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The Great Cat & Dog Massacre

November 26, 2017
by Hilda Kean

Hilda Kean introduces her new book The Great Cat & Dog Massacre – The Real Story of the Second World War’s Unknown Tragedy, recently published by University of Chicago Press

Blue Cross rescue of a cat (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

Frequently we hear the Second World War described as  “The People’s War” and this phrase has become set in the public imagination, but – too often – the experiences of our own (or our relatives’) cats and dogs at the time are forgotten. Of the start of the war in September 1939, much is remembered. Certainly we remember that at the time school children were evacuated to the countryside, blackout curtains were made and even flower beds were starting to be dug up to create vegetable patches. Yet such positive action was rather different to what happened to cats and dogs at the start of the war.

In September 1939, many animals were killed by their owners. Politician Sir Robert Gower, who was also the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of  Cruelty to Animals, argued that at the decisions of ordinary people themselves nearly 750,000 pet animals were killed. Later the RSPCA and Brigadier Clabby, the author of the official history of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, declared that 400,000, representing around 26% of cats and dogs in London alone, pet animals were killed. And this killing happened in the first week of the war in September 1939.

These acts of killing were not imposed by the government, but were undertaken by people taking their pet animals to vets and animal charities. Yet these were not the explicit decisions of the charitable organisations. Prior to the war, the RSPCA organised a conference on horse welfare involving many organisations and – in partnership with the National Air Raid Precautions Committee and with Home Office support – set up a body “to advise on all problems affecting animals in wartime.” Vets were annoyed and, with too little involvement from the government, they issued their own literature arguing that it was their responsibility to persuade people from having their pets killed.

But at the start of the war thousands of animals were killed. The RSPCA, the oldest animal charity in the world, reported the number of dogs and cats being brought in to be destroyed had doubled at its London clinics, and wrote “the work of destroying animals was continued, day and night, during the first week of the war.” The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, well known for its work in East London, noted that destructors were overwhelmed by thousands of animals brought for death to its clinics. Then the National Canine Defence League, set up in the eighteen-nineties to protect dogs at a time of rabies hysteria, reported that, so extensive was the slaughter of dogs, its supplies of choloroform had been exhausted. The Battersea Dogs’ Home killed fewer than other charities, having argued in the Bow and Battersea branches that people should take their animals home. Even at London Zoo there was an initial killing of poisonous snakes, and some birds including kestrels, herons and kites that were observed flying over Regent’s Park. Yet after a few months, many zoo animals were financially sponsored and continuing their lives there at the zoo  – even including a dormouse paid for at the cost of a shilling per week !

During the war the government did much to ensure the status of dogs and cats including through BBC broadcasts. By Spring 1942, it was widely publicised that cats were doing work of “national importance.” Again the BBC would praise the NARPAC for offering  free identification discs with the animal’s own collar. Less than half-way through the war, over three and a half million animals became registered and wore large blue and white discs.

Internally, civil servants were also working busily explaining to their ministers that “dogs are not to be interfered with” and ensuring the dogs “must be fed.” As a result, dogs could eat thousands of tons of food and cats could drink gallons of milk. If the civil service was to restrict materials for the manufacturing of dog biscuits then, they concluded, people would probably substitute for them other forms of human food! Given that so many people were in favour of their pets, the civil servants allowed genuine breeding to continue. For some months, civil servants thought about increasing dog tax but recognising such a topic was unpopular, they proposed psychological factors should be taken into account. They also rejected going along with the Nazi policy for conscription of the dog population for their war effort!

Vulnerable dogs as well as cats were looked after by the sanctuary organised by the Animal Defence House near Salisbury, which drove them to the countryside from Central London. Some of the dogs were taken to the home of Nina Duchess of Hamilton where they, together with moggies and pedigree cats, found countryside premises away from the London bombing. In their diaries and even in their mass observation interviews, many men and women talked about their own animals. Thus the writer, Fryniwyd Tennyson, took in two new cats-  sharing their own food but also supporting their owner’s belief “they know nothing about war.”-

Sometimes the war situation was tragic. Thus Lilian Margaret Hart, living in Bethnal Green Rd with her husband George in the Air Raid Precautions, looked everywhere for Gyp the dog and Timmy the cat but sadly both had died in the bombing. On similar occasions others survived. Thus a parrot from Samuda St on the Isle of Dogs was kept alive in his squashed-up cage by being fed with bacon rind and crusty bread, only to give a wonderful recital of obscene language. Other animals, such as the canaries in the photograph below were rescued from a  public house in southeast London. Thus the local community in West Hampstead searched for the mother of a local cat who was found by demolition workers in the debris of a nearby shop who carried her home in a sack. She was thin but was none the worse for her ordeal! In the Poplar air raids, Rip the dog helped find victims with Mr King the local air raid warden and stayed with him next to his small allotment. Together, they regularly visited an air raid shelter comforting those sheltering. As a result of his positive actions, Rip received a Dickin medal for his bravery.

