Pets in Household Inventories

Historical household inventories offer a fascinating glimpse into the households of the past. They provide lists of the goods that people owned, often noting where they were located in the premises. I have previously examined a group of nearly 500 inventories covering the period 1841-1881, for people of widely differing circumstances and geographical locations. Their fish kettles, chaff cutters, pianos, washstands and tens of thousands of other listed items gave useful clues as to the way that people lived and thought about how to organise their homes.[1] I hoped that this source could also tell us something about animals and their ‘place’ – physical and conceptual – in the home. Well, maybe it does – but in a largely negative way.

The most numerous type of domestic animal in these inventories (apart from cows, sheep, and horses) were dead. Almost all birds, they were stuffed and under glass. 12 percent of the 494 inventories listed a case or cases of stuffed birds amongst the possessions, kept mostly in the living room. Two people had stuffed dogs. One of them, John Graham of Liverpool, a wealthy cotton dealer, kept his ‘stuffed dog in case’ in his very well-furnished hall alongside a case of stuffed birds, a model of a boat and other decorative items; perhaps the dog was located there as a ‘house guard’. The other, Mary Arnold who lived in an elite square in Mile End, London, was also wealthy. Her large double-drawing-room contained a stuffed dog and a china dog. Maybe she liked dogs. More probably she was fond of things in glass cases or under glass shades since she had seventeen such things in the same room!

With regard to living creatures that might obviously be considered as pets, hardly any were listed. There was not a single cat or kitten. Yet some – if not most – of these households surely had at least one. It was estimated in 1859 that there was one cat to every ten people.[2] But the vast majority of cats had little or no monetary resale value at this date and the purpose of these inventories was to assess the worth of the goods of a person who had just died for death duty purposes.[3] Only items that would fetch something at resale were included. It was not until the 1870s that some cats – special types or show cats – began to be worth anything. The first cat show took place in the Crystal Palace on July 16, 1871. ‘Ordinary’ cats, however, were only too easy to come by for no outlay at all. In the days before spaying, it was hard to control feline fertility. There was never any difficulty in getting a cat if you wanted one as there were always new litters coming along and most kittens were killed as a matter of course. There are also plenty of accounts of cats just wandering in to a house uninvited and taking up their abode. They were easy-come-easy-go. So too were plenty of their ‘owners’, judging by the pleas for people not to just leave their cats behind to fend for themselves when the householders went away on holiday. That ‘ordinary’ cats were worth very little at this time is probably one reason for their non-appearance in the inventories.

The pet advice manuals of the period give the impression that caged birds were enormously popular. And it was estimated in 1859 that 6,000 live larks, 7,000 linnets, 3,000 bullfinches, 7,000 goldfinches, 1,500 chaffinches, 700 greenfinches, 200 nightingales, 600 redbreasts, 3,500 thrushes, 1,400 blackbirds, 1,000 canaries, 1,500 starling, 500 magpies and jackdaws, 300 redpoles, 150 black-caps, and numerous others were sold annually in the streets of London.[4] Yet only 3 percent (15 of the 494) of the inventories list live birds (six un-named, four parrots, three lots of pigeons, and two canaries). How can we explain their infrequent appearance? Generally speaking, birds were not very costly; and ‘second-hand’ birds might be devalued because they had already used up some of their short lives. Many birds did not live long, especially the captured wild ones. However, birds did have some value. In 1870 and 1880, they were advertised in Exchange and Mart, often for something like 5 to 10 shillings each, although highly trained singing birds could go for a lot more. Many of the most valuable birds in the Exchange and Mart advertisements were parrots and parakeets – birds which could live for a long time and which therefore could ‘hold their value’ for resale. This perhaps explains why there were more parrots than canaries listed in the inventories. The numbers are too small to allow generalisations but it is worth noticing that two of the parrot owners were connected with the sea – and traditionally parrots were brought to Britain by sailors. Mr Ward of Stepney was an enormously wealthy merchant and ship-owner, whose household goods included many a sea-related item; his parrot was, at least when the inventory was made, kept in the kitchen. Mr Terry of Whitby was not at all wealthy but he was also recorded as being a ship-owner; his bird was in his parlour. One of the other two parrot owners was a lodging-house keeper in what was regarded as an unsavoury part of Manchester that featured many ‘marine store dealers’ or second-hand shops. His kitchen-living-room was furnished with a mixture of what appear to have been second-hand goods – perhaps the parrot and its cage were second-hand too.


Page from the ‘Illustrated Catalogue of Wire Work’, B.S.E. & Co, 1887. Image courtesy of The Geffrye, Museum of the Home.


