Bureau-cats: A short history of Whitehall’s official felines
Public interest in the cats of Whitehall began long before Larry, Palmerston and Gladstone graced our front pages and Twitter feeds.
In this podcast, records specialist Christopher Day reveals his favourite anecdotes from the ‘Home Office Cat’ files, including the story behind the naming of Nelson, Winston Churchill’s favourite cat; the controversy surrounding the behaviour of Peta, the first ‘Chief Mouser’ gifted to the UK government; and the verses exchanged between staff regarding the cats’ upkeep.
Bureau-cats: A short history of Whitehall’s official felines
Carianne Whitworth: Hello and welcome to a National Archives podcast. I’m Carianne Whitworth, an editor at The National Archives, and today I’m going to be talking to Christopher Day, our Modern Domestic Records specialist, about a file he’s found called the Home Office Cat.
Christopher Day: Hello.
CW: So, we’re talking about the cats because they’ve been a point of interest for the media…
CD: Yes certainly. There has been a lot of interest in the past couple of years, particularly because of the quite dramatic increase in Whitehall’s feline population in the last five years or so.
CW: It’s boomed, hasn’t it.
CD: It really has. It has gone from zero to three, in quick succession, and with much delight from the public.
CW: Who are these cats?
CD: Well, there’s Larry – the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office, as he’s known – he lives in 10 Downing Street. He’s been there since 2011. He’s a brown and white tabby and is very well loved. Then there’s Palmerston, who’s the Chief Mouser to the Foreign Office, officially. He arrived in 2016 and is named after the Victorian Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston. He’s rather better at catching mice, actually – by the end of August 2016 he had twenty kills of mice.
CW: I wonder if that’s because he was given the name of a former Foreign Secretary?
CD: Possibly. Lord Palmerston was known for having quite a forceful foreign policy. And Palmerston does have his own official Twitter feed, which is well-liked and does good work – especially for Battersea Cats Home, which is where all three of the cats in Whitehall come from… including the newest addition, who joined in June 2016 (last year) called Gladstone, who is the Treasury’s cat. He is named after the Victorian Prime Minister, formerly Victorian Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone. He again arrived from Battersea – a black cat, but he was occasionally seen wearing a spotted red bow tie.
CD: Yes, indeed. Very dandy.
CW: So, there’s a heritage that goes back further than the cats we have at the moment…
CD: Well, yes –a long way. Up until 1997 there was a cat in Downing Street as well. The earliest one I can find is from when the Post Office were having a lot of trouble with their money order office (because of mice) in London in the 1860s. So they felt that getting a cat was the most useful way to deal with it. So there was an allowance approved for the upkeep of the cat. But certainly sort of within Whitehall it’s the 1920s when you start to see the Treasury actually effectively approving weekly allowances for food for the cat, so effectively they’re paying a salary for a cat, if you will, and that’s where the sort of paper trail starts at The National Archives. And that begins in 1929. Effectively, there was a cat already there; his name was Peter. But in 1929 it was agreed that a penny a day would be paid for the upkeep of Peter. Well, actually it’s not necessarily that they give this allowance because he is under fed; it’s because at the time he was being overfed by members of staff bringing in treats for him.
CW: So it was a way of regulating?
CD: Yes, to stop him from being overindulged, effectively, because they thought if he had a small allowance of food then people wouldn’t feed him treats, but he would be kept hungry enough to still be interested in going to look for mice. So, there are four office cats dealt with in the file. Peter, Peter II, Peter III, and Peta…
CW: …First female cat?
CD: Yes, first female cat.
CW: But obviously when Prime Ministers came in. they had their own pets that they might want to bring with them?
CD: Yes, certainly. I mean, Number 10 Downsing Street is a private home as much as it is Government Offices as well, and there’s a long history of people bringing cats with them when they move into Downing Street. I mean notably Winston Churchill was a great animal lover. To this day, Chartwell – which was the Churchill family home before it was given to the nation – is now a National Trust property. Just before his death, he was given a cat called ‘Jock’ by his private secretary, who was also called Jock, and when Chartwell was given to the nation it was on the condition that a ginger tom cat called Jock would always have free reign of the estate… which still does to this day. There is currently a Jock the Sixth.
