"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 27, 2014

Cats Ahoy!

Unidentified cat on HMAS Encounter, via Wikipedia

Ailurophobes may wish to skip this post. Today, we are paying tribute to the felines who for many centuries--at least as far back as the ancient Egyptians--have shared and brightened the often hard lives of the men and women who make the seas their home. Here's to you, Sailor Cats!

From the "Sydney Morning Herald," for June 21, 1941:

Often in a big ship there are seven or eight cats, but rarely are they seen together. Each keeps to his own part of the ship. This is a never-varying habit. It is in tramp steamers that one sees the sturdiest vagrants, cats from every country under the sun, which stay for a voyage and join another vessel at the next port!

These international ocean rovers seem to steer clear of passenger liners. No doubt they prefer the easy-going ways of cargo vessels. You see, in a tramp, the galley usually opens on to the deck. The stowaway makes friends with the cook first, and is not put to the trouble of searching the ship for him.

The interloper generally appears on the second day at sea. The sailors see a strange face peering at them and the cook finds he has a new friend. At meal times the newcomer calls on members of the crew, and, in plaintive tones, asks to be remembered. Soon the stowaway is accepted and finds himself a bed in a snug corner.

A chief officer in a tramp steamer told me of one of these vagrants that came on board at a South American port. The animal took a liking to him and he adopted it. For 12 months "Alf" (as they called him) lived in the vessel. He  seemed as permanent a member of the crew as "Doodles," who "stuck to the ship" till the demolition gangs started work. But in Vancouver the call of the unknown proved to be too strong for Alf. He disappeared one night and the ship sailed early the next morning. He must have had an exciting walk ashore. Half a mile of floating logs separated the ship from the mainland!

This story reminded me of Thomas, a cat from revolutionary Spain. Thomas was powerful and muscular. He could leap with ease to the top of a six-foot partition from a standing jump. His home was a British cargo vessel that traded to Spain during the civil war. He was first seen three days out from Valencia.

"Roaming the 'tween decks he was, sir, looking more like a small tiger than a cat," said the old weather-beaten carpenter when I asked for details. "He chased several members of the crew, and was branded as an outcast. One night I spotted him amidships and got near enough to scratch his ear after bribing him with a piece of meat. I still bear marks of bites and scratches of the times I tried to get friendly in too much of a hurry. Now we're the best of pals."

The cat was rubbing himself against the leg of the carpenter. He looked at me suspiciously and drew away when I put out my hand to stroke him.

"Don't touch him, sir," warned the carpenter.

"Thomas is still filled with the revolutionary spirit and fears neither man nor beast."

The next time the ship came into port I asked about Thomas. "Sir," said the aged carpenter sadly, "Thomas left us at Adelaide. He eloped with Kit, a little grey tabby who had been in the ship for eight voyages. They were both missing a day before we sailed and didn't

When the White Star liner Cedric was broken up in 1932, the owners made a presentation, not to the captain or the chief engineer, but to the ship's cat, "Doodles," a regular old salt. "I am Doodles," read the inscription of his gift collar. "I was born in 1927 in the White Star liner Cedric in which I have travelled over 360,000 miles."

I recall this recognition of merit on the high seas because the cry has gone forth for more cats to deal with the rats that have sought refuge in vessels after being bombed out of their waterfront homes. Any captain will tell you that "Thomas" or "Mousy," the two standard names for cats at sea, are as important for the well-being of a ship as a good quarter- master or an efficient cook. Rats and mice are the natural enemies of seamen, and so a stout rodent hunter is worth his weight in gold.

War risks mean nothing to seafaring cats. A sinking is all in the day's work. There are many cats sailing the seas to-day which have been in vessels sent to the bottom through enemy action.

Ships' cats are divided into two categories. There are the "permanents," who stay in a ship for voyage after voyage, and there are the "vagrants," who join and desert without warning. But whatever his class, a cat is sure of a welcome. No cat has ever regretted the walk up the gangplank.

Doodles, briefly mentioned in the above article, received a longer notice in the "New York Sun" for January 19, 1933:

It's a year since we've heard of Doodles, mascot of the Cedric. The last time we saw her she was strolling through the main saloon of her vessel, her tail held high in the tradition of the feline whose social position is secure. It was the last sailing of the Cedric from New York. Upon the ship's arrival at the other side she was sent up to Scotland and turned over to the ship breakers.

