Tuesday 30 April 2024


 Dr Johnson and the first members of The Club meeting in a second floor room of The Turks Head Tavern.

In 1764 , two friends, Sir. Joshua Reynolds and Dr Johnson gathered a group  who called themselves The Club. They were to meet once a week, at number 9 Gerrard Street, The Turks Head Tavern, just north of The Strand and Leicester Fields ( Leicester Square). The intention was to form a group,

“made up of convivial and interesting friends.”

 It is worth looking at how Dr Johnson defined the word, club, in his dictionary.  In his dictionary he always wrote the definition first followed by quotations from various sources, poets, playwrights, The Book of Common Prayer and so on ,that include the word. Johnson gives five definitions of ,club, including the name of a suit of cards, a stout stick, a dividend paid by a company and a contribution, as well as the use we are concerned about.

4. An assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.

What right has any man to meet in factious clubs to vilify the government?

Dryden’s Medal. Dedication. 

An 18th century print of The Turks Head Tavern.

There was a practical purpose for forming the club. It was more Reynolds idea than Johnsons who nevertheless took to the idea with alacrity. Reynolds as a good friend had noticed the terrible mental state that Johnson had fallen into. He had  become impoverished since completing his great dictionary and had to move from the reasonably grand Gough Square house where he had compiled the dictionary. He was living alone, in one sense, since his wife Hetty had died  a few years previously. Now he was living in a small house in Temple Court just south of the Strand, allowing all sorts of waifs and strays to stay with him there. Many of these characters did not get on and there were often arguments and fights. 

His living conditions and lack of money were among a number of reasons he had fallen into this mental state. Since childhood he suffered from ,”melancholy.” In the eighteenth century the term meant clinical depression. He once described to James Boswell what it was like for him at these times. 

“he felt himself overwhelmed with a horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation forgetfulness and  impatience and with a dejection, gloom and despair which made existence a misery.”

The word ,” hypochondria,” in the eighteenth century  meant suffering from a very real mental disorder.

Johnson had terrible pangs of guilt for not being able to complete a Shakespeare edition he had been working on for seven years by that time. He also  suffered what might be described as religious paranoia. He worried that he could not fulfil his God given talents so was destined for hell. He had sexual fantasies which also made him extremely neurotic. Henry Thrale , a good friend who, together with his wife Hester  had a big influence on his life, reported to his wife,  who kept a journal, some of the terrible things that Johnson had told him that troubled his mind. Probably a psychiatrist today would delve into his childhood experiences and find all sorts of damaging events. 

Forming a club in the way Reynolds envisaged was, in a way, a means of taking things off Johnsons mind . Johnson loved discussions. He saw them in an adversarial way. He competed to win.

Joshua Reynolds lived in a house on this site, now in Leicester Square (Leicester Fields in the 18th century).

The Turks head Tavern, where they were to hold the club appears in the ,”Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34 which covers St Anne SOHO.  Gerrard Street is described as such.

“During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many artists lived in Gerrard Street, and there was also from an early period a number of metal workers and jewellers, the most notable being Paul de Lamerie.”

Gerrard Street has a complex history not least house number 9 where the Turks Head Tavern was located .

The London Survey states:

“The site of No. 9 was one of the two largest on the north side of Gerrard Street, having a frontage of thirty-eight feet. The present building was erected in 1758–9.

The earliest known occupant of the first house was a Lady Wiseman, who lived here from c. 1685 to 1697.  From 1701 it became the Romer Tavern which held musical evenings. By 1737 the tavern was called the Bear and 'Rumer'.


The house survived, presumably as a tavern, until 1758, when the freehold was bought by John Spencer of St. George's, Hanover Square, carpenter. Matthew Fairless of St. James's, carpenter, was a witness to the conveyance.   Spencer's first tenant in 1759 was Christopher Winch, a victualler who had previously kept the Turk's Head in Greek Street. He transferred the name to the new house in Gerrard Street which remained in use as a tavern under that name until 1783.”

