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Reportage, Illustration, Encyclopaedia: Cats, Dogs, and Gorillas Gaining Ground

From Skinned Cats to Angels in Fur: Feline Traces and the Start of the Cat-Human Relationship in Victorian England

Des chats écorchés aux anges à fourrure : traces félines et émergence de relations sociales entre les chats et les hommes dans l’Angleterre victorienne
Hilda Kean


Cet article porte sur l’évolution du statut du chat au fil du xixe siècle. Bien que la législation sur le droit animal ait contribué à améliorer le traitement des bovins et des chevaux, les chats continuèrent à être victimes de torture et de maltraitance jusqu’à la première moitié du siècle. Comme le révèle l’analyse des journaux, des rapports de justice et des débats parlementaires, la vie de certains chats commença à changer plus tard dans le siècle, une avancée en partie due au changement d’alimentation de la population. Par la suite, la parution de manuels sur le bien-être des chats et leur intégration dans plusieurs institutions contribuèrent également à faire évoluer le regard porté sur cette population mal aimée, un nouveau traitement qui aboutit à la fin du dix-neuvième siècle à une complète reconsidération de ces animaux autrefois maltraités.

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Thanks to Diana Donald, Jennifer McDonell, Stefan Dickers, and contributors and organisers at the ‘Becoming Animal with the Victorians’ conference in 2016 for their helpful comments and suggestions.


1In this article I want to suggest that by paying attention to the more commonplace materials used in writing nineteenth century social history the careful reader might find feline traces. While recognising that an imaginative historian of animal-human relationships might use a wide range of existing materials including fiction, scientific accounts, diaries and visual material to create histories, I have chosen these particular rather mundane non-fiction materials deliberately since they are generally overlooked by Animal Studies scholars. In doing this I am keenly aware that some would dismiss such material as mere products of humans and their projections. But I suggest that this is a somewhat simplistic response: we can find traces of cats within such works and not just a unilateral changing of human attitudes towards cats.

2Erica Fudge has argued that as access to animals is through human consciousness, ‘we never look at the animals, only ever at the representation of the animals by humans’. The difficulty then can be, she continues, that animals themselves disappear, abandoned in favour of the ‘purely textual’ (Fudge 6). Taking this argument further, Jonathan Burt has argued that if animals are just treated as icons and symbols then this ‘paradoxically, places the animal outside history’ (Burt 203–04). Other scholars look at the issue differently; by careful detailed reference to animal welfare campaigners’ visual material of the nineteenth century Keri Cronin argues that representation of speaking animals ‘allowed readers and activists to recognise animal agency’ which ‘also existed as a site in which to imagine further articulation of nonhuman agency and voice’ (Cronin 203–23). This is clearly different from suggesting that animals are defined as mere symbols. As Etienne Benson has suggested, ‘human-authored texts can still provide valuable insights into the past that are not reducible to the human perspective’ (Benson 5). Of course, it is not just the materials that are important for the writing of histories but the stance of the historian; one tends to find the material one is looking for and so-called neutral sources simply do not exist. As Carolyn Steedman so eloquently reminds us, the archive as the conventional location of paper-based materials is a place ‘where a whole world order, a social order, may be imagined’ (Steedman 81). Such imagining applies whatever the status of the living being, animal or human.

Cats’ Status in Early Nineteenth Century Britain

3In the first decades of the nineteenth century cats were—and were written about—as almost waste material found in places associated with pollution and detritus. Thus the SPCA noted that cats were being dumped in Tower of London ditches: ‘thrown into the Tower ditch, which at one time were commonly seen through the grating in Tower-hill, confined in the drains till starved or drowned by heavy rains’. The Society did manage to release them and ‘restore to their owners’ suggesting that the cats had been inadvertently trapped—or enticed away as an act of wanton cruelty—rather than being placed there by the owners as a way of killing them (SPCA 10 ). In the same period we start to find records of cats skinned alive: when carried out in this way their skins were apparently of a better quality and used for rugs. And it was opposition to this practice that led to cats’ inclusion in the 1835 Protection of Animals Act. Cat skinning was often reported in the environs of London’s Smithfield market deemed to be a general site of animal cruelty: ‘The drivers were almost educated in cruelty’ (Times 11 May 1849:4). In the 1830s and 1840s there was still a live cattle market—and private slaughterhouses. The proximity of the market encouraged ‘sausage-making, cat-skinning, knackers’ yards, bone-boilers’ and ‘establishments for twisting the entrails of sheep into fiddle strings’ (Times 11 May 1849:4), as well as ‘dreadful cruelties in slaughtering animals’ according to the RSPCA (Harrison 812).

