Obituary: Betty Gathergood

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Betty Gathergood became curator of Dr Johnson's House at the age of 77, and with her charm, courtesy, knowledge, enterprise and efficiency, helped breathe a new vigour into the enterprise.

Her appointment as curator of the only still-standing residence of Dr Johnson in the City of London was the more remarkable in that she was of the third generation of her family to fill the post. When the house, which is now run as a charitable trust, was first opened to the public in 1912, it was Betty's grandmother, Isabella Dyble, who moved into the quaint little curator's cottage alongside, which had been specially built for the purpose.

As a young man, Cecil Harmsworth MP (later Baron Harmsworth) often used to walk through Gough Square, tucked away behind Fleet Street, and was appalled to discover that No 17, where Samuel Johnson compiled his English dictionary, and where his beloved wife Tetty had died, was scheduled for demolition.

Against the advice of his brothers, the press barons Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere, he bought the freehold and engaged the architect Arthur Burr to supervise the restoration. When the work was near completion the problem arose of who was to take charge of the house. It was Burr who recommended Isabella Dyble to Harmsworth.

During the First World War, Isabella Dyble's daughter, and Betty's mother, Phyllis Rowell, emigrated to the United States with her young husband, an engineer, but their new life together was short-lived. Her husband died of leukaemia when Betty was only three, and Phyllis Rowell returned to England in 1919 to live with her parents in Gough Square.

Thus it was that as a young child Betty had a unique playground. She kept her dolls' house in the sizeable powder closet (where the ladies and gentlemen of the time had their wigs powdered) on the ground floor. Her favourite reading spot was one of the low-slung window-sills in the same room.

Once, aged about five, she was sitting there, deep in Peter Pan, and was asked by a visiting gentleman whether she liked the book. She replied that she did, but thought that whoever wrote it didn't know much about mothers. Mrs Darling would surely never have shut the window so that Peter could not get back into his home. The man replied that he thought it wasn't Mrs Darling's fault, but that of Nana, the dog. Mrs Rowell overheard the conversation with some consternation since the man was Sir James Barrie himself. Barrie, of course, was highly amused.

Phyllis Rowell took over the custodianship of Johnson's House in the 1920s. During the Second World War, during which the house was nearly destroyed by enemy action three times, she kept it open to the public in conditions many would not have tolerated. She also made the house into a haven for members of the Auxiliary Firemen, those brave volunteers who put out so many City fires started by incendiary bombs. With Lord Harmsworth's permission, and with the help of donations from friends and City firms, Mrs Rowell and her daughter gathered chairs, couches, beds and matresses so that the firemen could have a place to rest, sleep, eat and drink. And also, since many were members of the London Symphony Orchestra, a place to give musical evenings.

Betty fell in love with one of these firemen, Edward Gathergood. They were married in 1942 and held their reception in Johnson's House. Ten years later the christening party for her son, and only child, John Anthony, was also held there.

On Mrs Rowell's retirement in 1962, Margaret Eliot became custodian until her unexpected death in 1993. It was then that the present Lord Harmsworth, grandson of the first Baron, on behalf of the trustees and governors of Dr Johnson's House Trust, invited Betty Gathergood, now a widow and grandmother, to take over the reins.

The start of her curatorship was something of a baptism of fire. As a result of extensive building work next door, the custodian's cottage subsided by a few millimetres, causing deep internal cracking. There was dust and disruption everywhere. In August 1994 a torrential downpour resulted in serious flood damage to one side of Dr Johnson's House not long after a generous grant from the Corporation of London had allowed for a major refurbishment of the interior.

All this Gathergood bore with fortitude, patience and good-humour, and was rewarded with some memorable occasions. In 1993 she co- hosted a reception for the Prime Minister, John Major, when he opened an exhibition on the History of Parliamentary Reporting held in the house. On 18 February this year the trustees and governors held a surprise 80th birthday party for Betty Gathergood in the house.

Once the dust had settled she was able to devote more of her time to the revitalisation of the house, notably, in encouraging group tours, giving talks and lectures to interested parties, and setting in motion a much- needed cataloguing of the library.

During the First World War, whenever Isabella Dyble had problems, she would turn to Samuel Johnson's prayers or dictionary, and "my old man", as she called him, "would always solve them for me". Phyllis Rowell, in her turn, became a mine of information about Dr Johnson and his period. Betty Gathergood inherited her mother's and grandmother's devotion to him. Right up until the last she so enthusiastically bent the ear of the doctor who attended her with tales about the house's most famous inhabitant that he was heard to comment that he had better go and brush up on his knowledge.

Madeleine Harmsworth

Bertha Phyllis Rowell, curator: born 18 February 1916; married 1942 Edward Gathergood (deceased; one son); died 25 September 1996.