To begin with ,The Club, comprised of nine people. The number nine being decided on because if anybody could not attend for any reason there was still enough for a broad and diverse conversation assured of a broad spectrum of viewpoints. They also thought that if any two members should meet they would still be able to have  an interesting and invigorating discussion. There were Johnson and Reynolds,who  both had public reputations. The rest , to begin with, were mostly starting their careers. The main criteria for membership were intellectual capabilities, to be able to think and be entertaining. Things such as wealth or poverty were not taken into consideration. There were wealthy members such as Reynolds and there were impoverished members such as Johnson himself. The other seven members were Edmund Burke, the great political thinker whose influence is still felt today, Dr Christopher Nugent, Anthony Chamier,a stockbroker, Oliver Goldsmith,the author and journalist, Topham Beauclerk,an old friend of Johnson’s from Oxford who was very wealthy and who was entertaining but could be acerbic, Bennet Langton another wealthy friend who was learned in the classics and Sir John Hawkins magistrate and musicologist. Hawkins was stuffy and humourless and didn’t last as a member. As the years progressed more members joined. James Boswell, Johnsons biographer, was not elected a member until1773 at the insistence of Johnson. Other members thought he was a lightweight. Later on Dr Burney, the composer and church musician and father of Francis Burney the author, joined too. Burney was an avid social climber, getting to know the right people and had a creepy tendency to ingratiate himself on those with influence, power and money.  

Burney wrote about The Club, that Johnson wanted a group 

"composed of the heads of every liberal and literary profession" and "have somebody to refer to in our doubts and discussions, by whose Science we might be enlightened."

It is Boswell, with his insatiable appetite for recording Johnson’s and others conversations and actions that we have to thank for an example of a conversation held in the second floor room at The Turks Head on April 3rd 1778.

“On Friday April 3, I dined with him in London in a company where were present several eminent men, whom I shall not name, but distinguish their parts in the conversation by different letters. 

 (many of the members did not want  Boswell to record their conversations at first but were happy that he record them anonymously.)

F:  I have been looking at this famous antique marble dog of Mr Jennings, valued at a thousand guineas, said to be Acibiades’s dog.

Johnson: His tail then must be docked. That was the mark of Alcibiades’s dog.

E: A thousand guineas! The representation of no animal whatever is worth so much. At this rate a dead dog would be better than a living lion.

Johnson: Sir, it is not the worth of the thing, but of the skill in forming it which is so highly estimated. Everything that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shows man he can do what he thought he could not do is valuable.” 

This discussion about the value of things, the enlargement of human powers and an understanding of the classical world gives a sense of the depth of conversation and the  relaxed atmosphere and the friendly exchanges, even if the members were not always agreeing. 

There was conversation but there was also the eating. James Boswell does not record what they ate at these gatherings but at the same time as The Club met, two cooks, who worked at the nearby Crown and Anchor, in the Strand, a short walk from the Turks Head,published, 

“ The Universal Cook and City Housekeeping.”

Here is a list of possible dishes and choices the Turks Head Tavern would have served up. 

MEAT: beef, mutton, veal, pork, lamb and rabbit.

POULTRY: geese, ducks, widgeon, chicken, turkey, pigeons, woodcock, partridges and pheasants.

FISH: turbot, smalts, gudgeon, eels, sturgeon, sole,carp, cockles, mussels and oysters.

Vegetables were served in the summer but not in the winter.

Drinks might include bourdeaux wine and port. Beer and ale was not served because they were drinks for the lower classes.

The above is not an exhaustive list but it gives you a, “flavour,” of what was on offer.

The Westminster Reference Library in St Martin's Street.The site of the house where Dr Burney and Francis Burney lived with their family.

Everybody who was a member of The Club lived reasonably close to Gerrard Street. Dr Burney,who later joined The Club  , once he and his family had moved to London from Kings Lynn on the Norfolk coast,  from 1760 lived in a house in Poland Street,just off Gerrard Street,  in SOHO. By the time he joined The Club he and his family had moved to a house, once owned by Sir Isaac Newton, in St Martin’s Street just off Leicester Fields to the south, a short ten minute’s walk to Gerrard Street. In Leicester Fields,around the corner and a few yards from the Burneys lived Sir Joshua Reynolds. Dr Johnson, of course lived in Temple Court not far away . Edmund Burke was the closest. Burke lived in Gerrard Street on the opposite side to the Turks Head. Garrick the actor and theatre manager , the greatest actor of his century, became a member. He had been a school pupil of Johnson’s growing up in Litchfield. He lived just off Covent Garden close by. 

