Family History and our Pets

Family historian and genealogist Janet Few explores the role that pets played in her family history.

It started with a Tweet. Academics from Royal Holloway and the University of Manchester were investigating how we interacted with our pets between 1837 and 1939. As part of the project they were asking for pre-second world war photographs of family pets. I am fortunate to have a large number of photographs from my mother’s family and yes there were pets. Some of these animals I remember, although these were too recent for the purposes of the project but others lived on in family stories. Apart from the labels on the photographs, had I actually recorded the pet stories in any way? In some respects, pets are a little like those on our family tree who left no descendants, the maiden great-aunts whose stories will not be preserved unless we, the family historians, ensure that they are.

It occurred to me that we have a very special relationship with our animals but rarely do they feature in our family histories. We may have no idea about the animals that featured in the lives of our more distant family members but perhaps we should be acknowledging the existence of our own pets and those that belonged to our immediate ancestors.

Catherine Smith and her son Frederick - dogs name unknown c 1918

Photograph showing Catherine Smith and her son Frederick – dog’s name unknown c.1918. Copyright Janet Few.

Philip Bird - chicken's name unnown 1925

Photograph showing Philip Bird – chicken’s name unknown 1925. Copyright Janet Few.

Sophia Emberson née Dawson - cat's name unknown c. 1935

Photograph showing Sophia Emberson ne Dawson – cat’s name unknown c. 1935. Copyright Janet Few.

My earliest known animal-owning ancestor is probably my six times great grandfather, Samuel Braund of Menheniot, Cornwall. Together with Samuel Peter of Sheviock, he sought information on two missing horses in The Sherbourne Mercury on 25 Sept 1775. The lost animals were a ‘light bay coloured mare and yellow coloured mare colt’; I didn’t think colts could be mares but that’s what it said. The mare was 13½ hands with a white star on her forehead. The colt was 14 hands, nearly three years old, with silver mane and tail and shoes on its front feet. I wonder why only the front feet were shod. They offered half a guinea reward. It seems odd that 2 gentlemen are mentioned as seeking information. It isn’t clear whether they were perhaps acting as village constables on behalf of others, or if they jointly owned the horses. The mare sounds too small to be a gentleman’s riding horse. Of course, this horse was more a method of transport than a family pet.

Clara Woolgar nee Dawson 1858-1949 with Mephistopholes 1927

Photograph showing Clara Woolar nee Dawson with Mephistopheles in 1927. Copyright Janet Few.

In more recent times, my great uncle was a serial pet owner. I have photographs of his dog Mephistopheles, so called because my uncle was performing in a choral piece of the same name at the time that the dog was acquired. Like family stories that relate to people, things had become garbled in my memory. I was convinced that ‘Mef’ (imagine shouting ‘Mephistopheles’ across a park) was an Irish Setter but pictures show that he was anything but. Sadly, Mef died of a heart attack when the coalman’s horse reared up suddenly and broke the front windows of the house with his hooves. Mef was replaced by a Red Setter, Dep, so called because he deputised for Mef. As a late teenager, my mother had Judy the Cairn and Squibs the West Highland White Terrier. Throughout my own childhood my constant companion was Sparky the mongrel. So many memories but here is just one, we would hide under the bed together when Christmas balloons were being blown up.

Gwendoline Smith and Deputy c. 1933

Photograph showing Gwendoline Smith and Deputy c.1933. Copyright Janet Few.

Gwendoline Smith and Judy the Cairn c. 1944

Photograph showing Gwendoline Smith and Judy the Carin c.1944. Copyright Janet Few.

There were occasions when we had to transport budgerigars from granny’s to home. We may only have actually done this once but it seems as if it was several times. Nor can I be sure why we were doing this, as we holidayed together. Initially granny had two budgies, Comfy and Cosy, one blue and one green, although I cannot remember which was which. To these was added the plain yellow Romeo, so called I think, because he had been found ‘roaming’. We seemed to make a habit of catching lost budgies, sneaking up behind them and rescuing them from the dangers of the wild with judicious use of a net curtain. The bird cage was put on my, by then outgrown, pushchair and covered with a blanket. I stood on the push chair step and leant forward holding the handle to stop the cage sliding off in the event of any emergency stops.

I could go on with stories of how Nora the hamster escaped and lived in the back of the sofa for three days before recapture, or how we had to take the side panel off the bath when my daughter’s hamster made a similar bid for freedom some thirty years later. By now you have the idea, add your pet stories to other family reminiscences; man’s best friends deserve to be remembered.

Janet Few @janetfew

 Read more about Janet’s work with family history on her blog:


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