Doodles was as much an institution during the last days of the Cedric as was the purser or the chief steward. Her right to stroll any deck or companionway was never questioned. It was her duty to maintain an iron-paw discipline over the ship's rats, to react in an amenable manner to the friendly advances of the members of the crew and to mix in a dignified way with those passengers whose social position demanded some recognition. To our knowledge, she never fell down in any department. Any cat who was fortunate to be able to scurry off the Cedric was conspicuously scarred and tooth-marked.

When the Cedric arrived on the other side the crew left the ship and Doodles, following the habit of her five years at sea, hurried down the gangplank and made of to the curious waterfront haunts where she spent her leave ashore. When the ship prepared to leave for Scotland, Doodles obeyed the sixth sense which brings animals back to their vessels at sailing time. She climbed the deserted gangway and disappeared inside the lifeless ship.

In Scotland, at the shipyards, the few remaining members of the crew who were on board made every effort to locate Doodles. They searched for an entire day, combing every part of the vessel she used to survey during her daily rounds. But it was to no avail. Doodles, they reasoned, had either committed suicide or failed to board the ship before it left Liverpool.

Several days later, when the workmen were busy tearing down the Cedric's superstructure, a bystander spotted a small cat of questionable antecedents watching the proceedings from the quay with tear-dimmed eyes. The bystander, being at the same time a gentle bystander, picked up the cat and took it home. Some warm milk and raw liver restored, in time, the glitter which had been missing from the cat's eyes and within a fortnight the first faint notes of a purr escaped the pale lips.

Some days later the gentle bystander encountered a former member of the Cedric crew. Some mention was made of the sad demise of Doodles, which led to her identification in the gentle bystander's home. [The story went on to describe the silver and leather collar given to Doodles by the White Star Line.]

Doodles spent the rest of what I hope was her long and happy life with Mr. H. Hutton at his home in Derbyshire.

Blondie and Seven-Up on the Samkeg. Launceton Examiner, July 26, 1946

Cats at sea, alas, have not always been as law-abiding as the ones described above. The "New York Times" for March 30, 1930, told the harrowing tale of the Attack of the Pirate Cats.  It seems that before the White Star liner Arabic left its port in Liverpool, Tumtum and Cheechee, described as "the toughest among the pirate cats along the Chelsea pier," managed to sneak aboard.  The ship's watchman, Ben Fidd, complained to the "Times" that the two fierce stowaways stole two herrings which had been reserved for breakfast.  When he reported the theft to the pier superintendent, he received the unsympathetic response that "If you go putting Bismarck herrings down where hungry cats are around it's like asking for it."

Probably the most renowned Sailor Cat was Simon, the pride of the British Royal Navy, whose bravery and industriousness made him a beloved national figure during World War II.

Simon, via Wikipedia

Simon was was born into a hardscrabble existence on the Hong Kong wharves circa 1947. The following year, he was found by a crew member of the HMS Amethyst--accounts differ about which man it was--and the gangly, personable little black-and-white kitten was given a home on the ship as rat-catcher and general good-luck mascot.

He quickly made himself at home on the Amethyst. When he wasn't hard at work clearing the ship of vermin, he relaxed by sleeping in the captain's cap, perfecting his favorite parlor trick of fishing ice cubes out of water jugs, and using his playful, intelligent personality to keep up morale among the sailors. Everyone on board came to love him.

Then, on April 20, 1949, the frigate was attacked by the Chinese, coming under heavy fire. By the time the battle was over, seventeen men from the Amethyst had died, including the captain, and twenty-five more were seriously wounded.

Among the injured was Simon. A shell had made a direct hit on the captain's cabin where the cat was taking a nap. He was thrown into the air, and landed with a sickening thud on the deck, unconscious and gravely injured by shrapnel wounds and burns. His tiny body was taken below decks, and he was cared for as well as possible under the hectic circumstances.

No one expected him to survive, but true Sailor Cats are a tough lot. Amazingly, he soon made what seemed to be nearly a full recovery. This was very fortunate for the survivors on the Amethyst, because they badly needed him. The Amethyst was surrounded by Communist forces, and unable to escape. The battle had brought forth hordes of rats who were making dangerous inroads on the ship's quickly-decreasing supplies of food. They even began invading the sleeping quarters.