The house in Gerrard's Street ,on the opposite side to The Turks Head Tavern ,where Edmnd Burke lived.

Francis Burney the famed daughter of Dr Burney and author of the novels,  Evelina, Cecelia, and Camilla and a number of plays, became famous in her life time. She was friends with Hester Thrale, a close friend of Dr Johnson and a socialite who gathered the famous of the time around her at parties and dinners held at her Streatham home. Francis Burney is more important now for the journals she kept. She provides an insight to many famous people of the time including the King and Queen. She knew Dr Johnson very well.  Her description of Dr Johnson the first time she met him is somewhat alarming.

From a letter written at St Martins Street to Samuel Crisp ,  friend of the Burney family,  on the 28th March 1777, 

"...and in the midst of this performance ( a duet by Hetty and Suzette) Dr Johnson was announced.
He is indeed very ill favoured,- he is tall and stout, but stoops terribly, he is almost bent double. His mouth is almost constantly opening and shutting, as if he were chewing;-he has a strange method of frequently twirling his fingers and twisting his hands, his body is in continual agitation, see sawing up and down; his feet are never a moment quiet and in short his whole person is in perpetual motion."

London is very different today. Johnson and his friends would not recognise it. A few buildings such as The Turks Head Tavern and one or two streets such as Meards Street in SOHO still retain their 18th century character and atmosphere. 


I walked to Leicester Square( Leicester Fields) the other day and walked along Orange Street ,behind the National Gallery, past  Orange Street Congregational Church towards St Martins Street.  The church was founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees. In 1776 it became part of the Church of England. It eventually passed to the Congregationalists in 1787. It is located right behind the site of the Burney’s house. Where the Burney’s house once stood is an elegant building now housing the Westminster Public Library. It often has small display’s telling the story of the sites illustrious past inhabitants. There is a plaque inside the Westminster Public Library  which reads.

 “Here stood the house  of Sir Isaac Newton in which he lived from 1710 to 1727 and was visited by his friends Addison, Burnet, Halley, Swift, Wren and other great men. Later it became the home of Dr Chares Burney and his daughter Francis and was the  resort of Johnson, Reynolds, Garrick and many others. The library covers the site of the Leicester Fields chapel built for the Huguenots in 1693.”

The Chinese supermarket located inside the building that was ,The Turks Head Tavern.

I found myself walking along past the library, through Leicester Square, noting the plaque showing where Joshua Reynolds lived and on to Gerrards Street and The Turks Head Tavern, now a Chinese supermarket. I was very much in the 21st century but thinking myself back to the18th century. It’s quite easy to do.

The Orange Street Congregational Church founded in 1693 by the Huguenots. The Burneys house which was nearby,  was built in 1710. 

The Club, begun in February 1764 lasted for ten years with new members being elected along the way. It eventually grew to thirty five in number. Johnson attended less and less towards the end. 

Note: Leicester Square , as it is known today, was called Leicester Fields in the 18th century.


Leo Damrosch: THE CLUB Johnson, Boswell and the friends who shaped an age, YALE University Press 2019.

James Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson, Penguin Classics 2008 ( first published 1791)

Francis Burney: Journals and Letters, Penguin Classics 2001

Claire Harman: Fanny Burney A biography, Flamingo ( an imprint of Harper Collins) 2001

Dr Johnson's online dictionary: https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/

Survey of London: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp384-411#h3-s4


  1. Fascinating account, Tony. I look forward to our guided tour next week.

    1. Thanks for your comment John. I’m looking forward to our Dr Johnson walk on Tuesday.

  2. Tony, I love when you take us on a walk through the streets of two different times! I'm sure I'd enjoy a visit to that Chinese supermarket; but oh to have been a fly on the wall of The Turks Head Tavern during a club meeting!

    1. Yes. You would enjoy the Chinese supermarket Jean. If you like Chinese food , that part of SOHO is London’s Chinatown. I wonder what you would make of the 18th century menu?