I was reading the biography of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Richard Holmes and came across this line:

[Coleridge had his] first unforgettable taste of the great talking-shop of London, the Johnsonian world of clubs and coffee-houses, with its last echoes of the elegant, rakish Augustan society of Steele and Addison.

This is around 1790.

I assume that 'Johnsonian' refers to Samuel Johnson, but I'm not sure? What's meant by a 'Johnsonian world of clubs of coffee-houses'?

If it does relate to Dr Johnson, what was the author trying to evoke by this description? How are Spectator magazine founders (I assume that's who he means) Steele and Addison related? And what is Augustan about them?


3 Answers 3


Yes it's Samuel Johnson. There is an idealized view that 18th century London coffee-houses were full of great men exchanging dazzling repartee on the popular matters of the day. These meetings led to political clubs and eventually to the formation of a London intelligentsia which had significant political influence particularly on the Whigs. Steele and Addison were Whig politicians. Augustan refers to Alexander Pope's suggestion that the supposed importance of poetry meant they were living in an 'Augustan age' since poetry in the time of Augustus had focused on politics and the role of the individual versus the state.

It's not completely wrong - there certainly were such coffee-houses. Johnson regularly frequented the Turk's Head where other clientele included the actor-managers David Garrick (Johnson's great personal friend) and Thomas Sheridan and artists and writers such as Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke. The author is trying to convey a sense of literary London where a young Coleridge could meet and talk with leading figures in the arts or Whig politics in a social setting.

  • Great answer :) I wouldn't have worked out the Augustan bit. Thanks.
    – samiles
    Commented May 25, 2017 at 12:57
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    Also, I think "world" just means here the social orbit of Coleridge and earlier Johnson, not the actual state of London as a whole, so we can have quite low standards of what's enough to be "not wrong". The fact that the vast majority of Londoners had little or nothing to do with that "world" isn't significant for those who did spend time in it! Commented May 25, 2017 at 14:20
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    For an idea what it was like you could do far worse than watch the Blackadder episode "Ink and Incapability". Commented May 25, 2017 at 15:32

Yes, this is about Samuel Johnson, the author, critic and lexicographer, and the personage of the "Life of Johnson" by Boswell. He spent much of his life in pubs (even used to have his mail address on one of them, probably the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (at least the memorial plate in the pub says so). There was an intellectual circle centered around him. They mostly met and communicate in pubs.

Wikipedia says:

Around the spring of 1763, Johnson formed "The Club", a social group that included his friends Reynolds, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith and others (the membership later expanded to include Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon). They decided to meet every Monday at 7:00 pm at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street, Soho, and these meetings continued until long after the deaths of the original members.

This is another pub. But he organized several such clubs during his life.


"Coffee houses" were social meeting places where people of the same trade or profession would often meet. Some of these coffee houses (and similar places such as pubs and clubs) were places where writers would meet. Samuel Johnson, being a leading writer, would be a leading light of such a circle, and other writers would want to go to the places he frequented to meet him.

Perhaps the most famous example of such a coffeehouse was Lloyd's of London, founded by one Edward Lloyd, where all the "underwriters' (insurers) met, to do business with each other. The result was the world's most famous insurance syndicate, named after the place where they (and their successors) first did business.

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