4The 1835 Protection of Animals Act originally focussed on bull and bear baiting but was amended by Colonel Sibthorpe in parliamentary debate who asked for an oversight to be corrected, namely ‘the atrocious and abominable practice of skinning cats alive which had lately been carried on to a great extent’ (Hansard 14 July 1835). This inclusion is interesting as cat skinning was not about sport but livelihood albeit practised by the same sorts of people likely to engage in the increasingly disreputable activities of baiting. As Diana Donald has identified in an editorial response and report in the Christian Advocate the practice continued partly because of ‘the difficulty of identifying the suffering animals’ (Christian Advocate, 327). This suggests it was not only because the skin may have already been totally removed making the cat difficult to identify but also ascertaining whether the cat actually belonged to anyone. This issue of ownership and the impact on a cat’s status became a theme throughout the century. The 1835 Act was nevertheless implemented and there were prosecutions for wanton cruelty to cats that were reported in the national press. Invariably a magistrate was condemnatory in his language—rather than dismissing the prosecution as a waste of time. Initially prosecutions were brought against cruelty to owned cats rather than strays. One case of 1839 when a ‘fine’ cat with ‘a small collar’ going through the iron railings of a gentleman’s house in York St, Walworth, was seized by a man, Captain Boyd, who teased the cat with his two ‘rough terrier dogs’ urging the dogs to attack her and encouraging them to prevent the cat escaping. ‘The dog killed the cat, crushing nearly the whole of its bones to pieces’ (Times, 2 May 1839: 7). The Defendant was intoxicated (a by no means unusual defence). The cat’s owner appeared in court, had not witnessed the brutality ‘but he attended to state that it was a favourite animal of the family, who felt aggrieved that it should have been treated in the scandalous manner represented by those who had an opportunity of witnessing it’. The cat was not described as a ‘pet’ but nevertheless was called a ‘favourite’. In due course the Magistrate declared ‘it was a case of the most wanton cruelty on the part of the defendant’s’ and handed down ‘a 40-shilling fine or 14 days in prison’ (Times, 2 May 1839: 7). The first animal welfare legislation of 1822, it needs to be remembered, was around the treatment of owned animals seen in public places. It was not until the late 1860s that protection of wild animals was even considered. The first such legislation was the Sea Birds Protection Act of 1868 to protect the breeding season of birds because of decline in numbers of certain species. Brian Harrison has noted its importance: ‘This Act was to wild birds what Martin’s Act of 1822 was to animals in general’ (Harrison 790). For the first time animals that could not be seen as property were protected to conserve species in the wild.

Exploring Materials: Social History Mainstays

5I now wish to turn to the genre of non-fiction nineteenth-century material. Almost irrespective of the specific subject content this can tell us something about the changing status of cats and their relationships with humans. For example, increasingly during the nineteenth century cats start to appear in the Times with reports of court cases about their ill treatment (usually with the magistrate expressing severe condemnation of the person ill-treating a cat, as noted above). They are visible in the parliamentary proceedings reported in Hansard from the 1830s as beings worthy of discussion within state structures, particularly later in the century as victims—alongside dogs—of vivisection.

6Those working people whose livelihood depended in some way on cats also became more visible in contemporary written materials. They included cat’s meat sellers as recorded in the Post Office directories or as analysed in Henry Mayhew’s accounts in his London Labour and the London Poor. These were not materials that recorded an emotional relationship in the way that diaries might do but nevertheless give some indications of the changing feline-human relationship. Such materials also tend to reflect a growing positive relationship between cats and people within working class communities albeit on a fairly utilitarian basis.

