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Norwich Bulletin - 6/6/2010

The Cats Of London

There are few cities in the world that have more cats than London. Consider the feral cats, stray and the pampered pets and you have over a million and a half felines in one city! Londoners seem to love their kitties. Is there a London cat? Well, the basic London cat is usually a brown mackerel tabby with white, and the white is usually not that clean. The cat is rather a tank with a large Tom Cat type of head and he is an independent and standoffish type of cat who is really quite sweet and loyal. The London cat likes nothing better than to curl up in his owner’s lap and purr his satisfaction for all to hear.

London boasts of many famous people who owned famous cats that made their lives just a little bit less stressful at times. Dick Whittington and Winston Churchill are two people whose names everyone recognizes. But there were other wonderful people who owned wonderful cats. In the next few months I will be bringing you some of their stories.

While the London stage is known to have produced some brilliant actors, they have also had a long line of stage felines. The Globe Theatre in Shaftsbury had a very large photo of the most notable house cat they have ever had. His name was Beerbohm, and this tabby made regular cameo appearances (unscheduled of course) in many notable plays, often upsetting the actors as he stole their scenes. Of course things didn’t always run smoothly. There was that time the stage was filled with tons of sands and flagstones for a scene in the House of Bernard Alba. Beerbohm was very impressed to be offered such a large litter box and had no problem popping on stage to take care of business, to the chagrin of the actors and the delight of the audience. He also ate feathers off of hats and tore apart a collection of stuffed birds that was being used as a decoration on the set. Although not everyone loved Beerbohm’s antics, he was protected by actress Beryl Reid, who brought him home with her every evening.

The underground “tube” in London has even a longer network than the New York City subway! At the Barbican Station, a stray tabby named Pebbles, took up residence and adopted the staff. He was not bothered by the loud noise of the trains below or the crowds of people entering the automatic gate. In fact, his place of choice was his favorite automatic gate. Every day at the same time, he would show up, hop aboard the gate and curl up for his afternoon nap. He wasn’t bothered by the din of the tickets as they popped up next to his ears or that the gates open and closed regularly. He also didn’t mind his “visitors” admiring him as he snoozed the afternoon away. Pebbles visitors every day totaled into the hundreds, maybe even thousands – he was quite bored by it all. But he did earn his keep by keeping the rodents at bay.

A premier London hotel has a very exclusive club that meets there each month. Members included leading politicians, service chiefs and other creative luminaries. Called “The Other Club,” it began in 1911 in its present form through the efforts of a young politician by the name of Winston Churchill and the future Lord Birkenhead. At every meeting, high on a shelf, before a gleaming mirror, sat Caspar, their black feline mascot. Casper knew every secret that passed through that room and he was also a central role player in a particular taboo. No club member was to be allocated the thirteenth place when members sat down to dine in the room. So even today, Caspar continues to fill the No. 13 place and it is provided with napkin, cutlery and wine glass. He has accepted this role for the last seventy years. When the original Caspar left this world, the artist Basil Ionides was commissioned to create a life-like replica of Caspar. And so he was carved out of wood and he is always there to accept the responsibility of being the 13th diner.

Dick Whittington was an orphan who slept in doorways. One evening he picked the steps of a merchant, Mr. Fitzwarren, who brought the urchin inside and given the job of cook’s helper. Dick Whittington was given a place to sleep in the attic which was cold and filled with vermin. One day, Dick bought a cat and there were no more rats in his sleeping quarters. Eventually Dick got tired of being a pot washer and he strung his worldly goods from a pole, and he and his cat set off to see the world. The story goes that Dick and his cat went to a distant land that had been overrun with mice. His cat set to work to eliminate the vermin, and the ruler was so elated that he rewarded the cat (i.e. dick) with treasures. Once Dick had enough money, he returned to the merchants home in London, married Mr. Fitzwilliam’s daughter and became one of the most influential men of the city. All thanks to his nameless cat.

During World War II, as bombs fell upon London, Winston Churchill found comfort through the presence of his marmalade tom cat named Jack, who would curl up at the Prime Ministers feet while he slept. Jack lived at the Prime Minister’s Chartwell country house in Kent, and when his war service was done, he was laid to rest in the pet’s cemetery on the estate. As a tribute to his beloved cat, Chartwell has had a ginger cat on their premises ever since that time.

Fifty years later, one of Winston Churhill’s successor’s, John Major, found that his own lack and white cat, Humphrey, could bring some domestic normality to his life while Downing Street drowned in political turmoil. For six years, Humphrey would rest on the pavement in front of No. 10 Downing Street. He was often seen and photographed with ducklings in his mouth – St. James Park ducklings that met their demise at Humphrey’s paws. There were also several robins and squirrels that succumbed to Humphrey’s hunting skills. But then the unthinkable happened – Humphrey went missing! Days went by and everyone was looking for the Prime Minister’s cat companion, to no avail. People speculated that it was the diet he was put on – or all of the media taking his picture.

The search was stopped and Major was convinced he had lost his dear cat, when all of a sudden Humphrey returned to Downing Street. It seems that Humphrey had found the Tate Gallery, just a half mile away, and was quite a familiar site with the Royal Army Medical Corps’ kitchen help.

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