Volunteer contributor Azmina Gulamhusein has looked at some influential figures whose lives and work were enriched by their love of cats.
Scientist Sir Isaac Newton, best known for discovering gravity, was very fond of his cat Spithead. When Newton was carrying out experiments with light in a darkened attic, Spithead kept disturbing him by nudging open the door. Newton had a cat-sized hole cut in the door and hung a black cloth over it to keep out the light. Spithead was now free to come and go as she pleased, while Newton could concentrate on his scientific experiments. This is claimed to have been the first cat flap.
Renowned author Charles Dickens once said: “What greater gift than the love of a cat?” His own white cat was initially named William, after Shakespeare; however, he renamed the cat Williamina when she gave birth to kittens! One of the kittens became known as the master’s cat and would sit with Dickens while he wrote by candlelight for hours on end.
To get his attention, this kitty would mischievously put out the candle with his paw! In 1862, Dickens was distraught when his beloved cat died. As a lasting memento, he arranged for his pet’s paw to be stuffed and mounted on a specially engraved ivory letter opener. It is now on display at the New York Public Library.
Edward Lear, best remembered for his humorous poems and illustrations, adopted a tabby kitten called Foss in 1873 who was a source of comfort and joy. Lear made charming drawings of them together and Foss inspired his most famous poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. In later life, Foss continued to bring Lear solace as he battled with depression and loneliness.
When Lear moved to San Remo in Italy, he asked architects to design an exact replica of his old house in England to avoid confusing Foss. At the age of 17, Foss sadly died and was buried with an inscribed tombstone in his master’s Italian garden. Lear survived his devoted feline companion by only two months.
During the Crimean War of 1853–1856, Florence Nightingale nursed wounded British soldiers in hospital wards infested with rats. She was delighted when a soldier gave her a small cat to help control the rodents. Nightingale observed how pets provided therapy for her patients. Over her lifetime, Nightingale owned more than 60 cats. She was chronically ill after the Crimean War ended, but a family of Persian cats gave her companionship.
Nightingale served these cats specially prepared food on china plates and they left ink paw prints on many of her letters! For the last two decades of her life, Nightingale was bedridden. Her cats would lie on her pillow and made this difficult period more bearable. Before she died at the age of 90, Nightingale made arrangements in her will for the cats’ ongoing care.
Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was a dedicated cat lover. His biographer, William Manchester, recalled an amusing incident when Churchill was on the phone to the Lord Chancellor and his tabby cat, Mickey, started playing with the telephone cord. Churchill shouted, ‘Get off the line, you fool!’ then, realising how this might be interpreted, quickly reassured the Lord Chancellor: ‘Not you!’ During the Second World War, Churchill praised the war effort of his grey cat Nelson – ‘He acts as a hot-water bottle and saves fuel, power and energy!’ – and he referred to his last cat Jock, who was ginger with a white chest and paws, as his special assistant.
Apparently, meals in the household did not begin until Jock was at the table. It is thought that Jock was lying on his master’s bed when he died at the age of 90. After Churchill’s death, Jock continued to live at his country house, Chartwell, in Kent, which eventually became a National Trust property. Churchill’s family requested that there should always be a marmalade cat named Jock at Chartwell, and when the original Jock died in 1975, another ginger puss called Jock II was welcomed to the estate. This tradition continues and Jock VII, a young, handsome ginger rescue cat, is the present occupant.
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