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Thomas Bewick’s Cat

June 28, 2014
by the gentle author

Accompanying my volumes of Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, I also managed to discover a copy of his General History of Quadrupeds from 1824 in the Spitalfields Market and – of course – I turned first to his entry upon the domestic cat, from which I publish these excerpts below.

To describe an animal so well known might seem a superfluous task – we shall only, therefore, select some of its peculiarities as are least obvious and may have escaped the notice of inattentive observers.

It is generally remarked that Cats can see in the dark, but though this is not absolutely the case, yet it is certain that they can see with much less light than other animals, owing to the peculiar structure of their eyes – the pupils of which are capable of being contracted or dilated in proportion to the degree of light by which they are affected. The pupil of the Cat, during the day, is perpetually contracted and it is with difficulty that it can see in strong light, but in the twilight the pupil regains its natural roundness, the animal enjoys perfect vision and takes advantage of this superiority to discover and surprise its prey.

The cry of the Cat is loud, piercing and clamorous, and whether expressive of anger or of love is equally violent and hideous. Its call may be heard at a great distance and is so well known to the whole fraternity that, on some occasions, several hundred Cats have been brought together from different parts. Invited by the piercing cries of distress from a suffering fellow creature, they assemble in crowds and with loud squalls and yells express their horrid sympathies. They frequently tear the miserable object to pieces and, with the most blind and furious rage, fall upon each other, killing and wounding indiscriminately, till there is scarcely one left. These terrible conflicts happen only in the night.

The Cat is particularly averse to water, cold and bad smells. It is fond of certain perfumes but is more particularly attracted by the smell of valerian and cat mint – it rubs itself against them and if not prevented will infallibly destroy them.

Though extremely useful in destroying the vermin that infest our houses, the Cat seems little attached to the persons of those who afford it protection. It appears to be under no subjection and acts only for itself.

All its views are confined to the place where it has been brought up. If carried elsewhere, it seems lost and bewildered, and frequently takes the first opportunity of escaping to its former haunts. Frequent instances are recollected of Cats having returned to the place from whence they have been carried, though at many miles distance, and even across rivers, where they could not possibly have any knowledge of the road or the situation that would apparently lead them to it.

In the time of Hoel the Good, King of Wales, who died in the year 948, laws were made to fix the different prices of animals, among which the Cat was included as being at that period of great importance on account if its scarceness and utility. The price of a kitten was fixed at one penny, till proof could be given of its having caught a mouse twopence, after which it was rated as fourpence which was a great sum in those days.

If anyone should steal or kill the Cat that guarded the Prince’s granary, he was either to forfeit a milk ewe, or her fleece and lamb, or as much wheat as when poured on the Cat suspended by its tail would form a heap high enough to cover the tip of the former.

Hence we may conclude that Cats were not originally native of these islands, and from the great care taken to improve and preserve the breed of this prolific creature, we may suppose, were but little known in that period. Whatever credit we may allow to the circumstances of the well known story of Whittington and his Cat, it is another proof of the great value set upon this animal in former times.

You may also like to read about

Blackie, the Last Spitalfields Market Cat

Christopher Smart & his Cat Jeoffry

Mr Pussy in Summer

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

East End Cats

6 Responses leave one →
  1. June 28, 2014

    Wonderful engravings and text! Valerie

  2. Victoria permalink
    June 28, 2014

    I’m so glad you turned to the feline section to share first. Loved reading Bewick’s account, more please from this volume!

  3. Rose permalink
    June 28, 2014

    another great entry. Make’s me think that final engraving was inspiration for the Owl and the Pussycat – creating a web of nonsense and intrigue embracing Berwick and Lear and you and me.

  4. Bubastes permalink
    June 28, 2014

    this is really fantastic, illustrations and text!

  5. Les Heasman permalink
    July 1, 2014

    fantastic! Many thanks for this 🙂

  6. May 17, 2018

    I know you posted this lovely piece some years ago, but I have trawled through pages of Bewick’s woodcuts, and have been unable to trace the cat in the barrel at sea. I wonder if you could point me in the direction, please. It didn’t seem to be in the online (facsimile) edition of the General History of Quadrupeds. Thank you so much… My email if it’s easier than a comment here or on my blog is

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