This article is part of a series looking about cats and cat care in Britain from the late 1800s through to the 1970s.


Much has been written about cats over the years and it is interesting to consider past views in the light of modern developments. For instance, in "Origin of Species" (1859), Charles Darwin wrote "...cats from their nocturnal habits, cannot be so easily matched [bred] and although so much valued by women and children, we rarely see a distinct breed long kept up." By the 1940s, things were very different - there were a number of distinct breeds and the science of genetics was soon to play a part in the scientific breeding of cats.

THE 1950s

In “The New Book of Knowledge” (Edited by Sir John Hammerton) (circa 1952) the entry on cats reads: “Next time you have leisure to look at a cat, note particularly its roundish head, the long slender body, rather short but muscular legs, and the long tapering graceful tail. Examine the feet, and see how they are shod with soft pads. Do not overlook the sharp, strong claws, which may be drawn back into a sheath. Then examine the eyes. The shape of the pupils is elliptical or oval. In bright sunlight the pupils are reduced to narrow vertical slits, but in cloudy weather, or after sunset, they are round and large, to admit more light. This enables the animal to see at night, when it goes out hunting. But cats cannot see in absolute darkness. Those stiff hairs on either side of the cat’s nose commonly called whiskers are sense organs, or feelers. Without them the cat could not stalk its prey in the dark, because the hairs give timely warning of obstructions. The senses of sight, touch and hearing are very acute; those of taste and smell are weak. It can hear a mouse at a distance of many yards. White cats with pink eyes (albino cats) are nearly always deaf. [Note: This is incorrect. Blue-eyed white cats are not albinos and are not always deaf]

‘Cat’ is not only the name of our common household pet. It is also the general name of a large family of carnivorous or flesh-eating mammals, including the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, cheetah, puma, lynx and a large number of smaller wild cats. The preceding description, slightly modified, applies to all the members of the cat family. The habits and characteristics of all cats are much alike. All - except the lion, tiger, and cheetah - are good climbers. All prefer to hunt at night, and their usual method is to stalk their prey, or lie in wait for it and spring upon it unawares. Members of the cat tribe generally hunt singly.

Scientists disagree on the question of the origin of domestic cats. The earliest records on the subject are found in Egypt, and indicate that the Egyptian cats were tamed 13 centuries before Christ. The ancient Egyptians regarded the cat with superstitious awe and treated it as a member of their families; mummified cats are often found with other relics of ancient Egypt. The early Christian associated it with witches, and the devil was often depicted in the form of a black cat.

Among the different types of domestic cats a few are deserving of special mention. The Siamese. royal cat is the rarest and commands the highest price. Its face, legs and tail are brown; its body is cream-coloured, and its eyes are light blue. The Angora, or Persian, is distinguished by its large size, its long silky hair, and its flesh-coloured lips and foot pads. Most of our domestic cats are probably descended from the European wild cat (Felis catus), still found in the north of Scotland. [Note: This was incorrect; they are descended from African Wildcats]

About 7 years later, “The Book of Knowledge” (Edited by Gordon Stowell) (circa 1959) greatly expanded the section (and corrected the misconception that albino cats are deaf). “All the cats in the world are part of one great family, the Felidae, which includes such animals as the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, puma, and lynx. The size and ferocity of the cat tribe vary, but the members have common characteristics: gracefu1, muscular, fur-clad bodies, feet shod with soft pads and sheathed claws, strong, rough tongues, rounded heads which can turned be in any direction, and eyes that seem to glow in the darkness. Cats cannot see in absolute darkness, but their vision in a faint light is better than that of most animals. In cloudy weather the pupils of their eyes are round and large to admit more light, but in bright sunlight they are reduced to vertical slits.

The biological name Felis catus was given to the domestic cat by Linnaeus in 1758. The beginnings of its domestication are lost in antiquity and savages may well have had great trouble in taming its wild ancestors. Its place of origin is also unknown, but it is believed that the Phoenicians, who carried it from Egypt as a valuable animal for trading, are responsible for its wide distribution throughout the world. In various countries Feiis catus interbred with native wild cats and thus gave rise to breeds of new form and colours. [Note: This was incorrect; the breeds are due to mutation, there was minimal interbreeding]

In geologically ancient times, a land connection between Spain and Africa permitted the ‘Kaffir’ cat (a more powerfully-muscled version of our domestic species) to roam over north-east Africa and a considerable part of Europe. This Kaffir cat is believed to be one of the first of our pets’ tamed ancestors.

Among the different types of domestic cat, the smooth-haired Siamese, with brown face, legs, and tail, cream-coloured body, and light blue eyes, commands the highest price: the beautiful, long-haired Angora or Persian cat is supposed to come from Tibet. How and when the tailless cat reached the Isle of Man is not known. Some say it first appeared in Cornwall, others that it is descended from the mascot of one of the ships of the Spanish Armada which was wrecked on the island. Others put its taillessness down to a biological peculiarity. In this category belong the white-haired, pink-eyed albinos, once erroneously thought to be deaf, cats with ‘double paws’ or polydactylism, and the Mexican ‘Hairless’ cat, now thought to be extinct.

