Domesticated and working cats

Domesticated and working cats

Most domestic cats live out their lives as companions, and what better occupation could there be? There are, however, those who ‘earn’ their living, have their name on a pay-roll, or command high fees.

For instance, Peta (a female Manx) is the latest, and possibly the last of the line, in a succession of Home Office cats who were always called Peter.

On the death of her predecessor, the Governor of the Isle of Man offered to present the Home Office with a replacement. Peta was born on 1 October 1963, and presented to the Home Secretary of the time, the Right Hon. Henry Brooke, on 8 May 1964. Her appointment was greeted with great interest, particularly in America, where her story has appeared in several publications.

Peta is sadly no longer with us. Her official station was the Home Office, Main Building, at SO Queen Anne’s Gate, London, but she enjoyed semi-retirement at her country home where she had the benefit of a large garden belonging to a member of staff. She had a Treasury allowance of £13 per annum.

There has been a Peter the Cat at the Home Office since the 1800s, but in 1929 the Treasury made the cat official by granting Id. A day for its food. This was adjusted from time to time so that Peta’s predecessor, Peter, had a grant of £6. 10s. Od. Per annum. He was born in 1949 and served as the Home Office official cat for some sixteen years until his death on 9 March 1964. He is buried at the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) sanatorium at Ilford in Essex. Peter wore a tartan collar from which hung a medallion bearing his name. He appeared several times on television programmes and once on radio, and graced the front of the Home Office Sports Association Christmas cards in 1958, an honour bestowed on him after his tenth year of faithful service.

Sadly, times change, and with the rather larger office blocks now occupied by the Home Office, it is thought that these do not really provide a suitable home for a cat. Peta (pedigree name Manninagh Katedhu) will probably be the last of the line!

Mind you, there are other cats at Government level for, not so long ago, the R RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) received a T request, from 10 Downing Street, to provide a cat to get rid of invading mice.

Wilberforce, the mighty mouser, wish to get in … or out! The Post Office has also employed cats on its staff. But since the demise of their famed Blacky at St Martin’s-le-Grand, there are now only two London cats on the official pay-roll. These moggies receive £1 a week for food in return for mousing duties and defend the mail in the sorting offices at North Western District Office and Bethnal Green.

The British Museum in London is not only the last resting place of several mummified, cat-worshipping, Ancient Egyptians, and one mummified sacred cat; it is also said to provide food and shelter for seven cats in return for mousing duties around its less frequented apartments. Their existence is well-ordered – signs posted in the nether corridors indicate the ‘authorised cat feeding place’ and other areas where it is ‘strictly forbidden to feed cats’. The New Yorker magazine recently recorded the existence of a British Museum Cats’ Welfare Society, which ensures that life is not unpleasant for the chosen seven. That number of cats is permitted by order of the Director’s Office; perhaps inspired by the seven cats in the old rhyme ‘As I was going to St. Ives’.

Once upon a time bakeries were plagued with mice and bakers were only too glad to employ a mouser. Now puss wouldn’t get as much as a paw inside most bakeries. Indeed, to quote a public relations executive from Rank Hovis McDougall Ltd: ‘There is no way that any cats, mice, or other animals are going to get into our modern hygienic bakeries!’ Poor Puss! However, rumour has it that a plump, contented puss named Tiger has managed to penetrate London’s swanky Ritz hotel – on the pretext of course of keeping it mouse-free.

Still, the cat which, arguably, was the most ‘famous’ in recent years, was owned by a firm which certainly had milling interests, Spillers Ltd, whose white cat Arthur successfully promoted sales of their cat food products until he died, just short of his seventeenth birthday, in March 1976. Arthur, the cat who scooped the Kattomeat product out of the tin with his/her paw, and started life as Samantha, led an exciting life culminating in a High Court action to determine his/her ownership. At one stage Arthur was even handed over for political asylum on the steps of the Russian Embassy. There was, too, the suggestion that his teeth had been taken out by Spillers, thus enabling him to eat so charmingly with his paw. This was nonsense, of course. Arthur had to have some teeth removed because of an ulcerated mouth. Between television and film engagements he lived a life of luxury in a first class cat hotel, and received fan mail from all over the world which was suitably answered by Spillers, signed with a facsimile of Arthur’s own paw.

Another cat which commanded the respect and admiration of viewers was the Silver Persian, Lewishof, Michael of Jemari, the Kosset carpet promoter; and, of course, there have been many other felines anonymous, fictional and otherwise, which have stolen scenes and hearts in full-length feature films, like Pywacket, the witch’s cat in John van Druten’s Bell, book and Candle; the pathetic ‘no-name’ cat who shared Audrey Hepburn’s flat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Tao, the Siamese in Walt Disney’s The Incredible Journey, the story of a bull terrier, Labrador and Siamese cat who battle across Canada to rejoin their owners.

There is a Disney family fun film called The Cat from Outer Space about a mysterious cat who lands on earth in a spaceship which has developed engine trouble. The cat has strange powers and has all the staff at a US Air Force base doing just what it wishes, including repairing the spaceship.

And, of course, there is the Disney classic, The Aristocats. This is the tale of a cat family: Duchess, the mother, and her children, Marie, Toulouse and Berlioz, who are abandoned by the wicked butler, Edgar, whose plan it is to lose them when he hears his mistress making her will in favour of the cats; he is to inherit her fortune only when the cats are dead.

Thomas O’Malley, an alley cat, comes to their rescue, as does a little mouse called Roquefort and two farm dogs called Napoleon and Lafayette. It is an absolute must for cat lovers!

There is hardly a riding, or livery stable, which does not boast a stable cat, kept to protect the feedstuffs from mice, the cats usually forming a good relationship with the equines who remain undisturbed as the stable puss reclines blissfully on their straw. Like the farm cat, few of these moggies receive a retainer.

