Cats with their ambivalent status – cherished family pets or witches’ familiars – have always had a whiff of the night about them. Until recently, black cats were seen as bringers of good luck but that now seems to be changing. According to the manager of an Animal Rescue Centre in north London, black cats are difficult to rehome because people now associate them with witchcraft, evil and bad luck. This seems to be borne out by my entirely unscientific trawl of greetings card shelves in various shops; the once ubiquitous black cat on “Good luck” cards has now been largely supplanted by shamrocks, horseshoes and a variety of cuddly animals.
Cats and humans have had a long but somewhat chequered association. Although worshipped as gods in Ancient Egypt, Egyptian tomb paintings also depicted the cat’s more utilitarian role as a hunter of wild fowl.
Image from: The cat past and present by M. Champfleury (1885)
Introduced to Britain by the Romans for their vermin exterminating prowess, cats suffered a severe reversal of fortune in the Middle Ages, especially in continental Europe. Sacrificed to promote the growth of fruit trees or to prevent evil spirits harming the crops, cats appear to have been seen simultaneously as both the Devil’s representative in feline form and as the possessors of magically protective properties.
The celebration of St John’s Day in France was especially dangerous for cats; even in the 16th century it was considered an encouragement to good behaviour to throw a few cats in the fire at this festival. On Wednesday of the second week in Lent it had been the custom to hurl a cat from the top of the tower of Ypres until this barbarous practice was forbidden in 1618.
So, given their ever-shifting status, the fact that cats have been found immured in walls or under floorboards, either as magical protection or vermin-scares, may seem peculiarly apt. Discounting cats which have been accidentally trapped or which have deliberately sought out a quiet spot in which to die, many instances exist over the centuries of dried or mummified cats found in places where they must have been positioned quite deliberately.
In 1950, during Ministry of Works’ alterations to a Wren building in the Tower of London precincts, one such cat was found lying against a joist beside a corner fireplace under the floor of an upper room. During post-war repairs to the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal in the City, a cat was found built into a sealed passage under the roof. As this passage had not been opened since 1691, the cat may have been placed there by one of Wren’s masons when the church was built in 1687. Was this a pale memory of foundation sacrifice, a propitiatory offering to the gods to ensure luck for the new building?
Since St Michael Paternoster Royal was the burial place of Lord Mayor Richard [Dick] Whittington, possibly the most famous cat owner in English history, such a find had a pleasing symmetry. For some years the mummified cat was kept on display in a glass case in the church – London mystery & mythology by William Kent (1952) has a photograph of Lord Mayor Sir Frederick Michael Wells inspecting said cat – but by the time Antony Clayton was researching his book on The folklore of London (2008) the cat had been stolen or otherwise disappeared.
In his quest for mummified cats, Clayton had better luck with the North London incarnation of Whittington’s cat. A correspondent to Notes and queries in 1931 had noted that, prior to rebuilding, the front window of the Whittington and Cat pub on Highgate Hill, had contained the skeleton of a cat found embedded in one of the walls, and Clayton found the “black leathery body” of a cat towards the rear of this pub, mounted in a makeshift display case.
From the mouth of this cat hung a similarly mummified mouse, so this may fall within the vermin-scare category of mummy cats. The rationale behind such charms was presumably akin to that of a scarecrow in a field, and the addition of at least one rat or mouse was no doubt intended to render it even more efficacious than the presence of a cat alone. In December 1948 there appeared in the Illustrated London News a photograph of a cat with two rats which had been found beneath 16th century woodwork in a house in Borough High Street, Southwark. In an elaborately staged tableau, the cat holds in its jaws a rat which is struggling to escape, while another rat, under the cat’s forepaws, writhes upwards as if trying to bite its attacker (shown below).
Image from: Illustrated London News, December 18 1948, page 693
Similarly, when a house in Lothbury was demolished in 1803 a cat with a rat in its mouth was discovered between the wall and the wainscotting of a room. This specimen, together with another found in Lord Yarborough’s old house in Chelsea, is now in the Sir John Soane’s Museum.
If cats were placed in buildings as a lucky charm it follows that, to the superstitious, bad luck will follow their removal. In the entrance lobby of the Mill Hotel at Sudbury, Suffolk is a small glass-topped case containing a mummified cat. When the cat was first discovered during renovation work at the mill in the 1970s, it was given to an art shop. This shop subsequently burnt down and this, combined with various other misfortunes, led to the cat being returned to the mill. In a similar vein, an article in the Sunday Express of 14 April 1985 headlined “The curse of ancient puss,” related how a host of accidents had dogged the builders who had discovered a mummified cat at an old house in Coggeshall, Essex.
Finally, and possibly to the relief of cat lovers, there are instances of miniature wooden cats being deliberately hidden in old buildings. In each case their location – at the junction of an outside wall and the timbers supporting the first floor in a late 15th/early 16th century cottage at Braintree in Essex; secreted between the false and original ceilings of a late 17th century manor house at Lawford, also in Essex; and in the thatched roof of a 16th or 17th century house at East Hendred, Berkshire – militates against these being playthings accidentally lost by children. The Lawford cat had been wrapped in, or was at least near, a piece of newspaper dated 1796, showing how late such beliefs flourished.