7While Victorian dogs and their literary and visual representations have started to receive due attention (Howell 2015; Gray) a similar analysis of Victorian cats largely remains to be explored. The nineteenth century is replete with various works of conventional social history that focus upon employment and different types of work (hence the categories included in the British census). In particular those who worked in the streets, usually in unskilled work, caught the attention of emergent social scientists such as Henry Mayhew in the mid-century and Charles Booth in the 1880s. In an earlier period various series of the illustrations of the Cries of London, the first probably created by Paul Sandby in the 1760s, also attempted to document street workers providing food for cats and dogs (The Gentle Author 32ff). ‘Cat’s meat’ (and ‘dog’s meat’)—from horseflesh—first referred to in the Oxford English Dictionary as dating from 1593 was routinely sold in the street with a seller taking round skewers of meat on a trolley. The seller was part of a routine involving coming to particular houses and streets daily—in much the same way as a milk seller would do. The purchase was part of a daily routine since, inter alia, without refrigeration the meat would become putrid if not fresh daily. A later account by Henry Mayhew notes that ‘The supply of food for cats and dogs is far greater than may be generally thought’ (Mayhew 58); one seller explained that he estimated he served some 200 cats and 70 dogs daily, a ‘middling trade’ (Mayhew 58). The going rate suggests that the skewers of meat were not deemed sufficient for the cat’s overall diet but a supplement to scraps—or food that cats (and dogs) caught themselves. Mayhew estimated that there was one cat to every ten Londoners—around 2.3 million at that time—resulting in around 230,000 feline residents in the metropolis alone. Those who bought cat food were tradesmen, mechanics, labourers and ‘old maids’. Mayhew repeated one story of a woman, ‘a black’ who bought sixteen pennyworth a day (by contemporary standards this would probably equate to thirty-two cats). She was noticed, it seems, as the cats were stray and fed in the early morning. The neighbours were concerned as food was given to strays causing ‘riot, and confusion, and fighting’ (Mayhew 60). The controversy in this instance was that strays were being fed, that is, it was apparently against the norm, rather than the particular ethnicity of the feeder.

8Later the presence of cat’s meat sellers was noted by Charles Booth in his survey of London life of 1889: ‘People are poor indeed whose cats look starved. I have seen the cats’ meat man on his round in a very poor street, and no less than a dozen cats were strolling around with raised tails confidently awaiting their turns’ (Booth 83). Here, unlike in the Mayhew story, the emphasis is on cats as beings owned by working people. Indeed people who could afford it were urged not to feed cats in this way. Manuals regarded this ‘street’ food as almost ‘junk’ food that cats did indeed like but since the origins of the meat were unknown they could well be diseased horses. Suggested alternatives included rabbits, liver or cooked lights, occasional tinned sardine, or coarse lean beef (Smith 142; Carrington 44, Two Friends of the Race 2).

9Certainly the trade did grow during the nineteenth century as a reading of the Post Office Directories for London also indicates. These works—that are now key materials for social as well as local and family historians—are essentially both a gazetteer of trades as well as a street directory of self-employed tradesmen. The first directory of 1869 listed some seven cat’s meat sellers rising to 93 (of whom 19 were women) by 1900 (Post Office London Directory 1869 and 1900). In some instances established horse slaughterers such as Harrison Barber or George Harris turned their hand to selling cat’s meat. The locations of sellers in working-class areas of that time such as Rotherhithe, Bermondsey, Bow, Chelsea, North Kensington, Islington, Bethnal Green and Hackney suggest that although some of the growth related to the increase in horse usage for transport in London and the difficulties in disposing of carcasses at knackers’ yards (and finding a use for their bodies), this was not the only reason for the increase in the trade. Such locations indicate that all over London there was a growth in ownership (and thus payment for food) at least in working-class families. A cat became a being on whom people spent money. The growth in sellers also indicates a change at least in the number of humans who owned and took responsibility for a cat, albeit as a servant or mouse eradicator. In seeing a growth in sales we are looking not just at a bald growth in cat ownership but a growth in ownership by ordinary people. A certain relationship of reciprocation, an exchange of duties, was implied in such a financial relationship.

