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Blackie, the Last Spitalfields Market Cat

August 16, 2010
by the gentle author

Here you see Blackie, the last Spitalfields market cat, taking a nap in the premises of Williams Watercress at 11 Gun St. Presiding over Blackie – as she sleeps peacefully among the watercress boxes before the electric fire with her dishes of food and water to hand – is Jim, the nightman who oversaw the premises from six each evening until two next morning, on behalf of Len Williams the proprietor.

This black and white photograph by Robert Davis, with a nineteenth century barrow wheel in the background and a nineteen fifties heater in the foreground, could have been taken almost any time in the second half of the twentieth century. Only the date on the “Car Girls’ Calendar” betrays it as 1990, the penultimate year of the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, before it moved East to Stratford, the same year that Mark Jackson and Huw Davies took their pictures recording the market, which I published in the Spring.

In spite of Jim the nightman’s fond expression, Blackie was no pet, she was a working animal who earned her keep killing rats. Underneath the market were vaults to store fresh produce, which had to be sold within three days – formalised as first, second and third day prices – with each day’s price struck at two in the morning. But the traders often forgot about the fruit and vegetables down in the basement and it hung around more than three days, and with the spillage on the road which local residents and the homeless came to scavenge, it caused the entire market to become a magnet for vermin, running through the streets and into the labyrinth beneath the buildings.

It must have been paradise for a cat that loved to hunt, like Blackie. With her jet black fur, so black she was like a dark hole in the world running round on legs, vanishing into the shadow and appearing from nowhere to pounce upon a rat and take its life with her needle-sharp claws, Blackie was a lethally efficient killer. Not a submissive creature that could be easily stroked and petted as domestic cats are, Blackie was a proud beast that walked on her own, learnt the secret of survival on the streets and won independent status, affection and respect through her achievements in vermin control.

“They were all very pleased with Blackie for her great skill in catching rats, she was the last great market cat.” confirmed Jim Howett, a furniture maker who first met Blackie when he moved into a workshop above the watercress seller in 1988. “The other traders would queue up for kittens from Blackie’s sister’s litters because they were so good at rat-catching. Blackie brought half-dead rats back to teach them how to do it. Such was Blackie’s expertise, it was said she could spot a poisoned rat at a hundred feet. The porters used to marvel that when they said, ‘Blackie, there’s a rat,’ Blackie would  focus and if the rat showed any weakness, would wobble, or walk uncertainly, she would turn her back, and return to the fire – because the rat was ill, and most likely poisoned. And after all, Blackie was the last cat standing,” continued Jim, recounting tales of this noble creature that has become a legend in Spitalfields today. “The story was often told of the kitten trained by Blackie, taken by a restaurant and hotel in the country. One day it brought a half-dead rat into the middle of a Rotary Club Function, seeking approval as it had learnt in Spitalfields, and the guests ran screaming.”

The day the Fruit & Vegetable Market left in 1991, Blackie adjusted, no longer crossing the road to the empty market building instead she concentrated on maintaining the block of buildings on Brushfield St as her territory by patrolling the rooftops. By now she was an old cat and eventually could only control the three corner buildings, and one day Charles Gledhill a book binder who lived with his wife Marianna Kennedy at 42 Brushfield St, noticed a shadow fly past his window. It was Blackie that he saw, she had fallen from the gutter and broken a leg on the pavement below. “We all liked Blackie, and we took care of her after the market left,” explained Jim, with a regretful smile, “so we took her to the vet who was amazed, he said, ‘What are you doing with this old feral cat?’, because Blackie had a fierce temper, she was always hissing and growling.”

“But Blackie recovered, and on good days she would cross the road and sun herself on palettes, although on other days she did not move from the fire. She became very thin and we put her in the window of A.Gold to enjoy the sun. One day Blackie was stolen from there. We heard a woman had been seen carrying her towards Liverpool St in a box but we couldn’t find her, so we put up signs explaining that Blackie was so thin because she was a very old cat. Two weeks later, Blackie was returned in a fierce mood by the lady who taken her, she apologised and ran away. Blackie had a sojourn in Milton Keynes! We guessed the woman was horrified with this feral creature that growled and scratched and hissed and arched its back. After that, Blackie got stiffer and stiffer, and one day she stood in the centre of the floor and we knew she wasn’t going to move again. She died of a stroke that nightThe market porters told me Blackie was twenty when she died, as old as any cat could be.”

