From 1850s editions of “NOTES & QUERIES”

“Notes and Queries” began in 1849 as a weekly periodical in which scholars and interested amateurs exchanged knowledge (“the factual rather than the speculative”) on “English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism”. The “Notes” were miscellaneous findings of correspondents that the editors considered of interest to the readership. The “Queries,” and their responses, formed the bulk of the publication. Entries ‘from correspondents ranged from a few lines to a few paragraphs.

Notes and Queries Vol 5 (133) May 15th, 1852: Tortoiseshell Tom Cats. Can any correspondents of” N & Q,” who may have paid particular attention to natural history, throw any light or grounds for explaining the fact of there, I may almost say, never being instances of a male tortoiseshell cat? For though I have been very lately told that such a one was exhibited in the great display in Hyde Park, yet as I did not witness it myself, I can only use it as the exception which proves the general rule.

Having for the last fifty years been in the constant habit of keeping cats, and having frequently during that time possessed many of a rare and foreign breed, some of which were tortoiseshells of the most beautiful varieties, I have always endeavoured, by mixing the breeds in every way, to procure a male of this peculiar colour; but with the vast number of kittens that during this long period have fallen under my observation, I have invariably found that if there was the slightest appearance of a single black hair on one, otherwise white and orange, so sure would it prove a female; and thus vice versa, an orange hair appearing on a black and white skin, even in the smallest degree, would immediately proclaim the sex.

I have asked for an elucidation of this curious fact from two of our greatest naturalists of the present day, but without any success; I have racked my own brain even for some plausible mode of accounting for it, but in vain; for it should be observed that this peculiarity of line of demarcation as to sexes does not obtain with other animals, for I have seen what may be called tortoiseshell horses and cows, that is, with the same admixture of colours, and yet they have been indiscriminately of both sexes.

Now it is true we hear occasionally of a tortoiseshell tom cat advertised as having been seen or heard of, but in all these instances a solution of the nitrate of silver has been freely used to aid the imposition, and with all the pains I have taken, I have never been fortunate enough to meet with a bona fide ocular demonstration.

Should any of the correspondents of “N &” Q” have it in their power to throw light on this curious fact in natural history, it will much gratify me, even if it should prove that I am making much about nothing. - W R, Surbiton.

Notes & Queries, Vol 5 (139), June 2 6th, 1852: Tortoiseshell Tom Cat (Vol v, p465). - I always thought the tortoiseshell torn cat was an animal of very rare occurrence; but I was not aware, until I read the Note of your correspondent W R, that it was unknown in natural history. The late (and highly respected) Mr John Bannister, familiarly called “Jack Bannister,” wrote, more than forty years ago, a humorous and witty jeu d’esprit on this subject : this was composed for his “Budge,” a species of entertainment from which the late Mr Matthews too the idea of his “At Home;” an entertainment exhibiting a most extraordinary range of talent, and must be fresh in the memory of most of your readers. It supposes the auctioneer, “Mr Catseye,” in the Great Room in “Cateaton Street,” and opens thus:

Oh! what a story the papers have been telling us,
About a little animal of wond’rous price;
Who but an Auctioneer would ever think of selling us,
For two hundred yellow boys, a trap for mice?
&c, &c

Having humorously described the company assembled, and enlarged on the “beauty and rarity” of the animal, it thus concludes:

Now louder and warmer the competition growing;
Politeness nearly banished in the grand fracas;
Two hundred! Two hundred and thirty-three a-going:
Gone! Never cat of talents surely met with such eclat!
E’en nine or ten fine Gentlemen were in the fashion caught, as well
As ladies in their bidding by this purring piece of tortoiseshell:
And the buyer bore him off in triumph, after all the fun was done,
And bells rang as if Wittington had been Lord Mayor of London;
Mice and rats flung up their hats for joy that cats so scarce were,
And mouse-trap makers raised their prices cent per cent!


As this song/monologue from the 1820s is long forgotten (it was already slipping from memory in the 1850s), I looked for a transcript. The original is published in “The Universal Songster” and variations appear elsewhere as people reproduced it from childhood memory (a demonstration of how songs and stories change as they are passed along by word of mouth).

Written by Mr T Dibdin, and sung by Mr Bannister, with unbounded applause, at the Theatres Royal.

Oh! what a story the Papers have been telling us,
About a little animal of mighty price;
And who ever thought but an Auctioneer of selling us,
For near three hundred yellow boys - a trap for mice?
Of its beauties and its qualities no doubt he told ‘em fine tales,
But for me I should just as soon have bought a cat o’-nine-tails!
I wouldn’t give for all the cats in Christendom so vast a fee,
Nor to save ‘em from the Catacombs or Cataline’s catastrophe.
Kate of Russia, Katterfelta’s cat, and Catalani,
Are every one
By Tom outdone,
As you shall hear:

We’ll suppose Mr. Catseye, the Auctioneer, with his catalogue in one hand, and a hammer, like a Catapulta, in the other, mounted in the rostrum at the great room in Cateaton-street. Hem! Ladies and Gemmen, cats are of two distinctions, Thomas and Tabby. This is of the former breed, and the only instance in which I have seen beauty monopolized by a male. Look at him, ladies, what a magnificent mouser; meek, though masculine ! The curious concatenation of colour in that cat calls categorically for your best bidding. Place a proper price on poor pussey, consult your feline bosoms, and bid me knock him down! Ladies and Gentlemen, a going, going, going; Any sum for tommy-tortoiseshell you can’t think dear!