Manuals for Feline Welfare

10But if such ‘social history’ materials tell us something about the feline-human relationship so too does the absence of particular material, specifically veterinary literature. Veterinary surgeons were not trained in treating small animals during the nineteenth century and it was not until the twentieth century that the first few textbooks started to appear alongside specialist practices. This does not mean that works describing the health of cats did not exist but rather that they were not written in a quasi-detached scientific way as befits a veterinary narrative. Manuals were drafted by those experienced in day-to-day living with cats, from observation and from their own engagement within a household. These are practical guides. Significantly, attention is paid to social and emotional feline characteristics, not just bodily functions. The absence of a scientific discourse thus encouraged a more holistic framework in which humans could understand cats. In such works we often read of the value of reciprocation, what a human should do if she wanted a cat to behave in a particular way. Thus the works are not just about medication but also ‘the mice debate’, namely whether the chasing and killing of mice was instinctive in cats or learnt behaviour (in which case the human must train the cat by various methods).

11One of the first of such books is The Cat, its History and Diseases written by Lady Mary Anne Cust, a cat fancier, grandmother of Aleen (considered to be the first female trained veterinary surgeon in Britain) and wife of Sir Richard natural historian and scientist. The book acknowledges the low status enjoyed by cats. Their omission from written volumes on animal treatment suggested that ‘the cat is not considered worthy of notice, or its life worth preserving’. In considering their qualities, Cust emphasises that cleanliness made them ‘nice household pets’ (Cust unnumbered). There were various passages on how to administer medicine including wrapping the cat in a large cloth leaving only the head out and then putting upright between the knees of a sitting person and opening the mouth with a gloved hand and pouring medicine from a spoon. Generally the advice was to treat a cat like a contemporary ‘human subject’, with similar medication such as laudanum and making the animal patient comfortable and warm by a fire (Cust). The training of a human was further developed in later works such as the History of the Cat that noted ‘when kindly treated, it has strong affection and friendly signs for everyone’ (G. J. W. 3). The later work explained how by rubbing body and head against human feet and ankles, or walking with a perpendicular tail and emitting a gentle mew ‘the cat’s love’ was demonstrated ‘as much as the more noisy and demonstrative manners of the dog’ (G. J. W. 6).

12Perhaps the best-known (and longest) guidance manual was Gordon Stables’s The Domestic Cat of 1876. This was a comprehensive guide which included chapters on diseases, diet, drink and housing as well as traits of feline character and human cruelty to cats. Unlike a veterinary work it was based on Stables’s own experience of living with cats on which he drew to deduce that cats were excellent hunters, fond of other animals as playmates, excellent mothers, easily taught tricks, fond of home but fonder far of ‘master or mistress’ (Stables 22). He emphasised the importance of the feline-human relationship and referring to the recently issued works of Charles Darwin made the following argument: ‘how silly of us to bother our heads in trying to find out who domesticated the cat, when in all probability it was the cat who first domesticated man’ (Stables 62). The creation of a relationship (the book is not just about the responsibilities of ownership) was all-important in influencing cat behaviour. Thus he argued that bringing a cat in at night was necessary since leaving them to their own devices was anti-social: ‘These are the cats who make night hideous with their howling and in a general way, do all they can to bring into disrepute the whole feline race’. Cats needed their comforts says Stables, ‘and enjoy them too, more than any other domestic animal we possess’ (Stables 153). The training and protection of cats was the sole responsibility of the owner: ‘Never ask a veterinary surgeon about your cat. Their knowledge of canine ailments is vastly behind the times; their knowledge of cat-diseases is simply and literally carte blanche. If you want your pussy killed or tormented to death go to a chemist’ (Stables 6). Because of the dearth of veterinary literature such ‘factual’ books about cats talked about diseases and treatment of physical ailments but also feline character: the cat is defined as ‘exceedingly intelligent’ or as ‘the most useful animal to be found domesticated in every part of the civilised world’ (Smith 139, 141). Nevertheless by 1896 animal rights campaigner author and Humanitarian League activist Edith Carrington could still declare, ‘[t]hough cats are as plentiful as blackberries, few people think it worthwhile to consider their pains, fewer still have regard for their pleasures—fewest of all care to study their personality’ (Carrington 1). We cannot, of course, tell from such material what cats—or humans—actually did but we can identify a normative framework for the establishment of a particular sort of relationship. That Carrington’s work was called The Cat. Her Place in Society and Treatment (my emphasis) suggests, if nothing else, that cats were starting to be acknowledged as part of society rather than being set apart from human constructs.

