Hodge – Dr Johnson’s Cat

The great man, Doctor Samuel Johnson liked cats and, it seems, animals in general. He is the person who single handedly compiled the famous A Dictionary of the English Language1. He was commissioned to write the dictionary because at the time (the 18th century) dictionaries were poor. It took him 9 years and he was paid roughly £230,000 in today’s money.

He kept at least three cats over his lifetime. However, Hodge was the only one mentioned by James Boswell in his book Life of Johnson – considered to be one of the finest biographies ever written. From this book we can get an idea of Hodge’s appearance and how he interacted with his human companion, Dr. Johnson.

Hodge – Photo by ell brown (Flickr)

Boswell mentions that he himself did not like cats. He appears to have been frightened of them. Boswell had difficulty in this respect when visiting Johnson. He observed Dr Johnson petting his favorite cat, Hodge, and writes in his book:

I recollect him [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

So it seems that Dr Johnson liked other cats, of his, more. Hodge was a black cat being described as having, “sable furr”.

The statue of Hodge shown in the photographs below was erected in 1997. Hodge sits on Johnson’s Dictionary. Also on the dictionary is an oyster, Hodge’s regular cat food treat.

The inscription on the plaque says:

HODGE
‘a very fine cat indeed’
belonging to
SAMUEL JOHNSON (1709-1784)
of Gough Square”

Sir, when a man is tired of London
he is tired of life; for there is in
London all that life can afford.’

‘The chief glory of every people
arises from its authours.’

The efforts of Mrs. Ann Pembroke, Deputy, Corporation of London representative. Dr. Johnson’s House Trust are gratefully acknowledged in the ability to associate this memorial with Dr. Johnson and the English language.

(note: it appears that the word “author” was spelled differently in those day). Mrs Ann Pembroke was involved in the process of the erection of this statue.

17 Gough Square. Dr Johnson’s home when he wrote the dictionary

The statue is in Gough Square, now a pedestrianized street and close to the house where Dr. Johnson lived from 1748 to 1759. He lived in many houses in London. This is the only one remaining today (2012) and where he wrote his famous dictionary.

Dr. Johnson had a black manservant named Francis Barber, who inherited Dr Johnson’s estate on his death.

Oysters were a  commonplace food in the 18th century. Dr Johnson bought them at market himself rather than give the task to his manservant. He thought it would be degrading for Mr Barber to carry out that task.

Dr Johnson bought the best Whitstable oysters. The interesting thing about feeding Hodge with oysters is that it was a very good cat food at a time when I am sure cat food was not always that good.

Oysters are rich in taurine, an essential amino acid for a cat, that needs to be ingested by the cat as they cannot metabolise it themselves. There is 20 times the amount of taurine in oysters than in chicken, pound for pound. Dr Johnson would not have known that Hodge was being fed so well.  I am sure he provided other food for Hodge as well. [Note: oysters should not be the sole item of a cat’s diet. That probably goes without saying it but just in case.]

Clearly Dr Johnson was a very compassionate and thoughtful person. He seems to have been slightly out of step with the general view about keeping domestic cats at that time. His concern for Hodge and his other cats is shown in the fact that he bought valerian as a palliative when Hodge was dying. Valerian is like catnip.

Notes about A Dictionary of the English Language.

It was published in 1755. It weighed 20 lbs and cost almost £500 (GBP) in today’s money. It had 42,773 entries. Johnson added some personal touches to some word definitions:

Lexicographer: ‘ a writer of dictionaires; a harmless drudge’. Clearly a self effacing reference to himself.

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