The now battle-hardened Simon sprang into action. This one-cat army made devastating daily raids on the rodent enemy, presenting his fellow crewmen with a plethora of corpses. He fearlessly entered into single combat with the largest, fiercest rat on the ship--a terrifying beast whom the crew had named "Mao Tse-Tung"--and won.  His pluck and determination during this dangerous and difficult time proved to be an inspiration for the surviving crew members. He also acted as a nurse-companion for the men on board who were suffering from what we would today call PTSD. He would lie next to the traumatized men, purring and kneading the bedclothes, reminding them all that, as ugly as life was at the moment, there was still love and goodness in the world.

It was not until July 30 that the Amethyst was able to slip through the blockade. Their daring escape made headlines around the world. When they reached safety, the crew made sure that Simon was given his due credit for his invaluable role as rat-catcher and morale-booster, and this former homeless wharf cat became a national idol, known as the "Able Seacat."

Simon's crewmates wasted no time nominating him for the Dickin Medal, given by the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals for acts of bravery shown by animals serving in the armed forces. "Throughout the Incident," said the letter of recommendation, "Simon's behaviour was of the highest order."

Simon was granted the award--the first, and so far the only, cat to receive this honor. By this point, he was receiving so many gifts and fan mail that a special Cat Officer had to be appointed to manage it all.

Simon's life as a celebrity proved tragically brief. On November 1, the Amethyst arrived in England, and their mascot, as the law required, was put into quarantine in Surrey. Three weeks later, he contracted a sudden, devastating virus. Despite all the best efforts to save him, Britain's feline war hero died on November 28, to be mourned by everyone who had known him during his short life.. It was assumed that his constitution had been fatally weakened from his wounds, but his comrades from the Amethyst suspected that the stress of the enforced separation from them was the real cause of his death. Hundreds of his fans, including the entire crew of the Amethyst, attended his funeral at the PDSA's pet cemetery in Ilford, Essex. He was buried with full Naval honors.

An even more well-traveled Sailor Cat was navigator and explorer Matthew Flinders' Trim. Born at sea in 1799, the feline soon stood out for his unusual intelligence and winning personality--not to mention his remarkable ability at rescuing himself whenever he fell overboard. As a kitten, he learned to swim, and whenever he fell into the water, he would swiftly and effortlessly climb up a rope to get back on board. Trim, Flinders wrote, was one of the finest-looking animals he had ever seen, the model of the ideal cat. He was jet-black, with snow-white feet and under-lip.  He also had a white blaze on his chest.  Trim was a strong and courageous character, unruffled by the dangers of the sea. Flinders praised the cat's gentleness and goodness of heart, but noted that he had one flaw--vanity. Trim was in the habit of planting himself in a Sphinx-like position front of Flinders and his other shipmates, forcing them to stop whatever they were doing and admire him. His favorite sport was leaping over people's hands, and he also became an expert at "playing dead."  This remarkable feline also took a sagacious interest in nautical astronomy and practical seamanship.  Trim was not just a born sailor, but a natural scholar.

Statue of Trim in Matthew Flinders' birthplace of Donington. Via Wikipedia

Trim was part of the crew of the HMS Investigator when it circumnavigated Australia, making him the first cat to do so. On the return voyage, in December 1803 Flinders was imprisoned by the French in Mauritius on suspicion of being a spy. During his captivity, Trim unaccountably vanished. Although a reward was offered for information about the cat, Flinders never knew what happened to his beloved companion. He glumly made the appalling suggestion that Trim had been abducted and eaten by some of the local slaves.

Flinders was released from prison in 1810 and returned to England, but he never forgot Trim. Before his death in 1814, he wrote an elegy for his lost friend that is among the most touching animal biographies. (It can be read here.)

There are statues of Trim in both Flinders' birthplace in England and at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, Australia. The Library also has a plaque:

To the memory of Trim
The best and most illustrious of his race
The most affectionate of friends,
faithful of servants,
and best of creatures.
He made the tour of the globe, and a voyage to
which he circumnavigated, and was ever the
delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers.
Written by Matthew Flinders in memory of his cat.

Another valiant Sailor Cat who paid the ultimate price for his bravery was Mrs. Chippy, the (male) companion of carpenter Harry McNeish.