Feline Traces in Hansard and Court Reports

13Perhaps the 1870s is the most important decade in which conventional materials, namely Hansard and the national daily press, recognise cats particularly as objects of vivisection. The 1870s saw both an increase in experiments on mammals and opposition to this resulting in the 1876 Act that regulated vivisection and exempted vivisectors from prosecution. Although Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, an experimental physiologist, had developed carbonic oxide, chloroform and sulphuric ether to prevent pain to animals and helped develop a lethal chamber at Battersea Dogs’ Home to ensure a painless death, this also meant that rather than experiments taking place on reptiles (deemed to suffer less pain than mammals) they took place on a wider range of animals (Kean 1998, 97). Those campaigners opposed to vivisection specifically mentioned cats alongside dogs, monkeys and horses and so did parliamentarians; the debate in the House of Lords is illuminating. Thus the Earl of Carnarvon commented:

The dog especially had always been regarded as something more than a mere animal—he had been looked upon as the companion and the friend of man, into whose affections he had wormed himself. The cat also was regarded as a household pet. It was a fact that these two animals were most susceptible to pain, and that experiments performed upon them frequently inflicted most exquisite torture. (Hansard 20 June 1876)

14The cat was being embraced into a state umbrella of concern. Significantly cats (and dogs) become prominent in parliamentary vivisection debates since the object of experiments could indeed be the loved pets of yesterday. Thus the name of an important ‘rescue centre’, the Battersea Dogs Home, was not without significance. It was not a pound but reflected the transitory place of animals in human affections, particularly a decline from ‘inside’ and owned, to ‘outside’ and unowned, implying the potential of some sort of return to human company. Groups of wild cats were not regarded as ‘independent communities’ but were seen to have been created as a result of human abandonment. The main culprits for their creation were invariably those who closed up their houses to sojourn in the country in the summer—the aristocracy and wealthy middle class. In discussing cruelty to cats in the 1870s Gordon Stables considered the ‘worst form of unintentional cruelty’ was to leave a cat at home when going to the seaside or summer quarters including locking the cat inside:

The unhappy cat is found lying in the empty hall, dead or dying, and wasted away to a mere handful of bones and skin—this in itself testifying to the suffering she must have undergone for the want of food and water. Such gross carelessness ought to be made penal (Stables 154–55).

15This practice of abandonment created what the RSCPA dubbed ‘The Cat Starvation Season’. The charity explained that the ‘evil extends all-over London’ when people leave town. Importantly, the RSPCA noted, was that dumped outside in the streets cats were not only subjected to harassment by boys but also to entrapment by vivisectors.

