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The Cats Of Spitalfields

September 3, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating our tenth anniversary with favourite stories from the first decade

Peggy & Basil Comely

“Donʼt put me down as a cat person. Cats are ideal for lazy, inefficient people and thatʼs me.

I moved here from Camberwell with an elderly cat. But the stairs killed Connie, she was dead within six months and her ashes are in a box in the kitchen. I rescued Connie from a cage in a pet shop in 1985. There was a monkey cage on top and fleas were dropping off the monkey onto her. She cost five pounds.

Then came Piggy & Peggy. I went up to the Mayhew Animal Home at Kensal Green to find a replacement for Connie. Other people were choosing cats and they all wanted the cutest kitten. I saw a furry ball of two cats fighting like a Tom & Jerry cartoon and I said, “Iʼll have those.”

Piggy died last autumn at the age of fourteen. I thought that was a bit pathetic but the vet says itʼs a good age. Peggy was always the one who owned the house, whereas Piggy roamed in and out of other peopleʼs houses.

He was an absolute tart and a bit of a bully. The catʼs home had called him Lennox, after the boxer, but I renamed him. He was much cleverer than Peggy. He used to vanish occasionally but he always came back. Heʼd go along the rooftops and into someoneʼs attic. I was always afraid heʼd get stuck in a room somewhere.

The two cats didnʼt like each other much but they didnʼt fight very often. Just once in fourteen years they curled up together in a basket. They roamed the house but they werenʼt allowed in the bedroom. They did try though. Paws used to appear under the door.

Peggy is fifteen now and she doesnʼt do much. She eats and yowls but sheʼs quite fit. Sometimes, she sits in the open window of my office on the third floor and sways in the wind. The two cats used to fight there occasionally much to the consternation of passers-by. People would stand in the street and watch.

Iʼm not sentimental about animals. When Peggy dies, Iʼll go out and get another cat. Iʼve already decided itʼs going to be called Bunny. Piggy is buried in the yard. I wrapped him in a cashmere sweater, dug a hole and replaced the flag stone. Iʼm going to put up a headstone with his name on it.

I did have a tortoise called Oswald living here, but it wasnʼt the right place for him. He now lives with my brother who has a house with a garden in north London.”

Peggy & Basil enjoy the sun in Elder St

Sparkly & Melanie & Harvey Denyer

Sparkly is a curious cat

Sparkly & Melanie & Harvey Denyer

Melanie – “Sparkly came from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home three years ago. Sparkly is quite famous in the area and even before we had the cafe he was always known as The Rag Factory cat. (The Rag Factory on Heneage St is used for rehearsals, filming, classes and exhibitions)

Then he became well known in the cafe too. He liked to be with the customers, and children from the local school would stop and talk to him. Unfortunately, we had a visit from the environmental health people and heʼs banned from the cafe now.

Sparkly was twelve weeks old when he came and my son Harvey was only three, but Battersea are fantastic about matching cats with families. Sparkly was a lot more forgiving then he might have been.

Our worst experience with Sparkly was when he disappeared from The Rag Factory last November. He was missing for five months. We think he must have got into a builderʼs van. He was found in Essex and taken to the PDSA but when they examined him the vet didnʼt find his chip. Then a local shelter fostered him but before he was rehomed he was scanned again and they found the chip. When he came back, he behaved as though heʼd never been away though heʼs a bit more of a homebody now.”

Harvey  – “Heʼs my cat really. I named him. We were going to call him Sparkle but I accidentally said Sparkly.”

Gus, Molly, Paul Gazerwitz & Andrew Brader

I moved to Elder Street twelve years ago with five cats. I chose the Burmese because they are so friendly and affectionate. Iʼve always liked dogs but it seemed unfair to have them in the middle of the city, so I kept cats that most behaved like dogs.

I already had two Burmese when I went to a cat show and saw the curly coated Devon Rex cats. I acquired one of those – they have similar personalities to the Burmese – and then a chocolate Burmese. They all love humans, and can be quite clingy and very playful. They were mainly indoor cats although Coco disappeared once and was found in the brewery on Brick Lane.

We have just two cats now. Molly is a lilac Burmese and Gus is a Bombay. Bombay cats were first bred in America from Burmese and American shorthairs to resemble miniature panthers. You can see the brown Burmese colour coming through in certain lights and Gusʼs brothers were more brownish than black.

Gus and Molly go out into the garden when next doorʼs Welsh terrier Daisy is away. She doesnʼt like cats at all and they taunt her by jumping into the window when she goes past. They go out on the roof if we forget to close the bathroom window.