The word ‘cat’ occurs in many different languages but ‘puss’ is derived from Pashta (or Bast), the cat-goddess which was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians some thousands of years B.C., probably because cats kept the country’s grain-stores free from rats and mice. Figures and paintings of the period depict cats wearing earrings and jewelled collars, and their carefully embalmed bodies have been found in tombs. When a cat died, it was customary for the members of its ancient Egyptian household to shave off their eyebrows in mourning.

After the downfall of cat-worship in Egypt, it appeared elsewhere in India, China, and Japan, and ‘cat clans’ sprang up in Teutonic, Celtic, and other lands. Pictures of the Norse goddess Freya show her chariot drawn by two cats. In later centuries the cat often suffered persecution because of its association with witchcraft. It was thought to have magic powers, probably as a result of its intelligence, its luminous eyes, the electricity in its fur, and perhaps its unearthly voice! The witch’s cat was supposed to speak the language of its mistress, and one witch, Moll White, possessed a tabby reputed to have spoken in English on several occasions.

The average age of the cat is reckoned as 14 years, but many reach 18 or 19 and some have lived well past their thirtieth year.

The charm and intelligence of individual cats have made them famous in literature and history. Artists like the Swiss, Steinlen, and the Japanese, Foujita, have delighted in drawing them. The poet Thomas Gray pens a charming picture of his cat admiring her own reflection in his poem ‘On a favourite cat, drowned in a tub of gold fishes.’

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purr’d applause.

The Prophet Mahomet held his cat while he preached and Cardinal Wolsey gave audiences sharing his throne with his pet. Charles Dickens’s deaf cat often put out her master’s candle to make him pay attention to her, and Dr Johnson’s habit of buying oysters for his ‘Hodge’ horrified Bowsell. Puss-in-Boots, Dick Whittington’s cat, and the Cheshire Cat in Alice are familiar figures in most nurseries. The British government employs a large number of cats, and a weekly ‘wage’ is provided for them.

The cat’s aloof and aristocratic nature is sometimes misunderstood by human being. As the French writer Theophile Gautier has said, he does not lightly confer his friendship: ‘if you are worthy of his affection, a cat will be your friend, but never your slave.’ Though extremely sensitive to ill-treatment, he cares little for dislike, though capable of great affection. Rudyard Kipling’s ‘cat who walked by himself’ is typical of the whole breed.


“The Observer’s Book of Cats” (1959) by Grace Pond included information about cats in Commonwealth countries and in the USA.

CATS IN THE COMMONWEALTH. The history of the domestic cat in most of the Commonwealth countries dates from the time of the first European settlers, who took with them their household pets. Scientific breeding developed later, and many of these countries now have flourishing Cat Societies. A list of cat societies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa was provided (along with the address of a cat fancy in France, possibly because of the Francophone population in Canada).

CANADA. Early French missionaries seem to have been the first people to bring cats to the North American continent. Letters from one mention that he had given a cat to a Huron Indian. Then every wagon train travelling to the West in the early days brought its cats. The spreading out of civilisation over the vast woodland and prairies has been made possible by this much abused and misunderstood animal. Granaries had to be protected from mice, or man would have starved in the winters when the temperature was 50 degrees below zero and snow lay 6 feet deep. Kittens and cats rode with every pedlar, and were as familiar a sight as his pots and pans. When the wilderness had been cleared by the pioneer’s axe cats did much to make settlers’ homes possible. When the corn was in the barn they became absolutely necessary to foil the mice, the squirrels and the gophers. It is impossible to compute the vast quantities of food cats have saved, the plagues and vermin they have kept in check, and how much property they have guarded from destruction by the hundreds of varieties of rodents which inhabit the continent. Every farm today has a host of cats - barn cats, granary cats, house cats - the most common colours out west being grey or black and white, with white feet and white bib, the tabby, and an astonishing number of handsome silver-blue short-hair types, which occur in practically every litter. These have thick, close fur and green or yellow eyes.

There are an estimated 798,000 cats on the prairies alone and over 3,000,000 in Canada. (These figures were obtained from a Survey Company’s report to one of the largest cat food organisations in Canada). Considering the population of Canada, this gives a ratio of approximately 1 cat per five people. Of the pedigree breeds, the Siamese seems to be the most popular in Canada today. There are also many White long-hairs, Creams, Blues and Blacks. Abyssinian, Burmese and Russian Blue are also entered at the shows. Manx are uncommon. The new breed, the Himalayan (Colourpoint Longhair in Britain) is gaining popularity in leaps and bounds, and former confirmed lovers of Siamese are changing their minds. The Himalayan is a Persian cat with the Siamese blue eyes and distinctive markings.