16By the 1870s, cruelty, including some examples of cat skinning, inevitably continued but prosecutions could now take place and were reported in the Times. This use of the law seemed to be popular. A fascinating incident of 1876 illustrates the change in popular feeling. Thus a man was brought before magistrates in London’s Guildhall. He had cut off a cat’s tail. Accordingly about 200 people surrounded his house in Clothfair (near Smithfield) ‘and wanted to pull him out and mob him’ (Times 23 August 1876: 9). Although the legal focus was initially around a printer who had assaulted a policeman who had tried to protect the cat abuser (and was fined 5 shillings for the assault), the cat abuser was subsequently summoned by an officer of the RSPCA. The abuser explained he had been drunk and that the cat had come into the house and chased his rabbits. To the Alderman hearing the case, drunkenness was no excuse: ‘It was the most brutal thing he had ever heard of, and he sentenced the prisoner to one month’s imprisonment and hard labour’ (Times 23 August 1876: 9). This is an interesting account in that it crosses various categorisations: the leader of the crowd of 200 was a printer, a literate, skilled worker; the cat abuser was a butcher. Apparently the cat was not owned—or at least claimed by an owner—but still the outrage of the crowd extended to a neighbourhood cat or one not living within a known household. Here a cat per se was seen worthy of defence. Although a police officer was assaulted, the crime against the cat received a far harsher punishment.

17Importantly the prosecutions of cruelty towards cats as living beings rather than as mere property was increasingly pursued and reported in the national press. In one case before the court a passer-by reported seeing a dog ‘worrying’ a cat and intervened asking the owner to pull the dog away. Instead the dog owner put the dog over railings to continue attacking the cat who had fled there for some protection. The dog’s muzzle had been taken off in order for the dog to attack the cat. The witness borrowed a whip from a cabman and tried to get the dog away. The cats’ cries ‘were most distressing’ and the dog killed him/her. By way of ‘explanation’ a defence was that the owner had been drinking. The magistrate, however, referred to ‘such unmitigated and deliberate brutality’ and stated it was his duty to deal severely with the criminal sentencing him to one month’s hard labour. Moreover the magistrate thanked the witness and said he himself would pay for a replacement whip. This was an apparently un-owned cat (Times 6 October 1898: 10). Indeed by the 1880s intervening against cruelty to a dog or cat in the streets was seen as a norm of civilised behaviour, as noted in parliamentary debate (Hansard 3 Aug. 1888). As a pamphlet of 1901 argued, ‘If you come across a homeless cat when you are out, do not pass by on the other side’. This included buying food or milk for the cat’s immediate needs (Two Friends of the Race 24). What is significant is that not only did prosecutions for cruelty against cats take place but that such prosecutions were successful—apparently irrespective of cat ownership. Such prosecutions were reported sympathetically in the national press.

Changes in Cats’ Employment Status

18Cats were seen by humans to be independent—or as the RSPCA described them in a pamphlet on pets in 1857 ‘even in her best mood she is not always to be depended on’ but they were routinely appropriated for killing mice (RSCPA 64). As The Cat and her Cousins, written for children, explains: ‘She attends properly to the business of killing mice . . . She seldom gets in anyone’s way, except when you want the footstall, pussy is pretty sure to be asleep upon it, and has to be turned off . . .’ (Anon. 18). But there was also a growing recognition that cats did not survive only on their kills. William Smith explains that, ‘A well-fed cat , like any other animal, is more able for work than a poor emaciated, half-starved creature, and will kill more vermin than a hungry one, though it may not eat them’ (Smith 142). Increasingly what was being described was a relationship in which the human, as well as the cat, had responsibilities and duties so that cats acquired the status of quasi-employees who, like servants, needed to be provided for.

19Cats literally were employed within state institutions. For example, there had been a cat at the Home Office since the 1800s but s/he was only given a food allowance in 1929. Other state buildings employing cats included the British Museum. In 1868 three cats were officially employed—meaning there was expenditure for their upkeep—at the money order office. The secretary of the Post Office agreed that not more than 1 shilling a week be spent on the three female cats who were ‘on probation’. As he wrote:

It is important that the cats must not be overfed and I cannot allow more than 1/- per week for their support—they must depend on the mice for the remainder of their emoluments and if the mice be not reduced in number in six months a further portion of the allowance must be stopped.

20Based on the contemporary cost of cats’ meat these equated to one portion of food of around 85 grams a day compared to the two portions requested. Interestingly if the cats did not succeed in catching mice they would not be ‘sacked’ but their conditions of employment would deteriorate. Apparently their employment went well and it was reported that ‘the cats have done their duty very efficiently’ (Post-Office Archives 1–2).

