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Joan Lauder, The Cat Lady Of Spitalfields

November 30, 2023
by the gentle author

I am reading my short story ON CHRISTMAS DAY next Saturday 2nd December at 11am as part of the BLOOMSBURY JAMBOREE at the Art Workers’ Guild in Queens Square, WC1N 3AT.






In my imagination, Joan Lauder (1924-2011) was a mysterious feline spirit in human form who prowled the alleys and back streets, a self-appointed guardian of the stray cats and a lonely sentinel embodying the melancholy soul of the place.

Here are Rodney Archer’s memories with Phil Maxwell’s black and white photos from the eighties and Clive Murphy’s colour pictures from the nineties.

One day, when I went round to enjoy a cup of tea and shot of rum with Rodney in his cosy basement kitchen in Fournier St, he told me about Joan, the Cat Lady, who made it her business to befriend all the felines in Spitalfields during the nineteen eighties.

Rodney: Joan went all around the neighbourhood feeding the cats regularly and she had names for them. You’d see her crouching, looking through the corrugated iron surrounding Truman’s Brewery, waiting for the cats to come and then they suddenly all appeared. I think once I saw her there and I asked her what she was doing, and she said ‘I’m waiting for the cats to appear.’

‘My darlings,’ she really did call them, ‘My darlings,’ and it was wonderful in a way that she had this love of cats and spent her life encouraging them and feeding them and keeping them alive. I could never quite work it out, but she had a bag, like one of those trolleys you carry, full of cat food. Now, either she’d taken the tops off the tins or something, since I noticed – because she had a kind of witchlike aspect – that although she put her hands right into the tin to feed them and then just threw it down, I never saw any cat food on her hands. It was like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Over the years, I would chat to her but she was someone that you had to have some time for, because once she began she went on and on. The Cat Lady was strange – she spent all her money on the cats – she was like a character out of Dickens. She was almost a street person, except she had a place to live. And she did get benefits and she wasn’t an alcoholic or anything, she was very doughty, she had a bit of a moustache.

She was the kind of woman that, a hundred years ago, people would have been fearful of in a way. There was something awesome about her, because she had her own aura and she was there to feed the cats, and the cats were much more important to her than people. I’d talk about my cat to her and I think once she stopped by my door, and I opened it, and my cat sat looking at her.

The Gentle Author: I’ve heard she had this mantra, “Cats are better than rats.” Were there a lot of rats at that time?

Rodney: I think there were. When the market was still going and you had all the fruit and vegetables, the rats would come out to feed. I never saw that myself, but you might see a rat running along the curb. A lot of people said they were looking forward to the market closing because the area would be cleaner and neater, but I regretted that the market left and there weren’t cabbages everywhere.

The Gentle Author: Can you remember when you first saw the Cat Lady?

Rodney: I think I first saw her on the corner of Fournier St and Brick Lane. She had a huge physical endurance, but I think she must have been exhausted by her journey every day, because she would often stop for quite a long time, and she’d just be there looking around. I suppose she might have been looking for the cats. That’s why you could catch up with her and ask her how she was doing.

One day I just spoke to her, maybe I’d seen her around, and I said, ‘Are you feeding the cats?’ And she told me, and I said had a cat and so we talked about cats and the wisdom of cats and that kind of thing. And afterwards, I’d see her quite often. She didn’t talk much to me about her life – but she was the Great Mother of all the cats in Spitalfields.

Phil Maxwell photographed Joan, the Cat Lady, in the eighties

The cat lady on Brick Lane in the late nineteen eighties.

Phil: The woman in this photograph was always dressed in a head scarf and large coat. Usually she would pull a shopping bag on wheels behind her. She was the Cat Lady of Spitalfields. She knew where every cat and kitten lived in the wild and made it her task to feed them every day. Her bag was full of cat food which she would serve on newspaper at designated spots around Spitalfields.

Phil: The Cat Lady pauses for a second beside the Seven Stars pub on Brick Lane. She has just left some food in the ‘private road’ for some cats.

Phil: The Cat Lady floats past Christchurch School on Brick Lane – with her eyes closed, she contemplates the next cat awaiting a delivery.

Phil: The Cat Lady waits outside her favourite cafe in Cheshire St. Now a trendy boutique, in the nineteen-eighties you could buy a cup of tea and a sandwich for less than a pound at this establishment.