Many animals were looked after and their stories passed on to children of all ages to give them emotional support. As one respondent argued, her father had given her The Photo Book of Pretty Pets for Christmas in 1940 and she recalls “The quality of my life has been enhanced by animals.”

On some occasions, children questioned why people were carrying their pets to a vet for their destruction. As a result of one particular boy becoming upset, his family returned home with the rescued ginger cat who had been about to be killed. Others, such as the late Brian Sewell, art critic, noted the seaside killing of his own dog as a “cold, hard, vengeful aversion lodged” in his long memory.

In diaries and in the records of Mass Observation during the war many adults told their stories. As one young man said to Mass Observation, “Probably dogs do more to uphold morale among their owners than anything else.” In many diaries, animals were witnessed and encouraged. Thus, the well-known Nella Last was an enthusiast about her dog Sol and cat Mr Murphy, explaining that, “To me he is more than an animal: he has kindness, understanding and intelligence and not only knows all that is said but often reads my mind to an uncanny degree.”

Even Winston Churchill publically celebrated his black cat Nelson at 10 Downing St and his ginger cat at his Chartwell home. When Rab Butler, pioneer of the 1944 Education Act, came to his room one night while Nelson was curled up at Churchill’s feet, Winston started the conversation by expressing that, “This cat does more for the war effort than you do!”

For some years the experience of wartime animals, especially in London, had stuck in my head as I rarely found them to be included when I was reading any conventional histories of the war. In my earlier book on Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain since 1800, I wrote no more than a few pages about the treatment of the animals in war. This was not through ignorance but because of the paucity of animal material. Although Angus Calder’s The People’s War had talked very briefly of the destruction of animals, his common phrase “people’s war” ignored the effect on animals in the main.

Thinking about animals and researching the diary writers, family stories, animal charities and state archives, from that time highlighted the specific plight of animals in London and the East End for me. It also demonstrated the long established (if sometimes erased ) presence of animals, as well as those only thinking themselves and their ancestors as participating in ‘the people’s war.’ Rather than forgetting about this time of varying treatment, perhaps we should choose to think in different ways, remembering cats and dogs as much as humans.

Disc of the National Air Raids Precaution Animals’ Committee

Canaries rescued from a pub in southeast London, September 1940

Joint canine and human fatigue at Southwark Rest Centre c. 1940

Dog at an East End rest centre, September 1940

Families, including children and a dog, at an emergency feeding unit in Chingford, January 1945

A hen is a victim of the bombing in Hackney

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. Sharon permalink
    November 26, 2017

    An interesting read – as ever..
    Reminds me of my mum’s stories of wartime London (SE6) – taking their parrot Polly into the air raid shelter in the garden with them, along with Lucky the spaniel. Polly was fed on the seeds from the sunflowers growing on the shelter’s roof.
    Mum was 9 at the outbreak of the war, spent almost the length of it in London and survived her school being bombed..

  2. November 26, 2017

    What a sad (but at times uplifting) article. As the owner of three cats I can’t imagine being faced with what these owners were faced and I assume that it was a combination of rationing and not wanting their pets to be killed by bombs that made them reach such an overall monumental decision.

  3. November 26, 2017

    What is your explanation for these murders? That people regard non-human animals as dispensable, as not having lives as valuable as their own, as property? this seems to be it.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    November 26, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, you never cease to amaze with the stories you dig up. I thought I had read quite a bit about the “home front” during WWII, but this account of animals during the fray introduces another dimension to the war experience.

    Very well done and the assorted pics are excellent. Kudos to Hilda Kean…

  5. Saba permalink
    November 26, 2017

    So happy to have found this blog! The morning papers make me weep — this gives hope. Reading The Marvels by Brian Selznick, set in Spitalfields and also Albert’s house may have been based on the house featured on this blog. So, keep the faith, baby, and keep up the good work!