Next, I should tell you, the company around him,
Who emulously bid as if they all were wild;
Tom thought ‘em mad while they King of Kittens crown’d him,
And kiss’d, caress’d, and dandled him just like a child,
Lady Letty Longwaist and Mrs. Martha Griskin,
Prim Polly Pussy-love, Miss Scratch and Biddy Twisken;
Solemn Sally Solus, who to no man yes had ever said;
Killing Kitty Crookedlegs, and neat Miss Nelly Neverwed;

Growling, squeezing, nodding, bidding, each for
Puss so eager:
Have Tom they wou’d,
By all that’s good,
As you shall hear:

Spoken, mimic:
SPOKEN, in different voices:
Irish lady: Och, the dear creature, how beautiful he looks when he shuts his eyes! beautiful indeed — he'd even lure the mice to look at him.
Auctioneer: Forty-five guineas in twenty places.
By different ladies: " Sixty-five ! Seventy! Eighty ! Ninety !
Auctioneer: Go on ladies ; nobody bid more ? It's enough to make a cat swear to think he should go for so little ; if the Countess of Catamaran was here she'd out-bid ye all. Miss Grimalkin, you are a connoisseur in cats, what shall I say?
Miss Grimalkin: Ninety-five guineas, sir (in an old tremulous voice).
Auctioneer: Thank you, miss.
Lady Letty: Mem, it does not signify, you may bid as you will, but he shall be mine, if I bid all day. One hundred and twenty, sir.
Auctioneer: Thank ye, Lady Letty. Take a long languishing look, ladies. What a wonder! the only tortoiseshell Tom the world ever witnessed ! see how he twists his tail and washes his whiskers! Tom! Tom! (cat mews,) how musically he mews. Miss Tabby: One hundred and seventy guineas, sir.
Auctioneer: Thank ye, Miss Tabby, you'll not be made a cat's paw of depend on't (ladies laugh). Glad to hear you laugh, ladies; I see how the cat jumps now! Tommy’s a going!

Ladies and Gentlemen, a going, going, going;
Any sum for Tommy Tortoiseshell you can’t think dear!
Now louder and warmer the competition growing;
Politeness nearly banished in the grand fracas;
Two Hundred! Two Hundred and Fifty! there a going:
Gone! Never cat of talons met with such eclat!

Nay, nine or ten fine Gentlemen were in the fashion caught, as well
As ladies in their bidding by this purring piece of tortoiseshell:
The buyer bore him oft’ in triumph, after all the fun was done;
And bells rung as if Whittington had been Lord Mayor of London;
Mice and rats flung up their hats for joy that cats so scarce were,
And mousetrap-makers raised their price full cent per cent I swear, Sir!

Notes & Queries Vol 7 (176), March 12th 1853: - I am pretty certain that I once saw in “N & Q” an inquiry whether there ever was a well-authenticated instance of a tortoiseshell tom cat. The inclosed advertisement which I have cut from The Times of the 19th January, 1853, will perhaps give some of you readers an opportunity of testing the fact: “To be sold, a real Tortoiseshell Tom Cat. This natural rarity is fifteen months old and eight lbs weight. Apply to John Sayers, mr Bennison’s book-seller, market-Drayton, Salop.” - L.L.L.

Notes & Queries Vol 7 (186), May 2lst 1853: Tortoiseshell Tom-cat (Vol v. p 465 ; Vol vii, p 271) - See Hone’s Year Book, p 728. -Zeus.

Notes &Queries, Vol 9 (No 232), April 8th, 1854: Tortoiseshell Tom-cat (Vol v. p 465 ; Vol vii, p 271) - I have certainly heard of tortoiseshell tom-cats; but never having seen one, I cannot affirm that any such exist. The fact of their rarity is undoubted, but I should like to be informed by WR, or any other person who has paid particular attention, to the natural history of this useful and much calumniated animal, whether yellow female cats are not quite as uncommon as tortoiseshell males? - Honore de Mareville, Guernsey.


A few years later, the half-remembered “Auction of Cats” had a thread of correspondence of its own. The passage of 25 years was enough for a popular act to become the stuff of childhood memory.

Notes & Queries Vol 4, 2nd Series (87), August 29th 1857: The Auction of Cats - In the memoir of the eccentric Richard Robert Jones, given in the Imperial Magazine, July 1826, it is stated:

“Another of his peculiarities is a partiality for the whole race of cats, which he seems to regard with the greatest affection, and to resent any injury done to them with the utmost indignation. This singular predilection has led him to adorn the numerous books on grammar which he has himself written, with prints of cats cut from old ballads, or wherever else he can discover them, and to copy everything that has been written and strikes his fancy respecting them, amongst which is ‘The Auction of Cats in Cateaton Street, the well-known production of one of the most celebrated wits of the present day.” What is this “Auction of Cats”? To what does it allude? is it a print or a poem? and who was its well-known author? When the above memoir was written, Jones was resident at Liverpool. is he still alive? G Creed, Museum Street.