Phil: The Cat Lady ‘kept herself to herself’ and avoided the company of others

Phil: It must be about twenty years since I last saw the Cat Lady of Spitalfields. She devoted her life to feeding the stray cats of the area. I have no idea where she lived and I never saw her talking to another person. She seemed to live in her own separate cat world. Even though I was sitting opposite her when I took this photograph, I felt that she had created a barrier and would be reluctant to engage in conversation. It was impossible to make eye contact. I’m pleased I photographed her on the streets and in her Cheshire St cafe. She would not recognise Cheshire St and Brick Lane today.

Clive Murphy’s portrait of Joan Lauder

At Angel Alley, Whitechapel, 5th March 1992

Feeding the cat from The White Hart in Angel Alley, 5th March 1992

In Gunthorpe St, 5th March 1992

Buying cat food at Taj Stores, Brick Lane, 3rd August 1992

In Wentworth St, 3rd August 1992

Calling a cat, Bacon St, 3rd August 1992

The cat arrives, Bacon St, 3rd August 1992

Alley off Hanbury St, 2nd August 1992

Hanbury St, 26th November 1995

At Aldgate East, 3rd August 1992

At Lloyds, Leadenhall St, 3rd August 1992

Walking from Angel Alley into Whitechapel High St, 3rd August 1992

Beware Of The Pussy, 132 Brick Lane, 26th November 1995

Clive visits Joan in her Nursing Home, 1995

Clive: The women I have loved you could count upon the digits of one hand – my mother, her mother, our loyal companion Maureen McDonnell, the poet Patricia Doubell and the demented, incontinent Joan Lauder, the Cat Lady of Spitalfields who, in 1991, when I first spoke to her was already my heroine, a day-and-night-in-all-weathers Trojan, doggedly devoting herself to cats because human beings had for too long failed her.

She looked at me with suspicion when I suggested we tape record a book. Only my bribe that half of any proceeds of publication would fall to her or her favoured charities and enable the purchase of extra tins of cat food persuaded her at least to humour me. I could swear I saw those azure eyes, set in that pretty face, dilate.

I had entrapped her with the best of intentions as she, I was to learn, often entrapped, also with the best of intentions, the denizens of the feral world to have them spayed or neutered in the interests of control. But to the end, her end, I don’t think she ever trusted or respected me. I once found her surreptitiously laying down Whiskas in my hallway for my own newly-adopted cat which I named Joan in her honour. And she once spat the expletive ‘t***’ at me in a tone of total dismissal. To be called a foolish and obnoxious person was hardly comforting, given that I believe my own adage ‘in dementia veritas’ holds all too often true.

Black & white photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

Colour photographs copyright © Clive Murphy


8 Responses leave one →
  1. November 30, 2023

    I think that Joan was part cat. Except that cats generally don’t befriend other cats but keep them at a respectable and wary distance. The cats definitely would have helped to control the rats but I am sure that they appreciated the supplementary diet provided by Joan.

    Isn’t it sad that society isolates elderly people? Thank you to all of the kindly people who took the time to talk to her, take photographs and tell her story.

  2. November 30, 2023

    Thank you! What a wonderful story.

  3. Milo permalink
    November 30, 2023

    Great story. There used to be a similar lady who haunted the streets around where i lived off Westbourne grove in the 80’s. Vivian was her name and she would wander hither and thither with her bags, almost bent double with the strain. Every now and again you’d see her in the Woolworths on Queensway when she would divest herself of her old trainers – never tied – and purchase a new pair, leaving the old pair where they were. Wizened face like a walnut topped by a woolly hat. What a character…

  4. Severine permalink
    November 30, 2023

    What an interesting lady! I wish I could have met her. Lovely post.

  5. November 30, 2023

    We have cat ladies here where I live in Granada Spain. They are exactly the same, diligent and dedicated to their daily routine of visiting the cats in this area. What would these cats do without them!

  6. Jo N permalink
    November 30, 2023

    What a kind lady, looking out for the cats in all weathers. And she must have spent a lot of her own money on the food.

    Is it so strange to call cats darlings..? Mine are probably called that more than anything else, as darlings they are!

  7. Rachel Jowitt permalink
    November 30, 2023

    I remember seeing this lady around when I worked at the school in Gunthorpe St in the very early 90s. And the White Hart cat, who lived at my local.

  8. Susan Shepard permalink
    December 5, 2023

    My late mother would have found a kindred spirit in Joan, including trapping and spaying feral cats. God rest both of their souls.

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