Number 17 Gough Square, London, was the home of Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), which he shared with his much loved cat, Hodge. Not many cats have a statue erected in their honour, but opposite the house, which is now a museum, stands a charming bronze of this famous eighteenth century feline.
Dr Johnson lived in the house for eleven years, and it was here that he produced the dictionary for which he is famous. Like many writers, he had a fondness for cats. Hodge would have kept him company as he laboured on his mammoth task for years on end. The book produced by Dictionary Johnson, as he became known, defines The Cat thus:
"A domestick animal that catches mice, commonly reckoned by naturalists the lowest order of the leonine species." While naturalists may have reckoned the cat a lowly animal, there is no doubt that the lexicographer had a high regard for his feline friend, for he is recorded as describing Hodge as a 'very fine cat indeed'. Samuel Johnson's affection for cats in general and Hodge in particular, was recorded by his biographer, James Boswell, whose book, The Life of Samuel Johnson was published in 1799. In it we learn that the great man of letters objected to his wife beating one of his cats (a predecessor to Hodge) because she set a bad example to the servants.
As a non-cat person himself, Boswell was much surprised at the "indulgence with which he treated Hodge". Dr Johnson would go out himself to purchase oysters for the cat. Apparently he did so, in case the servants became resentful of doing so and took "a dislike to the poor creature". Boswell also writes that he recalled seeing Hodge "scrambling up Dr Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction", while the Doctor rubbed the cat's back and gently tugged his tail. To his credit, for a non cat lover, Boswell remarked that Hodge was a fine cat, to which Dr Johnson replied "Why yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this". However, upon observing that his poor cat seemed put out, added, "But he is a very fine cat; a very fine cat indeed."
History does not tell us exactly when Hodge passed away, but we do know that Dr Johnson went out to find some valerian (a plant very similar to catnip) when his cat was dying to make his last hours as pleasant as possible.
It is not only in Boswell's biography that Hodge lives on. Poet, Percival Stockdale wrote An Elegy on the Death of Dr Johnson's Favourite Cat,. from which we learn that Hodge was a black cat ...
A more recent memorial exists in the form of a bronze life-size statue that was unveiled on 26 September 1997, by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Roger Cook. The metal moggie is sat upon a dictionary with oysters at his feet. The delightful edifice was the work of animal sculptor, Jon Buckley, and was modelled on his own cat, Henry. Miniature models of the statue can be purchased from the museum shop.
Not much is known about Dr Johnson's other cats except that in a letter written in 1738, he mentions a white kitten by the name of Lily, describing her as 'very well behaved'. On 1st September 1997, No 17 Gough Square acquired a new feline resident, also named Lily. She was chosen from the many cats at the Dogs' Home Battersea. However, apart from her name and place of residence, the modern day Lily has little in common with her 18th century namesake - the present day Lily is jet black, and is decidedly mischievous. It is good to know that the great writer's house once again knows the soft footfall of a cat about the place, and one suspects that if he could see her, the Doctor would declare that she, too, is "a very fine cat indeed!"