Magazine article History Today

Tired of London? Then Read on ...: Lord Harmsworth Tells How an Accident of Birth Resulted in His Running Dr Johnson's House in London. (Point of Departure)

Magazine article History Today

Tired of London? Then Read on ...: Lord Harmsworth Tells How an Accident of Birth Resulted in His Running Dr Johnson's House in London. (Point of Departure)

Article excerpt

I LOATHED HISTORY at school! The present and the future were so much more interesting than the past. And it was all about dates and events. Not about people. People are so much more interesting than things. There was an exception: constitutional history. My teacher made the subject come alive. And it had a modern relevance. I only read for information then. Never for pleasure. Still do.

In 1911 my grandfather Cecil Harmsworth was walking along Fleet Street with a journalist, when he learned that No. 17 Gough Square was up for sale. Samuel Johnson had rented the House between 1748 and 1759 while he was working on his great English Dictionary in order to be near his printer, William Strahan. It was the only London residence of the seventeen listed by Boswell as having been used by the Doctor that was still standing. Unfortunately Boswell was not to meet Johnson until a few years after he had left the Square. Without more detailed description of life there, we do not know what use some of the rooms were put to.

My grandfather consulted his elder brothers, Viscounts Northcliffe and Rothermere, about buying it. They advised against. Fortunately for the nation, but perhaps not so fortunately for the finances of his branch of the family, he disregarded their advice! It was to mean, though, that from childhood I regularly experienced members of my immediate family returning home from meetings weighed down by the financial difficulties of running the House.

In fact it is lucky the House is there at all. On at least three occasions in the Second World War it was threatened with total destruction--by a fire-bomb in December 1940, when the roof and the Dictionary Attic, where Johnson and six amanuenses worked, were burnt out (the charred beams are still visible); by another in January 1941; and by a flying bomb in July 1944. Other buildings in the vicinity were not so lucky. You could see all the way to Holborn Viaduct from the top window across the rubble of flattened buildings.

Incredibly, on the very day war was declared our then curator, Mrs Rowell, and her young daughter (who was also to become curator), had been walking along Pemberton Row, just north of Gough Square, when they noticed several men sitting on a wall eating sandwiches. She asked who they were. They were from the Auxiliary Fire Service. They had nowhere to rest or sleep. She immediately made Dr Johnson's House available to them for the duration of the war. It became their haven, and many a fine chamber concert was to be heard there, as the AFS included several symphony orchestra players. She even shared with them her precious food parcels from America. This may have been one of the reasons why the House survived.

In the early 1970s I was to become a governor of the House. Then I became its Honorary Treasurer and in 1990 chairman of Trustees. I inherited forty years of unresolved problems. Our bank balances were minimal and a huge amount needed to be done. How might it be possible to bring back to life a House so loved; whose walls `spoke to one'?

Our largest source of income--the admission charge--is capped. We are required by our deeds to let the public in at a minimal charge. We therefore had to obtain income from other sources: generating items for sale in our shop; letting the House in the evenings for functions after the public had gone; even begging. Somehow we did it. In the next decade we refurbished the basement, a dark and damp waste of space. Also the curator's lodge. We repaired external war damage. And recently we stripped the whole house down in order to strengthen the structural beams. It is the only Grade I domestic building in the City of London, built in 1700 for domestic purposes. I was told that had it been built to the same specification today it would not even have got through Building Regulations. It is now up to English Heritage office loading standards of 50lbs/sq ft. But my work at the House is not just about raising money and putting in new beams. …

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