A Furricious Cat History of Britain

by Jade Bald

They seem to be everywhere one looks.

One of humankind’s, and Britain’s, best loved animals: the cat.

They’re spotted on a bench outside a pub. Perched on a country wall. Climbing trees in the back garden. Grooming themselves on the couch. Scratching nosey dogs.They’re even on social media, with hundreds of thousands of ‘chonks’ and ‘toe beans’ to be seen and adored. Smoothie. Tussetroll and Tingeling. Balam.Thurston Waffles. Wilfrid. Maple. Lotus. Smudge.These are household names in the social media cat world.

These creatures come in many colours from white to black, orange to grey, spotted to striped. Long haired, short haired, or no hair. We pet them and brush them, feed them and clean their litter pan. We sigh – or shout – when they sharpen their claws on furniture or the carpet. In exchange for our tolerance they emit that wonderful, calming sound we’re blessed to hear: the purr.

There’s nothing better than enjoying a mystery novel whilst having one of these furry creatures curled up next to you on the couch or on your lap. We can all attest to the disdain we feel towards them when we settle down in bed for the night, only to hear that familiar scratch-scratch-scratchy at the bedroom door.

We haul ourselves up and head to the door to let the little bright eyed felines (or should I say demons?) inside the room. They jump onto the bed and curl up next to us or hide away under the bed for the night. There’s nothing more funny than feeling that little prickly tongue or an insistent meow waking you up, pleading for the morning meal. Or we are rudely awakened upon hearing something crash down to the floor.

Britain’s love for cats hasn’t been like this forever.

Roman mosaic featuring a cat

The Beginnings

Cats were brought to the island by the Romans, who conquered the island a millennia ago. When the Roman Empire fell, the Romans left but some of the cats remained. The Vikings, who raided the islands next, brought some of the little furry creatures back home with them. The cats that remained, bred more cats who inhabited the islands for the rest of the islands history.

Little Evils

During the Middle Ages, when there were witch hunts, cats were seen as familiars, or witches helpers. This resulted in many innocent cats being killed or sacrificed in the hopes of ridding evilness. Black cats in particular were subjected to suspicion of being affiliated with witches.This lowered the cat population immensely.

However, strangely enough, in later times black cats were considered a symbol of good luck in the UK, but unlucky symbols in the US and on the Continent. During the British industrial revolution, if a black cat embarked on a ship it was a good luck omen. Likewise, a woman was advised to give her sailing husband a black cat for luck. White cats, on the other hand are considered unlucky in the UK, as their white coat resembles that of a ghost. Ironically, white cats elsewhere are considered lucky.

The Plague

Sadly, in the Middle Ages, black cats were seen by religious authorities as advocates for evil and killed for this reason. It lowered the population of cats and in doing so, allowed the spread of plague-carrying vermin to flourish. Had the cat population been higher, perhaps the plague wouldn’t have been as bad as it was in Britain during the peak of plague in the 1300s and 1600s. This would be the pattern for the next few hundred years, where cats would keep diseases at bay but then something would cause the cat population to plummet, leading to a rise in cases of disease.

New evidence is pointing not to rats and mice as carriers of the virus, but to lice on humans and fleas on animals. The animals, as well as humans, could have easily transferred these parasites around because hygiene, and the knowledge of disease, lacked back then. People also lived in small, ramshackle dwellings and slept on earthy floors, making it easy for the transference of disease between people and animals.

They also lived among animals without the modern rural precautions we practice today (ie. hand washing, boots taken off at the door, cleaning surfaces, etc). With all that said, cats could have easily caught the disease as well, one would think, by a tick or flea bite (or consuming dead vermin). Without vets or any concept of human-animal contagion (seen in the current pandemic and the developing world), people would handle infected cats and then as a matter of course, infect themselves and others.

World War Two

In 1939, when the Nazis were invading the Continent, Britain’s populace was preparing for the worst. It was believed that with the dangers of importing goods from abroad, their native food source would eventually dry up as the war went on. The country only had so much arable land and a small seasonal window.

This would not only mean food would be scarce for the populace, but it would mean cats (as well as other pets and livestock) would starve. This would be cruel to the animals and upsetting to pet owners, so one option was to limit the mouths to be fed before the trouble began. With the exception of horses and dogs who were recruited for war work, many other animals were culled in humane ways by vets.

Advice to animal owners, 1939, National Archives. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Moreover, there was a committee formed by the Home Office called the National Air Raids Precaution Animals Committee. This committee was established to inform civilians on what to do with their animals (domestic, farm, and working) during air raids. The committee members had logos on their vehicles and were given badges and armbands to wear as a means of identification. The organization was given power by the Home Office to drive around during raids to help civilians with their animals.

Civilians were given identification collars so in the event of animal-human separation they could, at war’s end, be joined together once more. The committee members could also take animals away to care for them if their owners could not or had abandoned them. This was sponsored by organizations such as the RSPCA and Battersea Cats and Dogs Shelter in the beginning, but within two years of start of the war, sponsorships bowed out due to financial reasons.

Winston Churchill greets Blackie, ship’s cat of HMS Prince of Wales, 1941

Official Duties

From World War Two onwards, cats were employed by the state as vermin flushers in official buildings. In exchange for their services in keeping buildings free from mice and rats, they were given food and board. Over the years, their duties have expanded to welcoming foreign dignitaries and helping keep the atmosphere of officialdom, well, warm and fuzzy (or should I venture fluffy?). Moreover, they usually retire at the end of their term in the home of an official staff member. Two of the most recent employees of this occupation, Palmerston (stationed in the Foreign and Commonwealth office) and Larry (of Number Ten Downing Street) have had, well, a hair-raising relationship.

Jade is a Canadian, cat mom and freelance writer. She’s also a history graduate and Anglophile, who enjoys a bloody good British mystery and period drama.

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