Today (May 16) in London History – A Famous Meeting

On May 16, 1763 James Boswell met Dr Samuel Johnson. That meeting led to the greatest biography in the English language, Boswell’s Dr Samuel Johnson. This Today in London History podcast tells the story.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

It’s like the night sky, London’s past. When you’re looking at a star you’re looking way back into the past. What’s twinkling up there – burning so bright – happened aeons ago. The Andromeda galaxy, for example. It’s the most distant object visible to the naked eye. It’s 2.5 million light years away. So when we look at it right now, what we’re seeing is what was going on there 2.5 million years ago. 

Now apply that same principle to history, to human affairs. People who died long ago but who loom large and bright in our historical firmament – we know about them, we think about them, we write about them, we tell their story over and over – they’re like stars. Who they were and what they did – they burn bright. They’re visible, they attract the eye, they get pointed out. 

Who knows – I think it’s at least arguable that to some extent we take our bearings by them – to a certain extent we navigate the sea of time we’re moving through by those stars in the firmament of history.

And – bears repeating – London’s past is a milky way of brilliant stars and constellations. 

In my own personal historical London shorthand I think of constellations as occasions when two or more of history’s human stars come together. Basically, I’m talking about meetings, encounters.

By way of example, the great Romantic poet Lord Byron meeting the future prime minister Melbourne’s unhappy wife Lady Caroline Lamb. And the torrid and disastrous affair that led to. The meeting took place at a society event at Holland House. She went away and wrote, “he’s mad, bad and dangerous to know.” He went away and wrote, “stay away from her.” Byron may have been slightly mad, he was demonstrably bad, and in Lady Caroline Lamb’s case he was certainly dangerous to know. And looked at from the reading he took – “stay away from her” – he should have done. Would have been much better for both of them. But, well, human nature… Fully cognizant of what they were letting themselves in for, they were moths to a flame.

Speaking of flames, most of Holland House was destroyed by German firebombing in the Blitz. Today, what survived those 22 incendiary bombs dropped on the house forms a backdrop for the open air Holland Park Theatre. And for me it’s just one of those things – one of those London Walks things – whenever I’m there I think, “this is where it happened, this is where Byron met Lady Caroline Lamb.”

Another one of those constellations in the London sky has to be the one and only – and indeed the extraordinary – meeting between Nelson and Wellington on September 25, 1805 in the ante-room of the colonial office in Downing Street. 

Or Winston Churchill and FDR first meeting at a dinner in Gray’s Inn Hall in 1918. FDR was an assistant secretary of the Navy. He wasn’t at all impressed with Churchill. Said “he acted like a stinker.” For his part, Churchill didn’t remember the meeting. FDR reminded him of it many years later when he was the U.S. leader and Churchill his opposite number here.

Or Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson swimming into one another’s purview for the very first time. It happened in a lab in Barts, the oldest hospital in the united kingdom. Think of Holmes setting eyes on Watson – a complete stranger – and immediately uttering the immortal line, “you have been in Afghanistan I perceive.”

And yes I hope it goes without saying that fictional encounters are some of the stars in that London firmament.

But having had a quick look through the telescope at those constellations, let’s train it on a constellation that’s a little bit further away but is no less brilliant for being so.

We’re looking at a London constellation that was formed on this day – May 16th – 1763. And what a beauty, what a very special constellation in the night sky that’s the London historical firmament.

Can you guess?

Let’s focus right in with our extremely powerful telescope.

Zooming in, we’re in the West End of London. Closing now, we’re in Covent Garden. One or two more very fine adjustments, we’re in Russell Street. In 8 Russell Street to be exact. At the bookshop of Tom Davies. In the back-parlour. 