They are not enthusiastic hunters. Gus caught his first and only mouse last year. He has very few teeth left, only three actually. “He wasnʼt brushing enough,” says Andrew. He loves having his armpits scratched and is very greedy. He likes to be carried around the house sitting on someoneʼs shoulder like a parrot.

Molly loves milk foam. If we have cappuccino at the weekend, we make a small milk foam for her as a treat. If we donʼt do that she tries to scoop the foam out of our cups. Other favourite things are carrier bags and Parmesan. Our lodger Guidoʼs family make the Parmesan cheese, he offered her some once and she loved it.

They have separate apartments next to the Rayburn. These are small compartments meant for kitchen utensils but the cats have taken them over. If you put anything on the shelf there now Gus and Molly will push it out.

They love the snow and they have a country break at Christmas when they go to Suffolk. Gus is a very good traveller but Molly screams all the way there. She doesnʼt like the tube either which weʼve used for visits to the vet. Sheʼs been known to tear a wicker basket to shreds.”

Andrew, Paul & Molly

Molly

Gus – “The cats often leap into the window to taunt next doorʼs terrier Daisy”

Mollyʼs space next to the Rayburn, Gus usually occupies the next slot down

Molly & Paul

Gus & Paul

Theodora

Theodora & Charlie de Wet

Theodora & Charlie de Wet

“Opera is my passion and Theodora is named after an opera. Maybe the next kitty will be called Aida, Nora or Maria Stuada!

Theodora, or “Dorable Dora” as she also is known, is my granny cat. She sleeps twenty-two hours of the day and night in front of the Aga dreaming. During the remaining two hours, always from 2.00am to 4.00am, she climbs three floors to tell me about these dreams. I get a swipe across my face to wake me up to listen. And then she plays like a kitten and relates every detail of her dreams. Aghhhh…but I love her dearly. When Theodora has told me everything she can remember she jumps off the bed and, if I am lucky, I get to sleep. If not, memories of all my furry family come flooding back – Puppy, Gorgeous Ginger Tom, Miss Gingerbits, Debbie & Greta, Dee Dee & Kennington. All were strays and some were in the most appalling condition, but they were all wonderful characters who shared and enhanced my life.

We were a five kitty household and Theodora is the last of that family. She and her sister Miss Fluff Bunny cost £5 each and came from Fiona Wheeler who, fourteen years ago, lived in Wilkes St. Mother Cat had several litters and so quite a few homes in the area have kitties who are related. Before Fitzroy and Earl moved in with Rodney Archer, he used to have a very fine cat called Horace who would drape himself around Rodneyʼs shoulders. He was a cousin of my girls and there must be many more of them …”

Maud & Oliver Black

“Maud was three when she came to live with us in Elder Street two years ago. We chose her from a cat rescue centre in Hornsey that had been recommended by friends. We looked at the photos on the internet before we went.

Our first choice had been a small black cat. She looked pretty in the photograph but in reality she was rather mangy and timid. Our second choice was a majestic fat cat but he turned out to be diabetic and insulin dependent. Then a beautiful tabby poked her head out of the cat box and we fell for her straight away. On our way home from the first visit we realised weʼd only seen her head so we went back to check that the rest of her was sound. She was duly picked up and inspected from all angles and we knew weʼd made the right choice.

Her people had called her Suki and gave her up when they moved to a flat where pets arenʼt allowed. Itʼs a common reason for rehousing cats apparently, along with sudden allergies. We thought the name was a bit soppy so we changed it to Maud. We wanted a Victorian girlʼs name and I had fond memories of a cleaning lady we had when I was a child, who was called Maud and had the sweetest nature ever.

Maud certainly seems to be quite happy here. She settled in with no trouble at all, and has learned that she can go round the block and come back to the front door. Sheʼs been a bit nervous since she was chased home by a large tom. She has caught a few mice but no birds fortunately. She caught a mouse the first night she was here which impressed Jenny, my wife.

I sometimes rescue undamaged mice if they manage to get away from the cat. I remember chasing a badly injured one and wondering how I was going to despatch it if I caught it before the cat did. The problem was solved when I accidentally trod on it with my bare foot.

Maud has already had some press coverage. I recently wrote a humorous piece for ‘Lancet Psychiatry’ magazine on my experience of psychotherapy. They gave it the title ‘Shrunk’ and published a photograph of Maud basking on the stairs, totally relaxed.

My illness was the reason we adopted Maud. Iʼm an Academic Philosopher and Research Professor at Kingʼs College, London, I write novels and, until the end of last year, I was also a City Lawyer. I became exhausted and my GP recommended psychotherapy. I saw a few people without success until eventually I was referred to a Spanish psychotherapist. He was a practical man but his accent was rather hard to understand.