The distances between the Cat Club shows in Canada are very great, and from Calgary it means a trip of 5oo miles over the Rockies to Vancouver for the show there, and approximately 2,ooo miles east to Toronto or Montreal shows. Calgary has an Annual Championship Show in the autumn, held at the Exhibition and Stampede Grounds. The very cold winters in Western Canada do not seem to bother the health of the cats, but occasionally the tail or ears of stray cats become frozen … and often falls off. Pond saw no contradiction in admiring live cats and in trapping and wearing fur and wrote Their fur is really beautiful in the winter, but why should it not be, when Canada produces some of the finest wild furs in the world? a comment that is distasteful by modern standards, though it was not uncommon to see cat fanciers of half a century ago wearing minks, foxes and other furs to cat shows.

AUSTRALIA. Since 1925, when the first Club for registered cats was founded, public interest in pedigree cats in Australia has been rapidly expanding. The Siamese head the list in popularity, and at shows the Chinchillas, Shaded Silvers, Blues, Blacks and Whites are well represented. In such a large country as Australia, with the breeders living, and the cat shows being held, thousands of miles apart, it has not proved practicable to have one Governing body, and New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia each have their various Clubs and Shows held under their own organisations. Apart from the shows for cats alone - and some shows attract entries of over three hundred cats - there are also sections for them at the large agricultural and sheep shows, which always have very large attendances. A feature unknown in England, due no doubt to weather conditions, is the picnic fixture, with both the cats and exhibitors travelling by bus to the chosen rendezvous. A number of the cats are of British descent, and there is a steady demand for British prize-winning kittens. It will be appreciated that the costly sea or air journey with the enforced quarantine on arrival makes importation a very expensive business, and therefore it is only the cream of British stock which arrive to improve the already very good Australian blood lines.This sounds a much rosier picture than the modern time, where cats find themselves vilified.

NEW ZEALAND. As in the other countries belonging to the Commonwealth, research has revealed practically nothing about the history of the domestic cat in New Zealand, except for the fact that it was first introduced by the early settlers, which makes one realise that even in those far-away days the value of the cat as a catcher of vermin was appreciated and also that it was regarded as a member of the household who went with the family as a matter of course. In 1930, the New Zealand Governing Council was founded, with a similar constitution and regulations to the British one. As in most countries, the second world war played havoc with pedigree cat breeding, and it was not until 1949 that interest was revived, which is steadily growing. There are now a number of flourishing cat clubs and many cat shows. As in Australia, as well as the separate cat shows, there are also sections for cats at stock shows, and special features are the classes held for children’s pets. In this country, too, there is a steady importation of really outstanding cats from the British Isles, and cats with well-known British prefixes in their pedigrees are constant winners at the shows. The high cost of these pedigree cats, together with the expensive journey and quarantine, shows clearly how much value is placed on cats of British breeding. The quality of the New Zealand animals is excellent, with most breeds well represented. The Siamese are very popular, and long-haired Blacks, Blues and Reds, in particular, seem to do well on the show bench.

SOUTH AFRICA. It is very difficult to trace the history of the domestic cat in South Africa, little being known, apart from the fact that the first missionaries and settlers brought their pets with them. Most native villages have their dogs, but a cat is a rare sight, and if one is seen, it has usually come from a European home. Many of the wealthier Africans with houses of their own will often have a cat as a mark of social standing. Several of the animal societies, such as the Royal Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Our Dumb Friends League and the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals have branches in wide-spread parts of Africa, where cats are among the many animals receiving attention. The interests of the pedigree cat in South Africa are looked after by the South African Cat Union. This was founded in 1946 primarily to register cats, to encourage pedigree breeding and cat shows, and is associated with the British Governing Council. Apparently there were very few pedigree cats in South Africa prior to that date, but today there are many excellent examples of a number of the recognised breeds. The Siamese appears to be the most popular, outnumbering all others at the shows, while excellent Cream and Blue long-hairs all bred from imported English cats are making a name for themselves. There do not appear to be any British short-hairs, and very few household pets are shown. In such a large country, running a cat show is quite an achievement, and the four cat clubs, the Western Province Cat Club, the Siamese Cat Society of South Africa, the Rand Cat Club, and the Natal Cat Club, are doing fine work in promoting interest in pedigree cats, although their members may be scattered over thousands of miles.

In the section on the British Blue, Pond had written in passing of the Chartreux There are a few Blue British in Europe, but the French have a breed called the Chartreux, said to have been brought to France from South Africa by the monks of that order. They are very like British Blues, which may cause some confusion..

CATS IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Very little is known about the first domestic cats in North America, but there is evidence that they were brought by early missionaries to the Indians, and that they accompanied the Pilgrims to New England and of course, as in Europe, played their part in the witch hysteria culminating in the trials of 1682. As the early settlers moved across the country, it is only reasonable to assume that the cats and kittens went with them, and helped by protecting the food and keeping down the vermin. As in Canada, the farm or working cat today plays a very important part which is duly appreciated by the farmers, many of whom have their cats periodically inspected by veterinary surgeons. It is roughly estimated that in the U.S.A., which now holds an annual ‘ Cat Week’, there is a cat population in the region of 50,000,000, and there is a very large trade in all types of products having anything to do with cats. She went on to mention the earliest cat shows and cat clubs which became larger Associations and Federations by 1959.


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