Japanned Bird Cage No. 10 from the ‘Illustrated Catalogue of Wire Work’, B.S.E. & Co, 1887. Image courtesy of The Geffrye, Museum of the Home.

Bird cages made a more frequent appearance: almost all of the live birds were listed as a composite item with their cages and there were a further 26 bird cages (in 23 inventories) listed with no mention of their occupants. Cages were perhaps easier to sell on. However, the presence of a bird cage could suggest that there had at one time been a bird or birds in the house. Even so, this still only provides direct evidence that 48 of the 494 (about one in ten) households had kept a bird or birds, a proportion that seems extremely low.

We might expect dogs to be another matter. The dog-license figures give a serious underestimate of the actual numbers but in 1876 1,373,936 dogs were licensed in England and Wales – something like one licensed dog for every seventeen people.[5] They were bought and sold, sometimes for large sums. The asking price for a dog in Exchange and Mart ranged from 5s to 10 guineas.

Dogs do appear in the inventories, but only just. Some items indicate the probable presence of a dog at some point in the inventory owner’s life – dog collars, dog baskets, kennels and coops. But even if those are allowed as indicating a quondam canine presence, there are still only a maximum of twenty inventories with evidence of dog possession. This lack of expected dogs was a phenomenon noticed by D. G. Vaisey in his study of seventeenth-century inventories: many, many sheep but no sheep dogs.[6]

Inventories are not, then, a useful guide to the general incidence of pets. Their absence from a listing cannot reflect their actual absence in a household. But where they do appear, it can be interesting to consider their ‘place’ relative to the rest of the person’s belongings. Mr Dinsley, a wealthy ‘gentleman’ of Harrogate died in 1846. His list of belongings was headed by ‘The Dog’. This looks as if the animal had pride of place. But it was not noted as being located anywhere particular, like the yard, and it is immediately followed by a group of goods including 3 metal tea pots and an old mattress, suggesting rather that (if it was indeed a living dog, not a support of some sort) the appraiser who made the list judged it merely to be a miscellaneous item. Almost all the dogs and dog-related items were kept outside. Apart from one house where there was a dog chain and strap in the hall and staircase, it was only the very wealthy Mr Chamberlin who provided indoor facilities for dogs, with a basket in the back hall entrance, one in the breakfast room, and a ‘marble dog dish’ in the hall and staircase, as well as a ‘dog cub’ outside.

The lack of domestic pets in inventories is disappointing but it does raise the interesting question of why. Lack of monetary value and saleability is one possible answer. Or perhaps they were given away before the inventory was taken. ‘Ownership’ might well be an issue. The goods listed had to belong to the person who died – not to other members of the household or to nobody at all. Philip Howell outlines the complexity of the law regarding the ownership of dogs. Since the Tudor period and into the first half of the nineteenth century there was ambiguity about the status as property of dogs, cats, and other animals kept for sport; stealing such animals was a misdemeanour not a larceny. Outrage at the prevalence of dog stealing, for ransom or resale, in the early nineteenth century led to the passing of a law in 1845 which clearly identified dogs, whether animals of utility or pets, as property, with the resultant penalties. Cats though were not accorded this refinement of status until 1879 when all tame living creatures (except pigeons if not in a dovecote or on their owner’s land) were made equally capable of being stolen.[7] It seems likely, then, that the absence of such creatures from the inventories of households where they probably actually existed is a reflection of their traditional legal status. I wonder whether this had an effect on how people related to their pets?

Any comments on the questions floated here will be received with great interest.

This blog was written by Lesley Hoskins.


[1] ‘Reading the Inventory: Household Goods, Domestic Cultures and Difference in England and Wales, 1841–81’, (2011), funded and supported by: the Economic and Social Research Council; The Geffrye, Museum of the Home; and the School of Geography, Queen Mary, University of London.

[2] Major Egerton Leigh, Pets. A paper dedicated to all who do not spell pets – pests. Read at the Mechanics’ Institution, Chester, 1859, London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts; Manchester: George Sims, p. 34.

[3] The inventories are held in the Inland Revenue papers (IR19 series) at The National Archives, Kew.

[4] Egerton Leigh, Pets, pp. 19-22.

[5] Stephen Dowell, A History of Taxation and Taxes in England, Vol III, 1888, London: Longman, Greens & Co., p.265.

[6] D G Vaisey, ‘Probate inventories and provincial retailers in the seventeenth century’ in P. Riden, ed. Probate records and the local community, 1985, Gloucester: Alan Sutton.

[7] Philip Howell, At Home and Astray. The Domestic Dog in Victorian Britain, 2015, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, chapter 2.


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