He said, “You feel ill because youʼre stressed. Youʼre someone who is constantly trying to achieve, excel and impress people.” I said somewhat flippantly, “Perhaps I should get a cat. Theyʼre notoriously hard to impress.” What I think he said was, “Yes, you should get a cat.” But, given my difficulty in understanding him, he might have said, “No, donʼt get a cat.”

Anyway, we acquired a cat and Iʼm much more relaxed. This could be because, after twenty-five years, Iʼve stopped being a City Lawyer and now work mainly from home. However Iʼm sure Maud is a contributing factor.”

This photograph by Oliver Black appeared in ‘Lancet Psychiatry.’ Oliver wrote an article for the magazine about his experience of psychotherapy and the calming influence of cats.

Carlos & Rupert Blanchard

Carlos & a piece of Rupert’s furniture

Carlos & Sofia & Rupert Blanchard & Polly Benfield

“Rupert Blanchard (cat person) met Polly Benford (dog person) in Swindon in 1999 and in 2003, they moved in together in Hackney.

The guys next door got a pair of cats to deal with mice, but moved to Mexico after having had the cats for only six months. Polly turned into a cat person because, she says, “Carlos is gentle and friendly like a dog” and we inherited the cats. The cats had been named Carlos and Sofia after King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain. The first week we had Sofia and Carlos, they presented us with six mice. We havenʼt seen another one since, although one of the cats caught a moth recently.

They have a holiday once a year in the Wiltshire countryside with six other family cats. Just about everyone in the family has cats. Carlos always dominates.

We think they are brother and sister and are about eleven years old. Carlos is strong, healthy and very friendly but gets scared easily by the Hoover. He loves going out onto the rooftops. He also gets into every film and photo shoot possible. Sofia is always in and out of the vets, prefers life under the bed or on an Eames chair and is scared of new people. Both are much loved.”

Bungy & Sammy Dobkin at Forest Reclaim

Shadow

Bungy & Shadow & Sammy Dobkin at Forest Reclaim

“Iʼve worked here for a couple of years. Itʼs a family business and Daniel the owner is my cousin. Bungy, the black and white cat and Shadow, the black cat, live on the premises. Theyʼre both good mousers and Shadow loves a pigeon. I feed them both – Shadow prefers dry food and Bungy likes wet food.

Shadow turned up about a year and a half ago. He could be from anywhere because he tends to jump into strange vans. Someone put Bungy through the fence when he was just a kitten and heʼs been here for about eight or ten years.

Customers like them and people who are passing often stop and talk to them, but theyʼre spending a lot of time in front of the fire at the moment.”

Madge in the office at Dennis Severs’ House

Madge & David Milne, Curator

The ashes of Madge’s predecessor are in the urn.

Madge & David Milne, Curator at Dennis Severs’ House

“Thereʼs always been a cat here, and the last three have been called Madge. The first Madge was buried in the back yard in September 1991, and the ashes of the second cat are in an urn in the Victorian room beneath a portrait of Dennis Severs.

The current Madge came from a rescue place in Hackney. She was a bit frightened at first but she was only a baby, so we kept her in the office then slowly took her out into the rest of the house. Now she has secret places all over the house, including the attic. We donʼt know where she goes.

Sheʼs often around during visits. Unfortunately, some people think sheʼs a prop and give her a prod. Sheʼll respond with a miaow or a nip. She often sits in the same places and the same chairs that the previous cat liked.

She knows we put food out when the visitors come and she likes licking the butter off the toast. And sheʼs been known to tip over the eggs and eat the yolk.

She likes to be outside on the terrace in warm weather. She has friends too. She goes into Tedʼs house next door. I donʼt live here but Dennis and I were good mates and I always enjoyed the house before I became Curator.

My own cat is an Oriental Havana with emerald eyes. I was on a waiting list for two years for that particular colour and her breeders said, “If she doesnʼt like you, you canʼt have her.” Luckily when I brought her home she came out of her box, had a look round and went to sleep. Sheʼs very possessive and if there are other people in the flat sheʼll bring something to me so that I notice her.”

Lenny, pub cat at The Pride of Spitalfields, with admirer Dean Whatmuff.

Lenny snuggles in a cosy corner.

Lenny napping watched over by Terry Hutton.


Lenny at The Pride of Spitalfields with Anne Butler, landlady & Terry Hutton & Dean Whatmuff, regulars.