  6. Eddie Johnson permalink
    November 26, 2017

    When I was a little boy my Dad bought me a wire haired terrier pup, his name was Mickey, I loved him to distraction, he filled my 7 year old head 24 hours a day.

    Soon after the war started a big van turned up in the street and everyone started to hand their dogs over, I was sobbing & crying as my parents took Mickey to be ‘put to sleep’ but they assured me that because he was a pedigree he was going to the country to be looked after and he’d be back soon. All through the early days of wartime I’d pray daily to keep my Mum, Dad little brother Kenny and my darling Mickey safe. As the years went on I realised I would never see Mickey again, it broke my young heart. Ever since I have tried, not always successfully, to be more detatched from the love of animals, it scarred my heart.

    Incidentally it was only reading the article that I realised it wasn’t official policy. I always thought the government organised it because the expected ‘Blitz’ was expected to kill hundreds of thousands of people , rather than the thousands, leaving pets to go feral and spread disease. In the event, though bad enough, the Blitz wasn’t as terrible as expected, that terrible fate was to be inflicted on our enemies in Dresden, Cologne & Hamburg

  7. Gary Arber permalink
    November 26, 2017

    I was eight when the war started and was living at Romford. We had a cat named Smut and Linda next door had a cat named Felix. It was not until years after the war that I realised that Smut and Felix had disappeared. The blitz was so intense over Romford with anti aircratf guns firing and bombs and land mines exploding every night that it was the right decision, the life of pets under these conditions would have been unbearable. My present cat is terrified over the few days of fireworks, the wartime cat would have had to endure it for two years.

  8. November 27, 2017

    At the start of the war we had a black cat “Nigger” who was a good mouser, The ARP up the street had plenty of mice in their ‘shelter’ and asked if we’d let them have Nigger to help get rid of the mice. My dad agreed.
    We got Nigger back in 1941, and he was a skeleton, the only food that he had in the whole time at the ARP was the mice he caught and ate.
    My Mum have the ARP eardens a good blast.
    In 1943 I opened the front door one morning and there was this poor dog shaking and scared, no identification, obviously a war orphan,. My mother took me and ‘Bob’ to the Barking Police Station and they said if he wasn’t claimed within 7 days, I could keep him. He became my friend and pet.
    I have but one photo of Bob ad me taken after the war with our air raid shelter in the background, now above ground and my dads garden shed.
    They were happy days really.

  9. November 27, 2017

    I noticed that Gary Arber ws living in Romford when the war started, My Uncle Bill and Aunt Nan Saville lived in Romford and had a daughter named Linda, surely not Gary’s Linda?

  10. Kitanz permalink
    November 27, 2017

    The war years is so sad, but many with loved ones and animals were loving and good. Very interesting and Thank You!

  11. November 27, 2017

    This reminds me of the delightful story below about Faith the cat who was awarded the PDSA Dickin medal for bravery during the Blitz at the former St Augustine’s Church next to St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London.

  12. November 27, 2017

    This piece recalls some genuinely frightening scenes in Steven Poliakoff’s often-surreal ‘Glorious 39’ (2009) which may have been the first many knew of this particular episode in British history. Poliakoff said of this, ‘It was something I stumbled upon when I was researching the film and I was so grabbed by it. One book described the piles of dead animals on every high street in London so while you clip clopped to the post office you had to pass these dead cats, dogs, rabbits and budgies. It must have been so horrific in reality, but was also such an eerie harbinger of what would have happened if we had become a Vichy style state.’

  13. Gary Arber permalink
    November 27, 2017

    Message to Brian. The Linda who lived next door to me was Linda Bacon. Her story was tragic, she was trained as a dancer and actress from an early age, she started an acting career at a young age and was in a number of productions, she was in many West end shows starting out with people like Lionel Blair and Barbara Windsor . after the war she went on an ENSA tour entertaining troops on the continent, she was returning to her “digs” with three other actresses after a show in Germany when the car crashed on the autobahn and they were all killed. When I see the success of Barbara Windsor and Lionel Blair I feel sure that if it wasn’t for the accident she would have been there with the stars.

  14. January 18, 2018

    Interesting article for me. My Nan lived in Stoke Newington and would always shelter under the kitchen table during raids, when they were over out she would march spare dog leads in hand and a homemade cat cart and pick up every cat or dog she could find took them back home to safety (after posting notices of description etc). Needless to say she ended up with a houseful of cats and dogs, some were claimed some not!

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