CW: So there will forever be Jocks at Chartwell?
CD: Yes – yes, yes. Then when he moved to Number 10 as Prime Minister, in 1940, he brought a number of animals with him, including some dogs – he was very fond of all sorts of animals, actually. Particularly a cat called Nelson who he had adopted after seeing him outside the Admiralty buildings in London – hence the name he gave him, after Admiral Nelson, because he said it was ‘the bravest cat he ever knew’, as the first time he saw it, it was chasing a dog out of the Admiralty building. So yeah, there have always been cats hanging around Downing Street – both official and unofficial.
CW: We have some files, don’t we?
CD: Well, there’s certainly a thing about when the Home Office was moving during the Second World War, and interestingly I think it shows how important the cats were for both moral and for trying to keep the rat population down. So, during the Second World War quite a lot of less central functions of government departments moved out of London because of the bombing that was going on. So, certain functions weren’t necessarily having to be concentrated within central London; it was useful to move there somewhere where they wouldn’t be threatened by air raids continuously, including parts of the Home Office that were moved to Bournemouth for the duration of the war. And some of the staff who were put down in some lodging houses found they had a problem with mice, and they had two separate buildings, and so they wrote to the Home Office to ask if they could have some money to provide for two cats to cover these two buildings and there was some concern on the Home Office’s part. Over whether these cats, if they were male and female, might go on to have a litter.
CW: It’s a problem isn’t it.
CW: And then they’d have to send another letter.
CD: Yes, and so effectively they get quite a humorous letter back. Cats seem to inspire poetry amongst some of the Home Office staff and the public, as we will see as we go through the other letters we pulled out from this file.
CW: So this is a letter here from…?
CD: It’s from someone in the establishment, the division of the Home Office, and he’s writing to his colleagues in Bournemouth who are asking for these extra cats.
CD: So he decides to reply to their request in verse, which I will now read. So here it is – this is from the 4 February 1941, and he replies to this request for getting two cats down in Bournemouth: “Establishment’s approval seek / To spend say one in six per week / For beverage and food (ersatz) / On each of Bournemouth’s office cats. / This situation is complex / Because we do not know their sex / To pay for grub we hesitate / For pussies who may propagate. / But if they’ll give a guarantee / That they won’t produce a family / Of little mousers of their ilk / Will meet the cost of food and milk.” …And then another gentleman from the establishment division says: “I agree with his minute, subject to the proviso in the third stanza. I think approval should be given if you agree”. So they were given their cats on the condition that they made sure they got two females or two males. So I think what a lot of this proves is how much people enjoy cats and also that they do seem to be continually probably the most effective way of controlling rodent populations.
CW: And inspiring great poetry.
CD: Yes, great poetry is possibly stretching it, but poetry, yes.
CW: What happened after Peter left?
CD: What, after Peter left the Home Office?
CW: In 1946, yes.
CD: Yes, so after his roaring, quite lengthy, career in the Home Office, Peter was unfortunately put down in 1946 at the age of 17. But he was replaced the next month by a new black cat – kitten – called Peter the Second, fittingly. Unfortunately he did not have the same illustrious career that his forebears did: he was killed by a car while crossing the road in Whitehall very early in the morning, about 6 months after he arrived. He was crossing from the Home Office to the cenotaph, I believe. But then he was again replaced quite rapidly – again, a black cat called Peter III. That was on the 27 August 1947. And I would go this as far to say that he saw the first superstar cat of Whitehall. He inspires great affection from both the staff of the Home Office and the country as a whole and actually overseas as well… he seems to have built quite a staggering fan base in Italy as well. I’m not quite sure how. From Peter’s death in 1964 (so he has a very long career) there was a great outpouring of affection for him when he died, both from members of staff and from further afield. Probably because of how much media attention he got. He appeared on the BBC programme Tonight in 1958 and he then appeared in several magazines afterwards, so he seems to have got quite a media following. So when he passed away, there were a lot of letters of condolence and actually there was a staff subscription, which I think the public contributed to a little bit as well, to get him a marble head stone in the PDSA (so that’s the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) pet cemetery in Ilford.