Anne Butler – “Lenny is from a Liverpool refuge centre. He is nine years old and immediately took to being among the customers, but moving for no-one. He is very good with my other cat, Patch, although they fight a bit, he is always cleaning him and lets Patch get to his dinner first. He has a real good fan base and affection for all those who give him titbits.”

Terry Hutton – “Iʼve been coming here since I was fourteen. I like the atmosphere – and the cat. I was born in Spelman St and the old chicken market used to be nearby, so there were always a lot of stray cats and sometimes the cat lady used to feed them.”

Dean Whatmuff – “Iʼm from Yorkshire and Iʼve lived in Spitalfields since 1981. I went to the Slade in 1983 and my first studio was near here in the early eighties. Shoreditch was like a ghost town at night then and you had to come to the beigel shop to get something to eat. Iʼve been sketching the customers here for a while now. Itʼs part of a long term project and I hope theyʼll be displayed locally. I do some building work at the pub too and rehang the pictures occasionally. It doesnʼt change much. And Iʼm a DJ at the disco here every Monday at six. Itʼs called ‘mondayvinyl’ and weʼre the ‘one-deck-wonders.’

Battie

Battie with Philippa Stockley

Battie & Philippa Stockley

“Battie is a rescue cat, heʼs half Bengal and half Fat Tabby. There was a pair of kittens and this little cat on its own in a box looking miserable. Suddenly, he jumped into my arms – and I gave him back because Iʼm heartless. So he walked round my legs and sprayed me like a tree. Iʼd been marked out as his.

He was frightened at first but now heʼs my constant companion. Heʼs nearly seven, heʼs always waiting when I come home and heʼs only happy if Iʼm within smelling distance. And heʼs a most beautiful jumper.”

Ambrosia & Rev Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church

Ambrosia & Rev Andy Rider, Rector of Christ Church, Spitalfields

“Weʼve only had Ambrosia for four and a half months. We wanted a tortoiseshell and her name had to begin with the letter A, so sheʼs named after my favourite pudding. Our golden retriever, Archie, is her role model. She definitely aspires to be a dog and she doesnʼt realise sheʼs quite small. Sheʼll make a dive and hang on to Archieʼs leg but, luckily, heʼs very tolerant.

I always say Iʼm not all that bothered about pets, but my wife would dispute that. Our first cats here came from Eric Elstob, who lived in Fournier St. He was one of the great champions of the restoration of Christ Church and, when he died in 2003, his house-keeper asked us to take on the two cats Julio & Antonio. Towards the end of their lives, we thought weʼd better have a new cat to take over mousing duties. So far no results from Ambrosia, but weʼre encouraged by some scurrying under kitchen cupboards.

The painting by Alison Neville, where Ambrosia is sitting, was part of an exhibition in the Rectory gallery. Itʼs a detail of St. Johnʼs, Smith Sq and the sale of that church paid for part of the rebuilding work at Christ Church.”

Mittens & Yasmin

Mittens & Rosie Dastgir & her daughter Yasmin

“Mittens came from the 5th Ave Cat Clinic, Brooklyn. Sheʼd been in the window for a while with a sign saying CAT FOR SALE. My daughter Yasmin used to walk past the window and she really wanted this cat. When she saw the SOLD sign she was so disappointed. Luckily for her, Iʼd just bought the cat.

Bringing her back to this country was a complicated business – there were problems with the microchip (the vet put in an American chip instead of a European standard one), there were questions about the size of the crate, she was driven from Heathrow to Aldgate in a Defra endorsed van, and the whole operation cost a fortune.

But now sheʼs taken control of her territory better than she did in New York. There was an aggressive stray where we lived that used to fight with her. We named it Evil Kitty. So far, we find the London cats more friendly.”

Sebastian

Sebastian & Mark

Sebastian & Cordelia & Lindsay Friend & Mark Jackson at IMT Gallery

“Sebastian & Cordelia are Sphinx cats. They are named after characters in Brideshead Revisited and theyʼve grown into their namesakes. Sebastian is a bit roguish and he eats anything he can find – he once tried to eat staples – whereas Cordelia is more sensible, she tells him off and looks after him a bit.

Iʼve always liked this breed. I saw a picture of them in a book once when I was a child and immediately wanted to have one. And theyʼre the friendliest of all breeds. Mark likes them because he studied axolotl salamanders in a biology class and he thinks their faces are similar.

They came from a north London breeder. We just wanted Sebastian, but at our interview Cordelia took a shine to Mark so then we had to have them both. Theyʼre brother and sister and they were three and a half years old in March. Theyʼre quite high maintenance, they have to be bathed once a week and have their ears and claws cleaned.

