13 Historic London Cats
Unlucky for some perhaps, but these 13 historic London cats definitely have some stories behind them!
How many have you seen?
1. Dick Whittington’s Cat
Probably the most famous cat in London’s history, there’s no evidence that this one even existed.
Richard Whittington was certainly a real person. Born around 1354 he was four times Lord Mayor of the City of London and as a rich City merchant gave money for the rebuilding of the Guildhall, Leadenhall Market and the first public loo known as Whittington’s Longhouse.
But what of the cat? Well, the most famous statue can be found on Highgate Hill, supposedly where Dick heard the bells of Mary Le Bow calling him and decided to return to London.
You can find more references to the cat across London, especially in the City. This stained glass by John Hayward is from St Michael Paternoster Royal, where Whittington is buried
These modern tiles adorn an otherwise bleak stairwell to the Museum of London
But my favourite is this shield of the 101 City of London Engineer Regiment, found in Guildhall. In 1988 they adopted the cat as part of their shield and alongside the Whittington connection it’s supposedly a reference to their recruits having nine lives. You’d hope as much given that they deal in the risky nature of explosives disposal!
They say a dog is a man’s best friend, but with Dr Samuel Johnson is was definitely a cat. Hodge to be specific.
You can find this in Gough Square, opposite No.17, where Johnson lived for a number of years while writing his English Dictionary in the mid 18th Century.
Although Johnson had a few cats, Hodge was his favourite. He’d especially go out to Billingsgate to fetch him oysters and the plinth reads “a very fine cat indeed”.
Outside the Savoy Hotel, look closer at the topiary and you’ll spot a cat-shaped hedge.
It’s a reference to a story dating back to 1898 when diamond magnate Wolf Joel hosted a large group for dinner here. When a guest cancelled last minute the party numbered 13 and this prompted worries from the superstitious in the group thinking the first to rise would be the first to die.
Joel shrugged off such nonsense, confidently rising first after a good meal. Upon his return to Johannesburg however, he was shot dead. The Savoy, wanting to make sure no such thing happened again, resolved that each party of 13 would be accompanied by a staff member. As you can imagine, this could lead to awkward dinner conversation and so the hotel came up with an even better plan.
Basil Ionides (who masterminded the original Art Deco design) carved a miniature cat; Kaspar out of polished London Plane. Today it bumps up any ‘unlucky’ party up to 14. Not the more talkative of dinner guests, but surely a welcome addition. Plus if any guests want extras, I’m sure Kasper is only too happy to share!
4. The Carrera Black Cats
If you’ve ever walked past Mornington Crescent Station you will have seen the glorious Art Deco facade of the former Carreras Cigarette Factory.
The building dates from the late 1920s but the black cat was used as the brand’s trademark from the 19th century – supposedly a reference to a pet cat from the small Soho shop owned by the founder; Don José Joaquin Carreras Ferrer.
Read more about the history and see more photos here.
5. The Salter’s Pet Cat
Part of a deeply moving memorial on Bermondsey Wall East, the cat is a bit of a mystery. Presumably the pet cat of the Salter’s family who are all represented here?
In any case it’s a great little sculpture by Diane Gorvin and I love how intent it looks, completely ignoring the epic London skyline behind it!
Tucked amidst lots of overgrown greenery in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury you’ll find this playful sculpture of Sam, just about to slide down the wall.
Paid for by the local community it commemorates Patricia ‘Penny’ Penn who owned a pet cat called Sam and was a nurse and local activist, campaigning to protect the area’s historic buildings.
Very close to Queens Square, in Alf Barrett playground, you can find another cat by Marcia Solway.
Marcia attended the Mary Ward Adult Education Centre (located in Queen’s Square) but sadly died in 1992, this was her only completed sculpture. Another regular at the centre was Humphrey the cat, named after Mary Ward’s husband. In a sad twist of fate Humphrey also died in 1992 and so the sculpture is a sort of memorial to both him and Marcia.
Humphrey features on my Quirky Bloomsbury walking tour. Click here to find out more about book.
