Saturday, May 22, 2010

At Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: Looking for Dr. Johnson

In London, England, just off Fleet Street in a mews called Wine Office Court is a tavern known as “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.” Dating from at least 1667 and seen here in a 19th Century etching, this landmark rates at least a paragraph in virtually every London guidebook. British Heritage magazine has listed it among the 100 best pubs in England.

Although many great writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain have been known to visit Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese over the centuries, the establishment has identified itself most closely with with one of England’s most renowned literary figures, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Johnson is perhaps best known for his pioneering Dictionary of the English Language. A man of enormous intellect, he equaled it in physical bulk, loving food, drink and conversation. In every instance, he believed, these were best obtained in a tavern.

Such establishments were, Johnson avowed, among England’s greatest achievements: “At at tavern there is general freedom from anxiety. You are sure you will be welcome; and the more noise you make, the more trouble you give, the more good things you call for, the more welcome you are....There is nothing yet which has been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.”

With such an enthusiastic customer, it seems clear why Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese has been so assiduous in claiming Johnson as its own. For example, a 1937 Cheshire Cheese pamphlet, shown here, labels itself “The Literateur’s Haunt for 300 Years” and has Johnson’s picture on the cover. A 1952 souvenir plate shows him sitting in a corner of the tavern and a 1908 postcard photograph depicts a similar scene in what is dubbed, “The Johnson Room.” No wonder years of guidebooks have steered tourists to this alley pub.

In fact, while he was compiling his historic Dictionary, Johnson lived just around the corner in a large rented house with three floors and a spacious garret. It not only was home to the writer and his wife, but also the studio/office where he worked on the tome with a team of assistants. Surely the famous Englishman must have been a frequent patron.

Or that was what I thought in 1990 when in London a friend and I -- Yankee tourists -- ventured into Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese for a lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. A rambling structure, the tavern is a series of bars and dining rooms with wooden benches and working fireplaces. It also has myriad souvenirs for sale, including beer mugs, creamers and cheese pots. Dimly lighted and smoky, the room in which we ate was dominated by a large portrait of Dr. Johnson.

After lunch we walked around the corner to Johnson’s Gough Square house, shown here, which now is a museum in his memory. “We have just come from Dr. Johnson’s favorite tavern, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese,” I announced proudly to the curator. Clearly annoyed he replied: “There is no evidence he ever stepped inside THAT place.” “But,” I stammered, “all the guidebooks....” “Bosh,” he said with finality.

Upon returning to the U.S. I did prodigious research including rereading the famous biography of Johnson by Thomas Boswell. Boswell, who spent many evenings with the sage, mentions many taverns frequented by the literary giant. They include the Crown and Anchor, Clifton’s of Butchers Row, The Turk’s Head, Le Teliers, Parsloes, and the Mitre. Nowhere in Boswell or any other biography I could find any mention of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

While it is possible that Johnson dropped into this nearby establishment from time to time, independent validation is lacking. I subsequently wrote an article on that topic that appeared in a British magazine and later in my book on UK whiskey ceramics. Recently I noted that at least one London guidebook now admits that no real proof exists that Johnson ever frequented Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

Would Johnson have minded that his name and image have been appropriated, perhaps illegitimately, on puff materials and souvenirs for a dingy London pub? Perhaps not. After all it was Johnson himself who once told a friend: “A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity.”

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