Much has been written on the condition of pets when they fall out of a cosy relationship with humans. Stray dogs for example, have attracted a lot of attention. Our recent book, Please Take Me Home, the Story of the Rescue Cat, attempts to do the same thing for cats – in it we look at over 150 years of changing attitudes to cats who happened, for whatever reason, to become ‘stray’. The very expression implying that they were once domestic.
‘Forsaken’ cats were something different, pets that had been turned out by uncaring owners. Every summer, fashionable squares in Victorian London were full of mewing wretches (‘cats know how to look after themselves’) as urban mansions were shut up for the holidays. Boarding catteries were unheard of. It was called the ‘West End Cat Scandal’.
Such forsaken ones attracted special attention from cat obsessives of the period, who faced a choice. Would they comfort the street starvelings or round them up for destruction? In the early days of dealing with stray cats, shelters were unable to accommodate strays for long periods and in many cases resorted to putting them down, which was seen by some as the best course of action.
Early charity regulators investigated the treatment of strays in cat homes. An Edwardian charity worker, inspecting the Mayhew Cats’ Home in Willesden, northwest London, had this to say:
“There is one point about the Mayhew Home which is objectionable. No cats are disposed of unless they are very much diseased, and they are kept until homes can be found for them. Subsequently the place is full of strays, some of which are most disreputable”. (1)
From the point of view of this inspector, the home wasn’t doing enough to get rid of strays. But it surely was not the cat in question’s fault. All this is set an opening point for the journey of cats – from being summer throwaways and street vermin via the mid-century struggle to confer the right to live on all cats (even, whisper it softly, feral cats). Today attitudes have changed considerably and rescue cats have even become celebrity accessories. Nothing disreputable about that.
Not until the 1970s did the great change of mind really begin and ‘merciful’ killing fade from charity appeals. But first there had to be grand recasting of the status of cats generally. Cats started to have a better reputation from the early twentieth century, with pedigree breeds such as Burmese and Siamese becoming popular. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that cats became a key part of British consumer culture – and television was at the heart of this transformation.
There was both a post war baby boom and a boom in pets. They came from pet shops, which were enjoying a high street revival, something that invited official examination of the trade generally.
The pet boom had triggered the Pet Animals Act, 1951, which required ‘any person keeping a pet shop to be licensed by the local council’. The selling of pets in markets continued (subject to licence and inspection)- but the door-to -door peddling of pets and sale to children under twelve (long a way of disposing of kittens) was banned. Buying a cat had become respectable.
The number of cats in British homes climbed to over five million to overtake dogs as domestic pets sometime towards the end of the ‘fifties. Dogs fell in number, because, according to a report:
[The] spread of council estates where dogs are frequently banned, coupled with the growing number of married women who go to work and, sensibly enough, decide to forgo the added responsibility of a dog about the house. (2)
They would rather have a nice cat. And now with the arrival of commercial TV, cats were to be increasingly ‘commoditised’ both for what they were and what they ate. They were a new consumer group (a bit like teenagers) to which, via their female human owners, an ever more sumptuous range of tinned feline food would be offered.
Cats were seen as ‘members of the family’. The Animal Medical Center in New York was even referring to cats and dogs as ‘companion animals’, so the Pet Trade Journal told its British readers in June 1960. Whatever next?
Petfoods Ltd. of Melton Mowbray was ‘spending ten times as much on TV advertising as any of its competitors’, so the Pet Trade Journal reported in 1959, ‘and uses as one of its chief ingredients, more than half the whale meat imported into the UK’.
Companies went to new lengths to capture this lucrative new market. ‘Many hardened scrap-users still refuse to tamper with their pets’ familiar diet and manufacturers have devised elaborate sales promotion schemes to break down their resistance’, noted the Pet Trade Journal. (3)
Could cats themselves have a view? Mrs Nereda de Clifford, pillar of the Cats Protection League, noted in her famous 1963 study What British Cats Think About Television that: ‘Most cats show an interest of some kind, though it is often of hostility’, and further, ‘generally cats are not interested in TV once the novelty has worn off’. (4)
Thereafter, the brands kept coming –‘Pussikin’, ‘Perky’ (‘keeps cats healthy, sleek and satisfied’), ‘Whiskas’ and ‘New Whiskas’ (‘builds cats to be proud of’) ‘Spratt’s Fish for Cats’ (‘just what your cat needs’), ‘Queenie’ (‘keeps your cat in first class form’, Sprinkle’ (‘just add water’), ‘Wow’, ‘Zest’, and ‘Tucker Box’ (‘contains no rabbit’).
In 1958 Spratt’s launched ‘Top Cat’, an event that would have an unexpected cultural significance for cats. Out of all of these, in 1960 the Consumer Association recommended Kit-E-Kat (the cheapest) as the best value, even if, like the rest of them, it was more than forty per cent water.
Affluence was not all good for cats. The Animal World reported a story of a cat given to an RSPCA Inspector for destruction by a couple because it did not match the new decor of their home. Package holidays also meant a new wave of midsummer abandonment.
Better times were coming all round but would strays get any more consideration? Their supporters would have to fight a cultural and legal battle for acceptance first – but that’s another story.
- Charity Organising Society correspondence 13 April 1905 London Metropolitan Archives A/FWA/C/D 256/001.
- The Times 3 August 1957 p. 7.
- Pet Trade Journal March 1959 p. 80.
- Nerea de Clifford obituary, Daily Telegraph 16 December 1987 p. 26.
Please Take Me Home, by Clare and Christy Campbell, is published by Corsair £8.99
This blog was written by Clare and Christy Campbell. Clare Campbell is an author and journalist. She writes regularly for the Daily Mail and contributes to Marie Claire. Her husband, Christy, is the former defence correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph and author of several political histories. Together they are the authors of Bonzo’s War and Dogs of Courage.