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Blackie, The Last Spitalfields Market Cat

April 4, 2020
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.

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 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 a 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 lay in Mile End but who showed extraordinary prowess as a hunter in Devon – catching rabbits and even moorhens – which suggested he was a worthy descendant of Blackie.

Blackie at 42 Brushfield St

Blackie in her final years, 1991/2

Nineteenth century print of Dick Whittington & his cat

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 4, 2020

    Always a pleasure to read one of your feline blogs!

    I was particularly interested in the part which said that Blackie instinctively avoided any rats which may have been poisoned. I lost my beloved cat Godfrey after he had eaten a poisoned mouse and died the next day of a haemmorhage as the blood thinning properties of rat poison are lethal to cats.

    I’m pleased to say that my present cat is far too busy self isolating on my bed to bother with the tedious business of hunting!

    Stay safe with Schrodinger…

  2. lyn permalink
    April 4, 2020

    thank you so much for this very poignant story. cats are all so different, i have lived with cats for most of my life and each one has had his or her own personality and likes and dislikes. we dont hear much about your new cat Schrodinger and i hope he is well

  3. April 4, 2020

    Wonderful story, thank you so much. Please give us news of Schrodinger. Have a great Saturday.

  4. paul loften permalink
    April 4, 2020

    On behalf of both my cats, Whiskey and Brandy I would like to thank you for this moving story of Blackie. Dogs have their place in history and have been well written about by authors like Jack London with “Call of the Wild” but cats have a harder time achieving recognition despite serving mankind in so many different ways. In some parts of the world, cats are brought into towns with the sole purpose of catching mice and rats, the cause of which is the explosion of restaurants and cheap diners and leaving the leftovers out on the street at night. When the job is done the cats re left to roam as strays. What a way to say thank you, job well done! Cat’s deserve the best treatment from us and also a place in history, with their own story recorded and written about. They have also served us as lifetime companions, entertainers, and healers. Thank you once again!

  5. April 4, 2020

    I laughed out loud – with appreciation! — at the word “entertainers” in Paul Loften’s comment above. We’ve had many cats over many years……..but only recently have welcomed black cats into the mix. Currently we have one gigantic, visible-from-space black cat, Satchmo, and he is a born entertainer. Yes, like any cat he will spend all day sleeping in his special chair — well, naturally — but if I approach him as I pass through the room, I will be rewarded with a dramatic pink-tongue-on-display wide-eyed extended meow. True he could just roll his eyes silently to me — but he wants to seize the moment and make a show of it all. If he desires food (did I say “if”????) he will prance about, twirl, make serious eye contact, and herd me into the kitchen. When he jumps up on my bed each evening, he comes slowly/deliberately to me and then sits, staring deeply into my eyes. I tell him how magnificent he is, and he receives my compliments with a slow blink. When he has had sufficient praise, he’ll curl up against me and tuck me in.
    He is the most entitled and entertaining cat I have ever had. A magnificent matchless friend.
    Rumbly purrs to you and Mr. Schrodinger.

  6. permalink
    April 5, 2020

    “…like a dark hole in the world running round on legs.” What a fabulous description.

  7. Elsa permalink
    April 5, 2020

    A lovely story. We had our own Blackie some years back who also lived to a good age.
    My last cat sadly died much too early from illness. I plan to adopt another rescue cat but the current health crisis means I’ll have to wait until normal service resumes.

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