They live with us at the gallery, so thereʼs constant stimulation and they are always around when people come to the gallery. Our exhibitions are constantly changing and some of our artists produce particularly cat-friendly work. Sebastian & Cordelia joined in during a session of voice recording recently.

The little girl who lives opposite, who is about eight, likes to come and see the cats when theyʼre sitting on the window sill. They adore her and sheʼs transfixed by them. We once overheard her telling her friend, ‘These are my cats. Well, theyʼre not actually my cats but they love me.’ She has two cats of her own now but she still comes to see Sebastian & Cordelia.”

Truman

Stella

Truman & Stella & Chris Dyson

“Truman came from a Mare St pet shop. His father is a Russian Blue and his mother a Norwegian Long Hair. We bought him as a kitten in 2009 and our other cat, Stella, came six months later. We found her very pregnant mother on the doorstep of Number Eleven and took her to Samantha Morton who lives nearby because we knew she looked after cats. So when the cat produced her litter the very next day, we felt obliged to have one of the kittens. And Truman was going slightly nutty on his own – these cats love company, they always want to join the party.

You never know with cats how the chemistry will work. Stella is basically a street cat, sheʼs a mixture of ginger tabby and tortoiseshell and sheʼs always been very nervous. The two of them get on reasonably well although Truman picks on her if he gets bored. But she fights back and now heʼs got a bit of ear missing, so heʼs more careful.

Theyʼve both fallen from the parapet of the gallery. Truman used to run around on the rooftops and, one wet day, he fell off. Fortunately, he landed on all fours but his chin was bruised. He never did it again. Stella has done the same too, so theyʼve both fallen three storeys to solid ground and are still standing.

Truman sometimes disappears for a few days but we know he calls on friends. He likes the girls in offices nearby who feed him titbits and someone else said recently, ‘Your cat calls on me on Thursday afternoons.'”

Photographs copyright © Chris Kelly

Chris Kelly’s THE NECESSARY CAT – A PHOTOGRAPHER’S MEMOIR is available from independent bookshops including Brick Lane Books, Broadway Books & Newham Bookshop.

You may like to take a look at these other pictures by Chris Kelly

Chris Kelly’s Columbia School Portraits 1996

Chris Kelly’s Cable St Gardeners

Chris Kelly’s Cable St Gardeners in Colour

Chris Kelly & Dan Jones in the Playground

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Pamela Traves permalink
    September 3, 2019

    What Wonderful Pussy Cats!!! The More the Better!!😊😘🥰🌷💐🌺💝

  2. Virginia Heaven permalink
    September 3, 2019

    I’ve been waiting for a cat post for a while. This was very satisfying, thank you. I think I saw Carlos on TV—the guy who makes furniture moved to Brighton and was making stuff for a person who rehabs junk. He was the best thing in it, Carlos I mean, and well, the furniture was good too but he was the highlight. Now an update on Shrodinger would be good.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 3, 2019

    Purrrrrfect..

    And I particularly love the Schrodinger doppelgänger Carlos – what a handsome chap!

  4. September 3, 2019

    That was absolutely delightful. The last cat reminds me of our visiting cat, a blue Burmese. He hasn’t quite moved in – yet!

  5. Richard Smith permalink
    September 3, 2019

    I particularly enjoyed today’s post GA, thank you. The cats were just great cats and the owners were very interesting too.

  6. Connie Unangst permalink
    September 3, 2019

    Thoroughly enjoyed all the cats. My cat sat with me as I read. Thank everyone for sharing their great little buddies with your readers.

  7. September 3, 2019

    Wonderful, fantastic cats. “Carlos and Sofía”… Great names for cats. Regards to Schrodinger.

  8. Jill permalink
    September 3, 2019

    It seems like the world (well, the UK world) is going slowly mad …. but at least we have cats. Thank you GA for reminding us of the important things in life. A big hug to all of them.

  9. DEBRA MATHENEY permalink
    September 3, 2019

    Lovely post. I have 3 darlings who share my house and heart. Enjoyed reading about other cat owners experiences with their critters. Thank you.

  10. Craig permalink
    September 4, 2019

    Wonderful piece!
    Thank you for this perspective👍

  11. Georgina Briody permalink
    September 4, 2019

    From one you has rescued and fostered cats and has two of her own, I loved this post today. Thank you.

  12. Marcia Howard permalink
    September 5, 2019

    I’m not a ‘cat person’ but this is a delightful post; and I especially love the glimpses into some of the quirky homes of the cats too.

  13. September 5, 2019

    Nice. It reminds me to my neighbour’s cat CHICO who lives now on a farm several kilometers away from me …

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

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