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London cat tales

Special to The Times

WE found Hodge our last day in London. His bronze coat gleamed as he stared across Gough Square at his owner’s 18th century brick house. Cat kibble lay uneaten in an oyster shell at his feet -- not surprising since Hodge was but a statue of literary giant Samuel Johnson’s original pet.

Hodge and fellow London felines derive their fame not from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical -- which is back through Saturday at New Wimbledon Theatre (011-44-870-060-6646, www.theambassadors.com/newwimbledon) -- but from their place in history and legend. Here’s where you can find them around the city.

Lofty cat

Johnson compiled the first great dictionary of the English language while he lived at 17 Gough Square just off Fleet Street. Hodge’s statue sits across from that house, now a museum, on a bronze copy of the famous dictionary. Shells at the cat’s feet recall the oysters Johnson personally bought him, fearing his servants might resent Hodge if they had to fetch his supper.

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James Boswell mentioned Hodge in his massive biography “Life of Johnson”:

“I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast ...; 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.’ ”

Across from Dr. Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square; 011-44-20-7353-3745, www.drjohnsonshouse.org.

Golden cat

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One of London’s most legendary cats belonged to Dick Whittington, who came to London in the 1300s as a poor boy ready to make his fortune. As the story goes, he was hired by a merchant who asked him to invest in a trading voyage. Whittington had no money, so he gave the ship’s captain his cat, a great mouser. The ship landed in a distant port where rats overran a palace. Eager to rid his court of the rodent plague, the king paid the captain a princely sum for Whittington’s cat.

A kernel of truth lies at the story’s core. Richard Whittington, a younger son of a wealthy man, did indeed build his own great fortune in London as a successful merchant and was elected lord mayor of the city three separate times. Childless, he bequeathed his vast wealth to various charities in a trust that still exists today -- as does Whittington’s cat, whether or not it was real.

A modern stained-glass window depicts a young Whittington with a cat at his feet at St. Michael Paternoster Royal on College Hill. It’s now headquarters of the Mission to Seafarers.

St. Michael Paternoster Royal, College

Hill.

Loyal cat

Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, is remembered as a handsome courtier, a patron of William Shakespeare and a man whose portrait includes a cat. Locked in the Tower of London (a fortress with many towers) for his involvement in the Essex rebellion of 1601, he was later released. Once freed, he had his portrait painted with a black and white cat named Trixie, who supposedly kept Southampton company.

“I have heard ... that the painting does not record a real cat at all, but the cat simply stands as a motif for imprisonment,” said Brett Dolman, a curator with the Historic Royal Palaces, a charity that oversees the Tower.

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Citizen, however, was a real Tower cat and is buried on the grounds at Beauchamp Tower. John Augustus Bonney, who was incarcerated at the tower for his political views in 1794, dedicated a poem to the cat and recorded its death in his diary on Aug. 22, 1794: “Citizen died at 6 o’clock; ill all day -- buried in the Tower Wall.”

Though the Tower of London no longer houses prisoners, it still houses cats, the pets of yeoman warders and their families who live on the grounds. My daughter Kyla and I met a fat, silver Persian, sleeping on the lawn, blissfully ignoring the hordes of visitors that streamed past.

Tower of London, Tower Hill; 011-44-870-756-6060; www.hrp.org.uk.

Phat cat

Binks arrived at Bates, a “gentlemen’s hatter,” not a mere hat shop, as a stray kitten in 1921. He soon became a favorite of the shop’s patrons, his rust and cream marbled fur a good match with the autumn palette of gentlemen’s hats.

Binks enjoyed the freedom of the shop near Piccadilly Circus for five years before succumbing to an unknown ailment. The shop’s owner had him stuffed and mounted in a glass case. There he sits to this day, a miniature top hat cocked over one ear, a slim cheroot in his mouth.

Cloth caps are stacked on either side, and antique hat boxes that might have been new when he was a kitten line the shelves above. Binks continues to exude the debonair air of a cat about town.

Edward Bates Ltd., 21A Jermyn St., St. James’s, 011-44-20-7734-2722; www.bates-hats.co.uk.

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Lucky cat

Kaspar is a longtime resident of the Savoy Hotel on the Strand. Kaspar also hails from the 1920s, when he was carved by designer Basil Ionides. Sleek, black and 3 feet tall, the wooden cat sits inside a display case opposite the gift shop.

His job: to serve as the 14th guest when hosts find their private dinner parties attended by an unlucky number of guests. On request, Kaspar is seated in a chair, draped with a dinner napkin and served each course as though he were one of the diners.

The story goes that in 1898, hotel guest Woolf Joel hosted a dinner party for 13. He laughed off the superstition that held the first to rise from the table would be the first to die. Joel rose first and was shortly thereafter murdered. From then on, the Savoy decided to even up all dinner parties of 13. Enter Kaspar. Visitors may see Kaspar in his showcase (and buy related souvenirs in the gift shop opposite), but he’ll join your table only if you bring along 12 friends.

The Savoy, the Strand; 011-44-20-7836-4343; www.fairmont.com/savoy.


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