The Last Spitalfields Market Cat
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.
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 night. The 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 my old cat, Mr Pussy whose origins lie in Mile End but 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, 1991/2
Mid-nineteenth century print of Dick Whittington & his cat