Everyone knows the tale of Dick Whittington, the first Lord Mayor of London whose cat was instrumental to his success. This story reminds us that for centuries a feline presence was essential to all homes and premises in London. It was a serious business to keep the rats and mice at bay, killing vermin that ate supplies and brought plague. Over its three centuries of operation, there were innumerable generations of cats bred for their ratting abilities at the Spitalfields Market, but it all ended with Blackie. Like Tess of the D’Urbevilles or The Last of the Mohicans, the tale of Blackie, the Last Great Spitalfields Market Cat contains the story of all that came before. Cats were the first animals to be domesticated, long before dogs, and so our connection with felines is the oldest human relationship with an animal, based up the exchange of food and shelter in return for vermin control.

Even though Blackie – who came to incarnate the spirit of the ancient market itself – died in 1995, four years after the traders left, her progeny live on as domestic pets in the East End and there are plenty of similar black short-haired cats with golden eyes around Spitalfields today. I spotted one that lives in the aptly named Puma Court recently, and, of course, there is Madge who resides in Folgate St at Dennis Severs’ House, and Mr Pussy whose origins lie in Mile End but who has shown extraordinary prowess as a hunter in Devon – catching rabbits and even moorhens – which surely makes him a worthy descendant of Blackie.

Blackie at 42 Brushfield St.

Blackie in her final years, in 1991/2.

Mid-nineteenth century print of Dick Whittington & his cat.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. August 16, 2010

    Even though I have to accept that most of our cats and dogs will die before us I still had a little cry reading this wonderrfull story. I spent a lot of my teenage years working on my local farm where we had a feral colony of small Black Cats. Adel Mill farm(N’Leeds) was at least 400 yrs old and used to be a hub for all the other farms in the area as we had a river dam and a grinding wheel for wheat and barley.(years before my time and the invention of electricity). These feral cats lived all over the many hey lofts . At milking time, morning and evening we would put down a churn top of fresh milk and the felines would come running and get their fill. Sometimes there would be as many as thirteen girl cats drinking. Thats all we gave them as they lived off all the vermin that the farm provides. Rarely did we see males as they roam. Every 6 months males would return and serve the females. Imagine ten cats all having kittens at the same time. My job was to search out all the litters and box them up for the vet to humanely cull. This was neccessary to keep the colony healthy and strong. If too many kittens were kept then the colony would get too big and decease could spread through them as there would be more competition for the food! I hated doing this, but it is part of our job to manage the countryside and keep there numbers reasonable! These small, short haired black cats all had a little diamond of white on their necks so were distinguishable and you could often see some of their relatives that had been domesticated when delivering the milk around our village of Adel. Just before I left my job at the Mill farm I found a couple of kittens of a different colour in amongst all the other kittens. We decided to keep these little fawn ones as we thought it time for some new blood. You cant interbreed forever as the off~spring would get smaller and smaller and weaker and weaker. Now I live in Islington and I have 3 cats. Needless to say, one of them”Spitz” is a big black cat. He is the youngest of my 3 cats. My dog “Harley” died recently and he was the well known big black lurcher cross dog of Brick Lane on Sundays. We used to work at a coffee shop,(coffe@) slap bang in the middle of Brick Lane. Everyone knew him as he was so friendly and such fun. He is sorely missed by me and many others who had the privaledge to meet him. I still haven’t written about his life as I have found the memory of his death too emotional, but soon I must!
    Thanx for bringing back such loverly memories, all my love Angella~Dee x x

  2. August 20, 2010

    Sometimes you have to reread a line to fully savor it:

    “…so black she was like a dark hole in the world running round on legs…”

    If I were a market cat, I’d print that on my calling card!

  3. May 23, 2011

    I also have a black cat named blackie and they look very similar and have the same temperment too!

  4. jeannette permalink
    December 30, 2011

    i missed this one first time around. wonderful to think of a working cat being so instrumental, and to think of the people of spitalfields each taking her in, in turn. as always, you persuade people to dig out and part with the pix, too. wonderful work.

  5. Alexandra Marier permalink
    June 4, 2012

    Animals can certainly have very imposing, magnificent personalities. It’s very touching how everyone in the neighbourhood knew, loved and appreciated Blackie for what she was. What a splendid story! Thank you.

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