Consequent Changes in Cats’ Physical Location

21A consequence of being owned was that the place frequented by cats changed from outside the home to inside. The changing ‘status location’ of the cat also meant, in turn, that people were advised to keep cats indoors at night rather than ‘leaving poor cats out all night, to seek for food and shelter for themselves’. Such cats, it was observed, would ‘bring into disrepute the whole feline race’ by hideous howling, digging up flower beds and murdering valuable rabbits (Stables 62). By being inside cats would be explicitly owned—and in turn also more likely to be clean. Cats became increasingly defined as having the qualities of making people ‘comfortable’ by purring by the hearth-rug; they had a presence in the heart of a house. When treated correctly, they could not only show affection but could share hearths and homes: ‘There can be no more homely sight than to see a well-cared-for cat sitting itself down by a clean and cosy fireside—looking the picture of contentment, drawing its tail over its toes’ (Smith 141). This visualisation of a cat within a home possessing such symbolical qualities was developed in the Crystal Palace cat shows specifically inaugurated to create a higher status for cats. Illustrator Harrison Weir, who originated the first cat show in 1872, was prompted to do this for proselytising reasons. Cat shows would, he argued, affect how ordinary cats would be seen. The cat sitting in front of the fire ‘would then possess a beauty and an attractiveness to its owners unobserved and unknown because uncultivated before’ (Weir in Kean 2007, 28). It was thought that such visual engagement with an owned ‘well bred’ cat would cross over into looking empathetically at ordinary cats (Kean 2007, 28). Thus Animal World, the RSPCA journal, could describe the Crystal Palace cats show as ‘supplying a wont of civilisation’, in acting as a counterpoint to cats being stoned by boys and being set upon by men and their dogs: ‘These beautiful but mute prisoners appeal to every spectator for justice, not only by their gentleness and docility, but by their confiding gestures’ (The Cat Show 179).

Some Conclusions

22By the last decade of the nineteenth century there was inevitably still ill treatment of animals but there started to be homes specifically for cats such as the Mayhew Home (that still exists today in north west London) and the London Home for Lost and Starving Cats in North London’s Haverstock Hill opened in 1896 and which moved to nearby Camden Town by 1903. By the 1890s campaigners were also arguing for a cat tax to prevent abuse, and particularly abandonment on moving house: ‘In these ways men and women might learn by degrees that they cannot keep a living creature or throw it away according to the moment’s whim, as if it were an old pair of shoes’ (Carrington 78). Cats, like dogs, had also started to win a place in the landscape of commemoration after death not just from the aristocracy in graveyards on their own land and memorials, but as exemplified by their inclusion in London’s Hyde Park Animal Cemetery. Instead of being disposed of as waste, such public cemeteries reflected the form of commemoration found in contemporary human cemeteries (Kean 2013, Howell 2002). Thus Hyde Park cemetery included the grave of Peter the Faithful Cat friend of Arthur and Blanche Ram and two white cats Bebe and Sam, his nephews (Baker 32).

23Writing recently about animal companions in the eighteenth century Ingrid Tague has asserted that ‘[w]e can only explain animal behavior with reference to our own, human thoughts and feelings’ (Tague 9). She argues that in the eighteenth century pets helped people think through their concern with rights and liberty, as contemporary motifs (Tague 232). I suppose in similar vein one might argue that cats helped people think through ideas of human status, legal rights and responsibilities in the nineteenth century. But I do not think the position is as clear cut as she suggests. We can certainly see that change did occur at least in the relationship between human and feline in the nineteenth century and in the feline behaviour that was encouraged by humans and the places where this took place. As Susan Pearson and Mary Weismantel have suggested, ‘[b]ecause of [animals’] often degraded and subjugated status, their ability to effect change has often been sharply curtailed; however, the same is self-evidently true of human actors in many circumstances’ (Pearson and Weismantel 27). Even an initial review of conventional materials as indicated above suggests that both lowly cats and ordinary people started to be acknowledged in society and within the structures of the state at this time.

