support.
After Johnson vacated the house in 1756 its condition seems to have gone the same way of Johnson’s furniture and for 150 years progressively became dilapidated. Luckily for the house, by April 1911, its fortunes took a huge turn for the better, as it caught the eye of Cecil Harmsworth, who was a Liberal Member of Parliament who was working nearby at the time; he did after all own a newspaper in nearby Fleet Street.
Harmsworth thought it an absolute crime that this really important building was being allowed to fall into this awful state of disrepair. Purchasing it for a reported £3,500 at the time, his ambition was to restore it to the condition that it would have been in Johnston’s time. Describing his purchase Harmsworth said: “It is doubtful whether in the whole of London there existed a more forlorn and dilapidated tenement.” Of the garret where the dictionary was compiled: “The roof leaks disastrously, and the plaster had fallen off in large patches from the ceiling and walls.”
In addition to the work, a small lodge was built next to museum designed by Alfred Burr for the curator of the time to live in. This shows great foresight of the trustees because with any historic house, you do need somebody living in. Built in 1911, it is the smallest residential property in the City of London.
The first curator in 1913 was called Mrs Dyble, and she was a renowned Johnson scholar. She ran the house for many years, and in the latter years, she was working in tandem with her daughter, Mrs Rowell.
Mrs Dyble and Mrs Rowell, who were both widows, lived with another inhabitant of the curator’s lodge, Mrs Roll’s small daughter Betty, and she spent her childhood using the museum as a sort of extended play area. Mrs Rowell carried on running the house up until the Sixties.
Following her death a third curator, who was unrelated to the other two, came along, a Miss Elliot, and she ran the house for many years as well. Following her death, Betty, the granddaughter of the first curator, who by then was an elderly woman herself, returned to the house and to the curator’s cottage to act as the fourth curator. Curator’s House current incumbent is Stephanie Pickford the museum’s fifth curator, all of which curiously have been women.
Photo: Curator’s Lodge, Gough Square Elliot Brown (CC BY 2.0)