In "A Journal of the Plague Year"

“A Journal of the Plague Year, being observations or memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London,” is a novel by Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731), first published in March 1722. It is one man's experiences of London in the year 1665, when the Great Plague struck the city. The carefully researched novel is presented as an eyewitness account of events. Daniel Defoe was only five years old in 1665, and the book was published under the initials H. F., most probably being based on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe.

The observations are restricted to the city of London and should not be taken to imply that cats were completely exterminated either in London or in England. Such a thing would be impossible and many cats would have managed to escape detection, either by their own devices or through being concealed by the owners.

Cats are mentioned in the “Orders for Cleansing and Keeping of the Streets Swept” :-

“ 'That no hogs, dogs, or cats, or tame pigeons, or ponies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the city, or any swine to be or stray in the streets or lanes, but that such swine be impounded by the beadle or any other officer, and the owner punished according to Act of Common Council, and that the dogs be killed by the dog-killers appointed for that purpose.'

Wherefore were we ordered to kill all the dogs and cats, but because as they were domestic animals, and are apt to run from house to house and from street to street, so they are capable of carrying the effluvia or infectious streams of bodies infected even in their furs and hair? And therefore it was that, in the beginning of the infection, an order was published by the Lord Mayor, and by the magistrates, according to the advice of the physicians, that all the dogs and cats should be immediately killed, and an officer was appointed for the execution.

It is incredible, if their account is to be depended upon, what a prodigious number of those creatures were destroyed. I think they talked of forty thousand dogs, and five times as many cats; few houses being without a cat, some having several, sometimes five or six in a house. All possible endeavours were used also to destroy the mice and rats, especially the latter, by laying ratsbane and other poisons for them, and a prodigious multitude of them were also destroyed.”

In “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” he also refers to cats.

“I was under some apprehension, during my absence from the land, that at least my provisions might be devoured on shore: but when I came back I found no sign of any visitor; only there sat a creature like a wild cat upon one of the chests, which, when I came towards it, ran away a little distance, and then stood still. She sat very composed and unconcerned, and looked full in my face, as if she had a mind to be acquainted with me. I presented my gun at her, but, as she did not understand it, she was perfectly unconcerned at it, nor did she offer to stir away; upon which I tossed her a bit of biscuit, though by the way, I was not very free of it, for my store was not great: however, I spared her a bit, I say, and she went to it, smelled at it, and ate it, and looked (as if pleased) for more; but I thanked her, and could spare no more: so she marched off.”

“And I must not forget that we had in the ship a dog and two cats, of whose eminent history I may have occasion to say something in its place; for I carried both the cats with me; and as for the dog, he jumped out of the ship of himself”

“Nov. 5.—This day went abroad with my gun and my dog, and killed a wild cat; her skin pretty soft, but her flesh good for nothing; every creature that I killed I took of the skins and preserved them.”

“In this season I was much surprised with the increase of my family; I had been concerned for the loss of one of my cats, who ran away from me, or, as I thought, had been dead, and I heard no more tidings of her till, to my astonishment, she came home about the end of August with three kittens. This was the more strange to me because, though I had killed a wild cat, as I called it, with my gun, yet I thought it was quite a different kind from our European cats; but the young cats were the same kind of house-breed as the old one; and both my cats being females, I thought it very strange. But from these three cats I afterwards came to be so pestered with cats that I was forced to kill them like vermin or wild beasts, and to drive them from my house as much as possible.”

“My dog, who was now grown old and crazy, and had found no species to multiply his kind upon, sat always at my right hand; and two cats, one on one side of the table and one on the other, expecting now and then a bit from my hand, as a mark of especial favour. But these were not the two cats which I brought on shore at first, for they were both of them dead, and had been interred near my habitation by my own hand; but one of them having multiplied by I know not what kind of creature, these were two which I had preserved tame; whereas the rest ran wild in the woods, and became indeed troublesome to me at last, for they would often come into my house, and plunder me too, till at last I was obliged to shoot them, and did kill a great many; at length they left me.”

“As for my cats, they multiplied, as I have observed, to that degree that I was obliged to shoot several of them at first, to keep them from devouring me and all I had; but at length, when the two old ones I brought with me were gone, and after some time continually driving them from me, and letting them have no provision with me, they all ran wild into the woods, except two or three favourites, which I kept tame, and whose young, when they had any, I always drowned; and these were part of my family. “

Defoe and the Civet Cat Farm

Defoe had a civet cat farm in Newington Green, Stoke Newington and was described as a “Civet-Cat Merchant.” This has sometimes been interpreted as a venture into the fur trade. Although sometimes called cats, civets are viverrids. Civet secretions were valued by perfumiers. In April 1692, Defoe agreed to take over a civet cat farm owned by John Barksdale. He borrowed extensively from acquaintances and most of the civet farm money came from his mother-in-law, Joan Tuffley. Defoe already owed one creditor £1000. When the sixty-nine cats were seized by the Sheriffs of London they were valued at half of what he had paid. Joan Tuffley then sued Defoe for misrepresenting the price of the civet cats. Although Defoe agreed he owed her money, he was bankrupt (presumably this was why his property was being seized). Whether or not Defoe had tried to defraud Tuffley, or was as bad at business dealings as he was good at writing, has been debated.



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