24Cat-related material as discussed in this article indicates, if nothing else, that they were starting to hold a particular position inside households. Some sort of non-hostile relationship was developing, albeit alongside acts of cruelty. Certainly attention to vivisection was a cross species concern—if animals could be treated in this way so too could vulnerable humans. The change in the feline-human relationship during the nineteenth century was not as significant as that which would occur during the Second World War but there was a real change from the period of public accounts of cats predominantly as skinned animals (Kean 2017). As Edith Carrington argued, a cat had actively earned for herself a higher position, ‘[s]he has wound her subtle way into our confidence, and twined herself round our affections to such a degree that her usefulness as a servant is merged into her value as a fireside friend’ (Carrington 35). Perhaps the most striking metaphor is that contained in an advice book of 1901 that discussed the cats who watch over humans in bed if they were ill: these were designated ‘angels in fur’ (Two Friends of the Race 1).

25This is not only a very different way for a human to portray a cat but, of course, it implies that the cat herself was acting in particular ways and being an active agent alongside the human in their relationship. This article does not claim in any way to be a comprehensive analysis of the changing feline-human relationship in the nineteenth century but does, I hope, start to raise some points around the value of particular material that might be used to further develop research on the status of cats.

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Anon. The Cat and Her Cousins by the author of ‘Curious Facts about Animals’. London: Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, 1871.

Baker, F. Grenfell. ‘Animals’ Cemetery’. Animal World February 1906, 32.

Benson, Etienne. ‘Animal Writes. Historiography, Disciplinarity, and the Animal Trace’ in Making Animal Meaning. Ed. Linda Kalof and Georgina F. Montgomery. East Lancing: Michigan State UP, 2011. 3–16.

Booth, Charles. Life and Labour of the People of London. First series. Poverty. Trades of East London Connected with Poverty. London: Williams and Norgate, 1889.

Burt, Jonathan. ‘The Illumination of the Animal Kingdom: The Role of Light and Electricity in Animal Representation’. Society and Animals 9.3 (2001): 203–28.

Carrington, Edith. The Cat: Her Place in Society and Treatment. London: Humanitarian League, 1896.

‘The Cat Show at the Crystal Palace’. Animal World , vol. IV. 51, December, 1873, 179.

‘The Cat Starvation Season’. Animal World, vol. IX . 108, September, 1878, 132.

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Hilda Kean, « From Skinned Cats to Angels in Fur: Feline Traces and the Start of the Cat-Human Relationship in Victorian England »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 88 Automne | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 14 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Hilda Kean

Hilda Kean is a senior honorary research fellow at University College London and visiting professor of history at the University of Greenwich. She was former dean of Ruskin College, Oxford. She has researched and published extensively on animal-human history and public history. Her numerous books include: Animal Rights: Social & Political Change in Britain since 1800 (1998/2000); London Stories: Personal Lives, Public Histories (2004), Public History & Heritage Today: People & their Pasts (edited with Paul Ashton, 2012); The Public History Reader (edited with Paul Martin, 2012); The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy (2017/2018). Her latest book (ed. with Philip Howell) is The Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History and will be out in October 2018.
Hilda Kean est Chercheur Emérite d’University College (Londres) et Professeur invitée à l’Université de Greenwich. Elle a été Dean du Ruskin College d’Oxford. Sa recherche porte sur les relations entre les humains et les animaux et elle est l’auteur de nombreuses publications sur le sujet. Ses nombreux ouvrages incluent : Animal Rights: Social & Political Change in Britain since 1800 (1998/2000); London Stories: Personal Lives, Public Histories (2004), Public History & Heritage Today: People & their Pasts (co-édité avec Paul Ashton, 2012); The Public History Reader (co-édité avec Paul Martin, 2012); The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy (2017/2018). Son dernier ouvrage (co-édité avec Philip Howell), The Routledge Companion to Animal-Human History paraîtra en octobre 2018.

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