CW: Is it still there today?
CD: I don’t know – but there a Peter Memorial society for a long time that occasionally met to remember him.
CW: And I hear he had a good friend in New York?
CD: He did.
CW: A feline friend?
CD: Yes, a feline friend – the Etti-cat, who was the New York transit authority’s cat. Their job was to try to encourage manners and etiquette upon the subway. So he received this letter from the Etti-cat, in 1964 when he died. It’s got a lovely picture of the Etti-cat, who is black with white boots. OK so: “Please accept the deep and warm condolences of the Etti-cat, a working cat of the transit authority (underground) of the great New York. The Etti-cat promotes courtesy (etiquette) among subway riders. We read of the passing of Peter with sincere regret. If it would be possible to have a photograph of him we would like it for our scrapbook. Most sincerely, Miss Jo Mary McCormack and the Etti-cat (also known as the Rectory Cat).”
CD: Indeed. But there’s also a lot of other letters… there are quite a few in in Italian there in the file as well. I had to google translate some of them… but again, great affection for Peter. I don’t know why he achieved a following in Italy and America, but nowhere else. And there’s a poem as well that was sent in…
CW: After Peter the Third had died?
CD: Yes. It’s good.
CW: Shall we hear it?
CD: “In remembrance of Peter, the cat we hope is now at rest / who served sixteen years at the Home Office, giving his best / so Peter in his coffin, was carried to his grave / By the carpenter who made it from the P.D.S.A. / We all loved dear old Peter and feel sure that he will go / to another land where he will meet little friends of long ago / If green pastures be in heaven, and animals there go / There’s none deserve it more than the Whitehall cat we knew. / God made these lovely creatures all different as can be / How did he conjure up such variety / So God bless dear old Peter and all his contemporaries / It is the wish of all earthly friends and pets such as these.” People were very touched by his death. He had been there for a long time.
CW: So after Peter… well, that’s a difficult pair of shoes to fill.
CD: Yes, indeed. Almost insurmountable, I think.
CW: But this is a good time, because this is where the first female cat came in…
CD: Yes, indeed. Yes, so Peta… rather different as well in the way she was acquired. So, not long after Peter’s death, the Home Office received a telegram from the Deputy Governor of the Isle of Man. “The Isle of Man has just learned of the unhappy demise of the Home Office Cat. Happy to offer in its place a pedigree tail-less Manx cat, guaranteed minimum nine lives”. So that was from Ronald Garvey, who was Deputy Governor. And so the cat was offered and accepted – Manx cats are tailless as a fact. And so they received an adoption certificate and everything. She was called ‘Manninagh Katedhu (I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly and I apologise to anybody who is Manx). I think it means ‘Manx cat’ effectively. But she was very quickly renamed within sort of Home Office standards to Peta. So she arrived in May 1964, but she didn’t last that long.
CW: She didn’t go down very well it seems. I’ve seen some complaints here from staff, but with the public it seemed she was a hit.
CD: Yes, very much.
CW: Yes, maybe we can pull out some choice lines from these letters rather than give them a platform… because overall they’re just quite negative…
CD: They are. Well, there’s one here asking for her to be banned from the ground floors. This is in March 1967. Because “day after day she leaves the most unpleasant smell”. And here, someone’s asking for the cat to actually be put down! Unless it can be prevented from frequenting the ground floor… it mentions that they think that it’s probably connected with her overfeeding by staff.
CW: There’s another one you’ve got here as well… Yeah this one here I’m looking at says… it looks like it might be a memo…
CD: Yes I think it’s an internal minute.