Another service, albeit unpaid, that numerous cats perform is that of companion to the artistic and famous. Former Prime Minister, Sir Harold Wilson, has a Siamese cat, and author, Beverley Nicholls, writes sympatheti-cally of his, just as French novelist, Colette, did before him, about her precious La Chatte, and Samuel Johnson about Hodge, the cat with whom he shared his Fleet Street lodgings.

That distinguished actor, James Mason, who today, with his wife Clarissa, is joint president of an educational trust called Animal Vigilantes, managed to repay in some measure the affection his beloved cats gave him when he was the leading film actor of the British screen; replying to his fans’ requests for photos, he wrote that an autographed picture would be sent in return for adonation of 1s. In support of a cat charity, which benefited enormously.

There are cats who patrol back-stage and encourage performers at many of London’s West End theatres. There is Ambrose at Drury Lane Theatre, Plug at the Adelphi and Bouncer at the Garrick. Perhaps, however, the most unusual and appealing story of a well-known moggy is that of Paddington Cat, or Tiddles, which was related for readers of the magazine, Woman’s Realm recently, by journalist Sonia Roberts.

Tiddles was found, as a hungry stray kitten, on Paddington Station in the summer of 1970 by a Miss June Wilson who looks after the ‘Ladies’, and despite strenuous efforts to trace his owners they did not come forward. June and her colleagues adopted Tiddles and provided him with a basket and every comfort in the ‘Ladies’. Tasty meals are prepared for him – in fact he now weighs 11-8 kg (261b) – and every Christmas he receives his own presents and a tree. Through the years many admirers have written to Tiddles, care of Paddington Station, and his health is enquired after assiduously. Once it was suggested to June that station life was no life for a cat and Tiddles might prefer a real home. He didn’t, and was soon back at Paddington Station sharing mousing duties with the cat in the Electrician’s Department.

A bedraggled ship’s cat, sharing the hardships of a cheerless fo’c’sle, and streaking ashore at foreign ports for a night on the local tiles, has always been an essential ingredient of any sea story. But alas, no more. Five years ago, the British Fleet were advised to land pets before sailing, following a tightening of protective measures against rabies.

What would happen to the luckless pets? Surely they would not be put down? A letter from Captain Tom Baird printed in The Daily Telegraph on 19 May 1975 put cat lovers’ minds at rest. He wrote:

‘As the instigator of the instruction to the Fleet, as well as being a pet lover myself, and the owner of a black and white cat and a dog, not to mention a pony and a goat, I can assure other pet lovers that there is no intention of ships’ pets being indiscriminately put to death, or turned loose to fend for themselves.’

‘Sailors would not stand for that sort of thing anyway. The ship’s cat in particular will continue to enjoy fair and sympathetic treatment (within the provisions of the new law) being traditionally recognized by ‘Jack’ as occupying the position at the end of the line for any blame handed down by higher authority.’

Seagoing cats were destined to become landlubbers, but it is pleasant to reminisce on their past glory.

Unique among ships’ cats was Simon, a black and white torn, wounded on board the frigate HMS Amethyst when she was fired on in the Yangtse in April 1949. Despite injuries from shell blast – ‘capable of making a hole over a foot in diameter in steel plates’ – he helped to keep down the rats on board during the hundred days that the ship was detained in the river by the Chinese Communists.

In the badly damaged ship, Simon sailed down the Yangtse in the Amethyst, when she made her dramatic dash to freedom, and, on his return to Britain, was awarded the PDSA’s Dickin Medal – regarded as the animals’ Victoria Cross – ‘for behaviour of the highest order throughout the action’.

A ship’s cat which seemed to have the knack of getting his name in the papers was Fred Wunpound (Lucky Fred). Certainly he caused a stir when he filled in a census form.

He was described on the form as being born in England, of doubtful parentage, single and male. This didn’t worry Fred. But it did puzzle Scotland’s Registrar General, Mr Archibald Rennie, who was not to know that Fred was a cat and entitled to be included in the census because he was included on the ration strength of HMS Hecate based at Portsmouth, Hampshire.

His shipmates filled in the form for Fred …. employed as the ship’s ‘mouser’. And to make it all legal, Fred signed the form with his paw.

Without Able Seacat Wunpound, mouser (second class), Scotland’s population would have been 5,227,706.

Fred’s release from sea-going duties was faithfully recorded in Navy News in July, 1975, with a quote from Vice-Admiral Tait that ‘Wunpound, and his kind, will be sadly missed, not only by the ship’s company of HMS Hecate, but the Fleet in general.’ He linked the name of Wunpound with that of Hodge, Dr Johnson’s cat, and thought that the redoubtable Doctor’s words to Boswell could well have been attributed to Wunpound: ‘Sir, he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’ And Wunpound, because of his excellent service at sea, was not recategorized as a ‘shorecat’.

Even his death justified a generous mention in The Daily Telegraph in July 1976, when the following obituary appeared:

‘The longest serving sailor aboard the Royal Navy survey ship Hecate has died at the age of ten. He was the ship’s mousecatcher, Leading Seacat Wunpound.’

Pressed into service from the Plymouth RSPCA in 1966 for a bounty of £1, from which he took his name, Fred travelled over a quarter of a million miles (402,400km) abroad until the new anti-rabies law made him ‘swallow the anchor’.

Like every rating, he had a dossier of Official Service Documents. They show he gained promotion from Junior Hecat to Ordinary Hecat to Able Seacat, and qualified for a kit upkeep allowance.

At the time of his discharge he had two good conduct badges – and one disgraceful conduct badge, earned after an incident in the Brixham fishmarket!

Obviously he was a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed!