Marion Cran’s Cats

Down the grey stone path they come, one, two, three, four grey-blue pussy cats in single file.  The evening wind stirs in their silken coats, the orange rays of sunset flash tawny sparks from their red-brown eyes. … I watch them with immense pleasure. They seldom walk together like this, and I can see how different they are, though so alike. 

Marion Cran, The Garden of Ignorance, 1913. [1]

Marion Cran, FRHS, FRSA (1879-1942) is best known as a gardener, writer and broadcaster, the author of more than twenty books and countless articles on gardening and other subjects published between 1907 and her death in 1942.  She was the first person to broadcast on gardening in Britain, beginning in the early 1920s with ‘Gardening’ and ‘Garden Chat’,[2] and from 1927 was Honorary Treasurer and later Vice-Chairman of the National Gardens Guild, and founder of the Garden Club, Mayfair.[3]  In 1939 she was awarded a Civil List Pension for Services to Literature.[4]  Less well known is that Marion Cran was also a breeder and judge of pedigree cats, and – as indicated in the opening quotation above – a devoted owner. These and other pets featured in and gave shape to the narratives of many of her ‘garden’ books.

Many of Cran’s books were about her own gardens, including The Garden of Ignorance: The Experiences of a Woman in a Garden (1913), The Garden of Experience (1921), The Story of My Ruin (1924), The Joy of the Ground (1928), Wind Harps (1929) and Hagar’s Garden (1941).  However, as Cynthia Boyd observes, Cran wrote as much about the home as she did the garden, while ‘her words reflected concepts that went well beyond her personal experience’.[5]  Her writing is particularly illuminating on the place of pets within the household and on pedigree cat circles in the early twentieth century.

Cran’s work combined several forms of lifewriting that were popular in the period.  Her books are a prime example of the ‘garden autobiography’, a category of nineteenth- and twentieth-century autobiographical garden writing defined by Beverly Seaton in 1979.[6]  For Seaton, Cran was the most subjective of this group.[7]  Cran’s writing also belongs to another form of twentieth-century memoir that focussed on life with pet animals.  Memoirs of living with Siamese cats – and of domestic lives turned upside down by the animals – formed a popular sub-section of this genre.[8] Within these narratives, the cats are cherished for their loyalty, their independence, and their ability to ‘talk’ with humans and Cran was a pioneer in writing about her ‘gossipy’ Siamese in this way.  Cats were not the only creatures to be found in Cran’s books: sheepdogs, goats, pigeons, and fish all feature within the pages. (Figure 1).

Fig 1

The bird yard, with Cran’s daughter Lesley and sheepdog, at Steep Hill Cottage, Surrey, from The Garden of Experience, (1921; 1922 edn), p. 19. Author’s collection.

But, as a biographical piece in Cat Gossip recorded in 1927, the cat was her favourite animal and the Siamese was her favourite breed.[9]  What Cran called ‘cat-and-garden chapters’[10] come closest to the pet memoirs just described, but cats including Siamese, and the Persians described so lovingly above, are a thread running throughout her work.  ‘Those readers who consider cats are a far cry from garden talk will perhaps’, she wrote in The Story of My Ruin, ‘have patience when I remind them that I have always thought and said and written that cats and dogs and birds and babies are part of a garden’.[11]

The first two books tell of the move with her husband to Surrey, to Steep Hill Cottage near Farnham.  Prior to this, Cran tells us, they had lived in a top-floor flat in London.  Into this animal-less household the cook had imported ‘a lean, leggy, odd-eyed white kitten’, Bashi-Bazouk.  Since cats were a ‘nuisance in town, above all in flats’, Cran tried unsuccessfully to give him away.  She failed too with her plan to have him ‘mercifully killed’, watching miserably as, chloroform in hand, he jumped onto her bed and began to knead the quilt, purring, with ‘a blue eye and a yellow eye blinking at me in happy unison’.[12]  He was saved by the appearance of a mouse: ‘From a foolish round double-chinned purring idiot he became in a flash a long sinewy line of muscle and movement’.[13]

It was, she said in The Garden of Ignorance, Bashi-Bazouk who inspired the move to a country cottage ‘with a garden to grow asparagus for him, and sparrows for him to eat and trees to climb’.[14]  When he died, he was buried in rosemary and pansies under his favourite laurel.[15] His successor was St Anthony, or Tiddy-Weeny for short, who died after the pups ‘played too roughly’ with him.  Next came the ‘procession of four’, the Blue Persian kittens introduced at the top of this piece: Bluebeard, Zillah, Madame Mousie and Old Mossy Face – not just pet names but titles registered with the cat fancy in Chancery Lane.[16]

Perhaps the most important cat within these narratives was Tatty-Bogle, a male seal point Siamese who had joined Cran’s household in 1913 and made his first appearance in The Garden of Experience (1922).[17]

fig 2

Photograph of Tatty Bogle, from Marion Cran, The Garden of Experience, (1921; 1922 edn), p. 257. Author’s collection

As Marion Dawson and José Escobar write in their book Marion Cran’s Garden of Siamese, ‘as with many Siamese owners, this first Siamese was special, [and] he became an integral part of her life’. [18]  Cran illustrated her books with her own photographs, including pictures of Tatty-Bogle.  In about 1924 Cran, now separated from her second husband, moved to Coggers, a fourteenth-century house with eight acres of land near Benenden in the Weald of Kent. [image 3 around here] This house and garden were now the focus for much of her writing.  Although Tatty-Bogle died before the move from Surrey, his memory lingered in the new garden through the Rosemary and other plants she grew. [19]

fig 3

Drawing of Coggers, Kent, from Marion Cran, The Story of my Ruin, 1924, frontispiece. Author’s collection

Cran tells us that she began breeding Persian cats from her garden in Surrey in the early 1900s but disbanded the cattery at the outbreak of the First World War. [20]  She had exhibited her first cats in 1912 and from 1924 was a Committee Member of the new Siamese Cat Club, a judge at its inaugural show in Earl’s Court that year, and also a member of the Short-Haired Cat Society. [21] Her books tell us about her relationships with other cat breeders, and, like the articles she wrote for the cat press, including Cat Gossip, they sometimes also reveal her views on breeding.  In 1927, she wrote an article on the dangers of inbreeding Siamese for Cat Gossip, citing the example of the Siamese Champion Bonzo who that year had sired one-third of the entries to the Siamese Cat Club Champion Show; she recommended that the magazine help novices find ‘outside blood’.[22]

In 1928 Cran was told by her doctor to stop judging at cat shows on account of a weak heart. She announced her retirement from the cat fancy in September, due, she wrote, to the nervous train of writing, lecturing and broadcasting and hard work in the garden – saying goodbye to her friends and ‘the very lovely, loving, loveable animals’ in the cat world.[23]  She remained as President of the Croydon Cat Club, however, and continued to enjoy her own cats at home.  Her last Siamese cat was a ‘lovely little male with the deepest blue eyes’.[24]  Marion Cran died on 2 September 1942 and Coggers was put up for sale by auction, together with Cran’s antique furniture and library.[25]  The house was bought by a Miss Winifred Mills, the contents sold separately.[26]  The fate of the deep-blue-eyed Siamese cat is not known.

This blog was written by Dr Rebecca Preston, Research Associate on the Pets and Family Life Project in 2016-2019.

References:

[1] Marion Cran, The Garden of Ignorance: The Experiences of a Woman in a Garden (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1913), p. 149.

[2] ‘Weekend Programmes’, The Times, 1 December 1923, p. 8.

[3] ‘The National Town Gardens Guild’, The Guild Gardener, September 1927, pp. 172-3; ‘America meets the Garden Club’, The Guild Gardener, July 1929, p. 102.

[4] ‘Civil List Pensions’, The Times, 5 May 1939, p. 4.

[5] Cynthia Boyd, ‘Reading Women’s Home and Garden Lives: A Folkloristic Examination of the English Gardening Books of Marion Cran’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2013), pp. 8-9.

[6] Beverly Seaton, ‘The Garden Autobiography, Garden History, 7(1), 1979, pp. 101-20. See also Boyd, Reading Women’s Home Lives; Rebecca Preston, ‘Hope you will be able to recognize us’: the representation of women and gardens in early twentieth‐ century British domestic ‘real photo’ postcards, Women’s History Review, 18(5), pp. 781-800; and Susan E. Schnare, ‘Women Garden Writers: “Gardening, Reading about Gardening, and Writing about Gardening are all One”’, in Cornelia B. Wright, Ed., The Influence of Women on the Southern Landscape. Proceedings of the Tenth Conference on restoring Southern Gardens and Landscapes (Old Salem, Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Old Salem Inc, 1997), pp. 83-99.

[7] Seaton, ‘Garden Autobiography’, p. 100.

[8] Jane Hamlett and Rebecca Preston, ‘Living with Siamese Cats: Co-operation and Conflict with Companion Animals in the Home in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain’, Animal History Group Conference paper, King’s College London, May 2017. This paper forms the basis of a forthcoming article.

[9] ‘Mrs Cran’, Cat Gossip, 12 October 1927, p. 115. 

[10] Marion Cran, The Garden of Experience (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1921), p. 57.

[11] Marion Cran, The Story of My Ruin (London: Herbert Jenkins, Ltd., 1924), p. 171.

[12] Cran, Garden of Ignorance, p. 151.

[13] Cran, Garden of Ignorance, p. 152.

[14] Cran, Garden of Ignorance, pp. 152-3.

[15] Cran, Garden of Ignorance, p. 154.

[16] Cran, Garden of Ignorance, pp. 149-50.

[17] Cran, Garden of Experience, p. 57.

[18] Marilyn Dawson and José Escobar, Marion Cran’s Garden of Siamese (Oxford: Old Style Siamese Club Publications, 2004), p. 11.

[19] Marion Cran, The Story of My Ruin (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1924), pp. 41-2.

[20] Marion Cran, The Garden of Ignorance (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1917 popular edition), new Introduction, p. x.

[21] ‘Mrs Cran’, Cat Gossip, 12 October 1927, p. 115; Catalogue of the Siamese Cat Club’s 1st Championship Show, 1924 (facsimile: Oxford: Old Style Siamese Club Publications, 2003), pp. 10, 12.

[22] Marion Cran, ‘In-breeding Siamese’, Cat Gossip, 12 October 1927, pp. 115-6.

[23] Letter to the Editor from Marion Cran and ‘Mrs Cran Retires from the Cat Fancy’, Cat Gossip, 19 September 1928, pp. 412-5.

[24] Greta Hindley, ‘Obituary’, in Siamese Cat Club News Sheet, February 1943, cited in Dawson and Escobar, Marion Cran’s Garden of Siamese, pp. 9, 90.

[25] ‘Estates, Farm etc’, Sussex Agricultural Express, 18 December 1942, p. 2.

[26] ‘Marion Cran’s Estate’, Sevenoaks Chronicle, 15 January 1943, p. 2.

 

For more about Marion Cran and her gardens, see:

https://thegardenstrustblog.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/marion-cran/

https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101085203-coggers-benenden#.W7ir6FJRd-U

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