CW: It says “Peta, the Home Office cat, is getting inordinately fat and has recently become a source of nuisance and embarrassment to the occupants of a number of rooms in the building”. They basically believe that overfeeding is jeopardising her house training… so this is the same problem that happened before, it’s what happens with all the cats.
CD: Yes. And also she got into a bit of trouble because she may have been implicated in an attack upon the wife of the Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
CW: Oh really?
CD: Yeah I think she may have actually been unfairly accused, but the file includes a clipping from the 30 June 1967 in the Daily Express. Now the Wilsons have their own cat called Nemo, a Siamese cat, and effectively a black cat was seen fighting with Nemo outside Number 10. And Mrs Wilson went to intervene and was scratched by the belligerent cat. The scratch went septic and she was actually prevented from having dinner with the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Morro.
CW: I wonder if that’s connected to the success of the cats in Italy in any way.
CD: I mean maybe, although that may have finished the reputation of British Government cats in Italy. But, although she was put in the frame there was suspicion thrown upon her. There’s a lovely picture of her in the corridors of Home Office actually, in the newspaper clipping. You can see her there right in the corridors of power. But, the reports of the attack on Mrs Wilson were for a black and white cat with a tail. Now, Peta was all black…
CW: And definitely had no tail!
CD: So, I think she had a bit of a reputation and was unfairly accused, possibly. We’ll never know. Yes, so by 1967 she was described as “inordinately fat and lazy in her habits, and somewhat incontinent I think”. And so, in 1968 she was sent away for ‘re-education’ and ‘put out to grass’. I thought, you know, when I first read that, looking through the file, I was horrified that that might be some sort of euphemism for… euphanasia. But it’s not. She definitely moves, and I think she was still alive in the 70s.
CW: That’s good to be hear. Because she had some very fond fans.
CD: She did.
CW: I mean, I’m looking at some letters now that are from one little girl who’s five, and she repeatedly wrote…
CD: She writes twice. Yes she said some lovely things.
CW: Yes it’s beautiful. It’s written on some lined paper and it basically says: “Dear Peta, I have read all about you and saw you on TV…” So she made an appearance too… “I hope you will be very happy in your new home. Last year, I was on holiday in London and I went to see Peter but he was out at the time. I have a framed photo of Peter and one day I hope to have one of you. I love pussycats”.That’s beautiful isn’t it. And then she follows up later – she doesn’t forget about her – she says: “Dear Peta, I hope you’re getting along all right and still like your new home”.
CD: That’s a Christmas card, isn’t it.
CW: Yes. It’s a Christmas card with a poem about a little girl and her cat… Lovely: “Wishing you a very jolly Christmas”.
CD: Yes unfortunately, despite the public’s affection for her, Peta was ‘sent to the country’ and I think she lived a relatively long and happy life there. She wasn’t cut out for central government, unfortunately.
CD: Stressful business.
CW: Must be. And so Peta marked the end of the Peter/Peta trend, because the name changed after that didn’t it.
CD: Yes so subsequently there was a bit of ‘if you had trouble with that cat, don’t get another one.’
CW: Oh so does the file end with Peta?
CD: Yes. For the Home Office Cat certainly, but the story of cats in Whitehall does continue.
CW: If the public want to see these records, they can right?
CD: They can indeed.
CW: Also, if people want to find out more about it, we do have a blog on our National Archives website.
CD: Yes, written by me.
CW: Yes, where you can find out more details about some of the files.
CD: I think it’s called ‘The bureau-cats at the heart of government’ – not bureaucrats, bureau-cats.
CD: Then if you’re interested in looking at the file where a lot of this correspondence came from then the file is called the ‘Official Home Office Cat’ and you’ll find it under the document reference: HO 223 / 43. I would recommend looking at it as it’s a fantastic file.
CW: Yes, there are more treats in there than we’ve managed to cover today. Thank you.
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