Outside Euston Station you can find a statue of Captain Matthew Flinders, the navigator and cartographer who is credited as leading the first voyage around Australia, establishing it as one land mass and even giving it the name; Australia in the early 1800s.
He is depicted over a map of Australia with his beloved pet cat Trim by his side. Trim accompanied Flinders on this adventure and has his own incredible story…
Born in 1799 aboard HMS Reliance during a voyage to South Africa, Trim fell overboard but amazingly managed to swim back to the ship and clamber up some rope to safety. He went on to survive a shipwreck and even went to prison with Flinders when he was incarcerated for spying by the French in Mauritius.
It was during this prison spell that Flinders wrote a biography – yes, really – of Trim but sadly he would never make it out. He disappeared mysteriously while behind bars with Flinders suspected he’d been stolen and eaten!
From pet cats we’re now moving onto big cats…
In Highgate Cemetery, you can find this epic gravestone of a resting lion. The grave is actually for George Wombwell, who established a travelling menagerie in 1810.
Nero the lion was Wombwell’s most famous attraction and this docile appearance is sort of apt. Having arranged a fight between Nero and several dogs in 1825, Nero refused to partake, leaving the gory business to a fellow captive lion.
Read more about Highgate Cemetery in my blog post here
10. The Trafalgar Square Lions
Probably the most iconic of all London’s cats, the Trafalgar Square lions were installed in 1868 and designed by Edwin Landseer.
The four lions arrived a full 25 years after Nelson’s Column. Originally they were meant to be carved by Thomas Milne, but his were deemed not suitable or grand enough (ouch!) They didn’t go to waste though, Milne’s were bought by Titus Salt and can still be seen today in Victoria Hall, Saltaire.
So Edwin Landseer got the commission, despite not being a sculptor. Clearly he was eager to do a good job because he spent years sketching before even attempting the casting process – something he outsourced to Baron Marochetti. So eventually (actually, a full 10 years after the commission) they were unveiled.
11. The Southbank Lion
Standing proud on the South end of Westminster Bridge is the Southbank Lion. It’s a lot older than you might guess, made on the oddly specific date of 24 May 1837.
The reason for this is its material. It’s not stone, but actually a type of ceramic, technically Coade Stone. This weather resistant, durable material was perfected by Eleanor Coade in the 18th Century and so it stands here today looking good as new.
It’s only been in this location since 1966, previously it stood atop James Goding’s Lion Brewery further along the Southbank. When the brewery was demolished it was saved ‘on the wishes of his Majesty King George VI’ as the plaque on the plinth informs the curious passerby. Quite why His Majesty was so fond of the lion is anyone’s guess!
12. The Goldsmiths’ Leopard
The City is full of symbols and one of the best to keep your eyes peeled for is this leopard.
It features on the crest of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths who received their Royal Charter in 1327. However previous to this (around 1300) King Edward I had passed a law requiring all top quality gold and silver be marked with the sign of a leopard’s head.
Known as the King’s Mark the symbol was pressed into the gold and silver that met the quality standards of the Goldsmith’s Assay Office at their livery hall. This gives us the phrase hallmark still used by jewellers today.
Discover more City symbols on the Power & Sacrifice walking tour. Click here to find out more and book.
13. The British Museum Lions
Last but not least we have a pair of lions which guard the group entrance to the British Museum on Montague Street.
Highly stylistic, almost Art Deco, they were carved by George Frampton in 1914. His most famous other work is probably the Edith Cavell Memorial, just off Trafalgar Square.
(Bonus!) 14. A Streetcat Named Bob
A new arrival to London, this statue by Tanya Russell was unveiled in Islington Green this July.
In 2007 James Bowan was homeless, but adopted the stray cat Bob while selling The Big Issue and busking. Crediting the cat with enriching his life and helping him turn it around, Bowan wrote a best-selling novel – later turned into a film – called A Street Cat Named Bob in 2013. The statue was commissioned after Bob was killed in a hit-and-run in 2020.
There are plenty more historic London cats (and big cats) dotted around the city, what others would you add to the list?
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