I have been telling myself for years that I would visit Samuel Johnson’s House in London, more so since I visited his Birthplace Museum back in June. I was due at Guildhall in the City for 5.30, so decided I’d get into London for the afternoon and go to his house.
It’s tucked away in a court down some alleys just north of Fleet Street. Opposite the house is a small statue of Hodge, Johnson’s cat.
This was Dr Johnson’s house from 1748-1759, and it was here, in the garret, that he wrote his Dictionary. There are a lot of portraits of his friends and associates, but little in the way of furnishings, or Johnson’s possessions, although you can see Boswell’s beer mug, Johnson’s & David Garrick’s walking sticks, Garrick’s costume chest, and Mrs Thrale’s tea service (which, presumably, Johnson made good use of), among other things. It was quite something to stand at one end of the garret and imagine it set up ‘like a counting house’ with a long table at which stood Johnson’s amanuenses, copying up from Johnson’s notes.
There’s a wonderful view down the stairwell from the top floor right down to the cellar. The floor below (2nd floor) has a room displaying an engrossment of Johnson’s will, and a room opposite which houses the library of books of the Trust which owns the house, containing many uncommon and valuable editions.
Perhaps the most evocative thing was to look at the inside of the front door – bearing in mind Johnson’s shaky financial state for much of the time, and the ability of bailiffs to arrest debtors summarily, at the time, the defences on the door are suggestive. There’s a large chain which is attached at one end and hung over a screw hook the other – this precluded lifting the chain off the hook with a bar from the fanlight; a small cupboard beside the door was a peephole enabling a view of the doorstep, and the fanlight itself sports a spiked bar across it to prevent the ingress of small children to unlatch the door from the inside.
Then past Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub onto Fleet Street, past St Paul’s Cathedral, to Guildhall. If you hadn’t noticed, the last year has seen many celebrations as the Royal Society is 350 years old, and this evening Gresham College were hosting The Royal Society Anniversary Lecture.
Gresham College was founded in 1597 to provide free public lectures, and they’re well worth checking out either in person or via the website – the Gresham Professors profess in Astronomy, Commerce, Divinity, Geometry, Law, Music, Physic, and Rhetoric. Their connection with the Royal Society goes back to its founding – it was the original home of the Society from 1660 to 1710 (on and off), and several of the early FRSs were also Gresham Professors (including Robert Hooke, a hero of mine).
Guildhall is an impressive building dating back to 1411. The medieval Great Hall is a very impressive place too – it would have to be, after all, it’s where the Lord Mayor of London holds his Banquets. Under the watchful eyes of Gog and Magog a heraldy-type person announced the Lord Mayor, and he gave a short speech introducing the event, followed by a longer speech by Prof. Sir Roderick Floud, Provost of Gresham College.
And then Bill Bryson took the lectern, immediately explaining that the announced title of the lecture, “A Really Short History of Nearly Everything“, was incorrect, as he had latterly realised that he was supposed to be giving a talk about the Royal Society, rather than the history of science (although for the last 350 years the two have been inextricably linked). His credentials for giving the talk are that he edited Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society (which, perversely, is a book more about the history of science than of the Royal Society), but also, I imagine, his popularity.
He then gave a paean to the Royal Society, and a fervent defence of scientific research in the UK, followed by a plea for everyone present to realise how unlikely their existence was, and therefore to cherish it. As always, he was very entertaining as well as informative – I last heard him speak in conversation with Quentin Cooper at the British Science Festival a year ago, which was shortly after the publication of A Short History of Everything, and he comes across when speaking much as he comes across on the page.
Among the scientists from the past he praised was one Thomas Bayes – one of the extraordinary C18/19 clergymen who had time on their hands and put it to good use. Bayes was a mathematician, and developed the Bayes Theorem – a formula that had absolutely no use at the time, as it was so complex it had to wait for computers to be of practical use; it’s now used routinely in any calculation involving probability – climate modelling, the stock exchange, cosmology. His formula was published posthumously by the Royal Society, presumably just because someone there thought it might be useful one day, otherwise it would have been lost.
After much applause Martin (Lord) Rees gave the summing-up talk, and then we all shuffled off into the Old Library for the Reception, which is almost as impressive as the Great Hall, although not as old, and where I observed much champagne being quaffed and I felt a little under-dressed in that I had no fur-trimmed robes or chains of office to wear, being as I’m not an Alderman.
The Gresham College website makes their lectures available for download as audio or video, and usually provides a transcript as well, and as a rule in a very timely fashion – often within a day or two, so I’d recommend you check it out.