Notes & Queries Vol 4, 2nd Series (90), September 19th 1857: The Auction of Cats (2nd S[eries], iv, 171) - In reply to the enquiry of G Creed, “The Auction of the Cats in Cateaton Street” is, in all probability, a poem or rather song, which I remember to have heard when I was a boy. It is founded upon the extraordinary sum which a tortoiseshell Tom-cat brought at an auction. My recollection only retains some of the first verse, but it was replete with lusus verborum [word games] on the word “cat.” It began thus:

Oh what a story the Papers have been telling us,
About a little animal of monstrous price!
‘Who would have thought of an Auctioneer a-sellling us,
For near three hundred yellow boys, a trap for mice?
Of its beauty and its quality no doubt he told us fine tales,
But as for me I would as soon have bought a cat-of-nine-tails!
I wouldn’t give for all the cats in Christendom so vast a fee,
To save them from the Catacombs or Cataline’s catastrophe.
Kate of Russia, Katafelto’s cat, or Catalani.

More I do not remember. Of the writer I know nothing. - P Q, Chorley.

Notes & Queries Vol 4, 2nd Series (90), Sept 19th 1857: This most probably refers to the song of “Tommy Tortoise-shell,” which is to be found in most of the song-books of a quarter of a century or more back. it describes very humorously, and with a constant playing on the word “cat,” the sale by auction of a tortoiseshell tom-cat; wherein we are told to “imagine Mr Catseye, the auctioneer, with his Catalogue in one hand and a hammer like a Catapulta in the other, mounted in his Great Room in Cateaton Street; and who, in expatiating on the rarity of the lot, tells his auditory that “the curious concatenation of colours in that cat, categorically calls for their best bidding.” After a spirited competition, the animals is knocked down for 233 guineas; and the song, in conclusion, assures us that “Kate of Russia, Katafelto’s Cat, and Catalani, were every one by Tom outdone” &c, &c. - R H B, Bath.

Notes & Queries Vol 4, 2nd Series (94) October 17th, 1857: The words inquired for, and in part correctly recollected by P Q, are to be found in “The Universal Songster,” vol i, 1828, illustrated by Geo Cruikshank. - S D S.

Then I found these items:

“ABOUT CATS” in The New York Times, April 7, 1872 (reprinted from Chambers's Journal): A tortoise-shell Tom cat is extremely rare. MR BRODERIP, writing in 1847, says: "A friend, not less noted for his scientific labors than his fund of anecdotes, tells us that some twenty-five or (by'r Lady) thirty years ago, a tortoise-shell Tom cat was exhibited in Piccadilly, where the Liverpool Museum was afterward show, and where dowagers and spinsters thronged to the levee, as was recorded in the caricatures of the day. One hundred guineas, says our philosophical friend of many tales, was the price asked; and I saw many a longing, coroneted coach at the door of the exhibition room."

"ABOUT CATS" in the Indianapolis Evening Journal, February 6, 1872: The tortoiseshell problem is one of the toughest relating to cats. Every one admits that the combination of red and yellow in the male animal, if observable at all, is very rare, and the rarity gives rise to a high commercial value — just as in the case of old pictures, old China, and uniques of various kinds. Some breeders have found that, cross how they might, they can not produce this phenomenon; If tom, then a few black or white hairs mixed with the yellow and red; if not black or white, then tom's sister, perhaps, but not tom. Some persons have suspected, and even asserted, that nitrate of silver is occasionally used to sophisticate the color of tom's coat. There was once a tortoiseshell cat named Dick; but the animal lost both name and fame on becoming the mother of a litter of kittens. The Times newspaper has not been without its allusions to this subject. In one issue there was an announcement: "A handsome Tortoise-shell Tom Cat to be disposed of on reasonable terms." In another: "To be sold, a real Tortoise-shell Tom Cat, fifteen months old, and pounds' weight;" and diligent readers of the paper could doubtless find other examples. About sixty years ago there was one of these rarities sold by auction in London; it fetched such an enormous price as to become quite a public topic. Mr. Bannister, the comedian, made fun about it in an entertainment called the "Budget," while song-books and broad-sheets revelled In the song of "The Tortoiseshell Tom Cat," or (in another form) "Tommy Tortoiseshell." The song puts the cat into a catalogue issued by Mr. Cats-eye of Cateaton street; and brings in the syllable cat in plentiful abundance. Men, as well as woman, it seems, helped to run up the biddings to more than two hundred guineas:

"E'en nine or ten fine gentlemen were in the fashion caught, as well
As ladies Ii their bidding for this purring piece of tortoiseshell!"

Four other lines ran thus:

"Of its beauty and its quality 'tis true he told us fine tales;
But as for me I would as soon have bought a cat-'o-nine-tails;
I would not give for all the cats in Christendom so vast a fee
To save them from the cataracts of Cataline's catastrophe!"


You are visitor number