Yes, you got it. It’s the meeting of the famous Dr Samuel Johnson and his young, Scottish admirer, James Boswell. A meeting that led to the greatest biography in the English language: Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell was a mere stripling, just 22 years old. Johnson was 53. Boswell was a great note taker – his journals filled 18 volumes. He wrote down seemingly every conversation he had with the great Cham, as Johnson was affectionately known. Shall I translate Great Cham? An obsolete form of Khan, it was formerly commonly applied to the rulers of the Tartars and Mongols; and to the emperor of China. There may be just a hint of a send-up in the sobriquet but mostly it’s an affectionate tip of the hat to the great man, the foremost literary figure of his day.

Anyway, Boswell practically worshipped the great Cham. Wrote it all down. And then drew on all that note-taking when he wrote the biography. Johnson was well aware that Boswell was assiduously taking notes every time, he, Johnson, opened his mouth and he once playfully said, “one would think the man had been hired to spy upon me.”

Anyway, let’s hear from Boswell himself. And there’s no getting around it, Johnson gave the young man a good mauling. Full marks to Boswell for taking it all in his stride. Had it been me I would have been tempted to flip the old bully a bird and give him a wide berth hereafter. 

It’s about 7 pm on May 16, 1753. Here’s Boswell’s telling us about that fateful encounter in Tom Davies’ bookshop in Russell Street in Covent Garden.


 ‘When I was sitting in Mr Davies’s back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us,—he announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, “Look, my Lord, it comes” … . Mr Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, “Don’t tell him where I come from”—”From Scotland”, cried Davies, roguishly. “Mr Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it”. … [Johnson] retorted, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.” This stroke stunned me a good deal, and when we had sat down I felt myself not a little embarrassed and apprehensive of what might come next. He then addressed himself to Davies: “What do you think of Garrick? He has refused me an order for the play for Miss Williams because he knows the house will be full and that an order would be worth three shillings.” Eager to take any opening to get into conversation with him, I ventured to say, “O, Sir, I cannot think Mr Garrick would grudge such a trifle to you.” “Sir”, said he with a stern look, “I have known David Garrick longer than you have done, and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.”‘

Apart from Dr Johnson’s abruptness with his young admirer from Scotland, what’s not to like about that encounter. We’d be so much poorer had it not happened. Imagine a world – imagine a London – without what is arguably the greatest London pronouncement of them all, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

And here’s a cherry on the sundae for you. The Boswell-Johnson meeting in that house is very famous, deservedly famous. What almost no one is across is that Johnson first met Oliver Goldsmith at the very same house. If the thought crossed your mind that the 8 Russell Street constellation is exceptionally brilliant, that just might be the reason why. Dr Johnson first meeting the great Anglo-Irish novelist playwright and poet in the very house where he’d subsequently meet James Boswell, that’s a lot of extra lumens for that London constellation.

And how’s this for a perfect dovetail numerology-wise.

Given that the historic meeting took place on the 16th, I mean.

Dr Johnson died in 1784. In 1774 a highwayman named John Rann was executed. Rann was the epitome of a dandy. He was famous for the 8 ties on each leg of his breeches. They earned him the nickname, “16-string Jack.” Which Dr Johnson referred to one day when he was asked if Gray’s poetry did not ‘tower above the common mark.’ Johnson growled, “yes, Sir, but we must attend to the difference between what men in general cannot do if they would, and what every man may do if he would. Sixteen-string Jack towered above the common mark.”

And today’s Today in London Tip.

Another almost goes without saying one: make sure you pay a visit to Dr Johnson’s house at 17 Gough Square, just off Fleet Street. It’s one of the three best literary museums in London, the other two being Dickens’ House and Carylye’s House.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The walking tour company invariably dialled up by those who know. Numbered among those who know, many many Londoners. We get more Londoners and their patriots than we get tourists. So there’s some sage, time-honoured advice for you, “when in London,  do as Londoners do.” 

It’s a perfect fit, savvy, discerning visitors, tack-sharp Londoners and elite guides. Guides who are well-connected, experienced, accomplished professionals:

barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City

of London professionally qualified guides.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.


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