10 top cats in history
From Wilberforce the cat, who was Chief Mouser to four British prime ministers, to the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet, history is full of remarkable moggies. Here we revisit BBC History Revealed's pick of history’s record-breaking and most fearless felines – the indisputable leaders of the gang...
In April 1949, during the Chinese Civil War, HMS Amethyst was sent up the Yangtze River to protect the British Embassy in Nanking (Nanjing) when it came under fire. The frigate ran aground, resulting in the deaths of 17 crewmen, where it was stuck for three months.
Also onboard was a cat named Simon (main image), who, even though he had been injured by a shell blast, continued to protect the food stores by catching rats. He also boosted the men’s morale during their ordeal. Simon died three weeks after returning to Britain and was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin medal for bravery. He remains the only cat to receive this honour.
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It is said that cats have nine lives – if so, one particularly lucky (and possibly apocryphal) moggy in World War II used a few of his. In May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck was sunk, with only around 110 of the 2,300-strong crew surviving. But from the water, a cat was rescued by the crew of HMS Cossack, who named him Oscar.
The Cossack then suffered a torpedo attack and sank near Gibraltar. Oscar survived again – and became ‘Unsinkable Sam’ – but bad luck still stalked the poor cat. He was picked up by HMS Ark Royal, which was later torpedoed near Malta. With Oscar/Sam having lived through three sinkings in just six months, it was decided he had seen enough of the sea and was sent to a seamen’s home.
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Mrs Chippy was a ship’s cat, but on no ordinary ship: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance. The striped tabby Mrs Chippy belonged to carpenter Harry ‘Chippy’ McNeish – it would be a month into the voyage before he realised his cat was actually male.
Sadly, after the ship got stuck in the ice, Mrs Chippy was shot as it was determined that he could not survive. McNeish would eventually reunite with his beloved Mrs Chippy, in a way, when a statue of the cat was placed on his grave in New Zealand.
During the Blitz, one brave tabby seemed to have a life-saving premonition. Faith had been adopted by the rector of St Augustine Church, near St Paul’s when, in early September 1940, she was seen carrying her kitten, Panda, down to the church basement. Although the kitten was returned upstairs several times, Faith kept taking him away again.
A few days later, on 9 September, a bombing raid destroyed the church, leaving just the tower. Firefighters believed nothing could have survived. Yet Faith and Panda were found cuddled up amongst smouldering timber and rubble. She was awarded a medal for courage by the PDSA, presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
No 10 Downing Street has been home to the British Prime Minister for nearly 300 years, but such an old building doesn’t come without its fair share of issues. Rats and mice have long been a recurring problem, requiring a Chief Mouser to be in residence.
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Wilberforce is believed to have held the role for the longest time so far, serving under a total of four Prime Ministers, from Edward Heath through to Margaret Thatcher. He was reported to be excellent in his role.
When British and French forces entered the Crimean port of Sevastopol, in September 1855, they were met with a devastated and starving city reeling from a year-long siege. Among the survivors was a cat, rescued by British Lieutenant William Gair and named Crimean Tom.
Gair noticed that while everyone around him was desperate for food, Tom seemed well fed. The soldiers followed the cat one day and found a store room full of food, saving the troops from starvation. Tom was brought back to England as a pet by Gair, who later had him stuffed.
Cats were so vital in the fight against food-store-destroying pests in Ancient Egypt that they were regarded as sacred. Gods took the form of a feline, including Bastet. Originally a lioness, but later morphed into a cat, she was the goddess of pregnancy and childbirth.
The city of Bubastis became her central worshipping site, where sacred cats were kept in her temple. Such was their love of cats that the Egyptians even mummified their moggies – thousands have been discovered.
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Found on the streets of Paris, Félicette was chosen to go to space, following a dog and chimp. She was put through space training, including compression chamber exercises, and had electrodes surgically inserted into her brain. Félicette was chosen as she was the only potential ‘astrocat’ to be the correct weight on the launch day.
The sub-orbital flight on 18 October 1963 lasted for 13 minutes, before Félicette returned to Earth safely. Although, she was later killed for more tests.
Of course, every cat is the star of whatever room they are in, but Beerbohm was intent on being famous. The resident cat at the Gielgud Theatre in London (then called the Globe), he was renowned for walking into dressing rooms and attacking props.
The crafty cat even tread the boards himself as he wandered across the stage during performances. Perhaps he had his heart set on an acting career? He is the only cat to have received a front-page obituary in The Stage.
Cats may have a reputation for being less loyal than dogs, but Sir Henry Wyatt would probably disagree. The English courtier made an enemy of Richard III and, according to family legend, was imprisoned, possibly in the Tower of London. He only survived by befriending a cat who brought him food such as pigeons. The cat became known as Wyatt’s caterer.
When Henry VII ascended the throne, Wyatt was released. A memorial to Wyatt sits in St Mary the Virgin and All Saints Church, Maidstone, crediting his survival to the cat.
This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed
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