Mrs. Chippy and friend, via Wikipedia

When McNeish joined Ernest Shackleton's doomed Endurance expedition to the Antarctic, the "full of character" tabby came along as mascot. After the Endurance was crushed by ice, leaving the crew stranded 350 miles from the nearest land, Shackleton gave orders that the sledging dogs be shot, as he decided it would be difficult enough for the men to save themselves without having the additional burden of what he dismissed as "weaklings." He passed a death sentence on Mrs. Chippy as well.

The crew eventually sailed to safety, on a boat McNeish had built. Many believe his expertise in building this literal life raft was the only thing which enabled the men to survive. During their journey home, however, McNeish continually quarreled with Shackleton, and was found guilty of insubordination, which led to him being denied the Polar Medal, an award given to most of the rest of the crew. It has been suggested his rebellious behavior at least partly stemmed from his anger over Mrs. Chippy's murder.

It is certain he never forgave Shackleton. Someone who visited McNeish many years later, when he was a old, ailing man, recorded that all he remembered the carpenter saying was that "Shackleton had shot his cat." He died in 1930.

In 2004, the New Zealand Antarctic Society raised funds to put a statue of Mrs. Chippy over McNeish's grave. His grandson thought it was the most fitting tribute McNeish could possibly have. "I think the cat was more important to him than the Polar Medal."

Decorated WWII veteran Pooli of the U.S. Navy, via Wikipedia

In recent years, one famed Sailor Cat was "Colin's Cat," the mascot of Port Taranaki, New Zealand, whose inquisitive spirit got her rather more adventure than she had bargained for.  In 2001, she boarded the methanol tanker Tomiwaka to get a free meal from a friendly crewman, and make a general inspection of the ship.  ("She thinks she runs the place," commented one of the port's watch-house staff.)  Before she could leave, however, the tanker left for its destination of South Korea, turning the handsome tortoiseshell into an inadvertent stowaway.  The efforts to bring her home turned into a complicated international rescue mission which made news all over the world.  The Whiskas pet food company--knowing a golden PR opportunity when they saw it--volunteered to foot the bill for returning her to Port Taranaki.  They arranged for a Taranaki staff member to fly to Korea and collect the wanderer.  After two weeks at sea (she was a bit seasick at first, but soon became a "real sailor") she was flown back to New Zealand to receive an epic welcome-home party--and a stern warning to never talk to strangers again.

Colin's Cat subsequently helped raise money for the medical treatment of a local four-year-old girl with cancer.  Described as "older and wiser" since her unplanned travels, she no longer boarded ships, but continued to carefully monitor life at the Port. She died in May 2007, at the age of about fourteen.  The Port put up a memorial stone to her outside the tanker terminal, which still receives a steady stream of visitors wishing to pay their respects to her memory.

Sailor Cats have introduced themselves to Winston Churchill...circumnavigated the globe...appeared in ticker tape parades in New York...served in post-war research stations in the Antarctic...survived multiple sinkings...and some, sadly, have given their lives in service to their country. Although the Royal Navy banned cats in 1975 on "hygienic" grounds (further proof our civilization is in serious decline,) as long as there are ships on the sea, there will, somewhere, be cats to captain them.

One Sailor Cat has even become part of Titanic lore. Many years after the ship sank, a reporter for the "Irish News" interviewed a retired journalist named Paddy Scott. Scott recalled that he once met a man named Jim Mulholland, who had been a stoker on the doomed liner. Mulholland had cared for the ship's cat, Mouser, and her four kittens during the voyage. When the Titanic stopped in Southampton, Mouser took her babies off the ship and was never seen again. Mulholland decided, "That cat knows something," and wisely left the ship himself.

Unfortunately, most historians see this story as mere legend, based on Titanic survivor Violet Jessup's account of the ship's cat "Jenny," who was among those who perished when the ship sank.  (However, the story is not impossible:  cf. this well-documented tale.)  Whatever the truth may be, some anonymous poet paid a charming tribute to this "Titanicat."  Let it stand as a fitting memorial to the uncanny wisdom of all the great cats:

When men go down to the sea in ships,
As they do, to this very day,
They carry along a good ship's cat,
To keep the rats at bay.

One such cat, at the Belfast yard,
Had kittens while on board.
The date was April 1912,
Anno Domini, year of our Lord.

Now the ship was new, and the crew was, too,
So a trial run was deemed fair.
And the scullion lad, whose name was Jim,
Wound up with the tabby's care.

In the F Deck galley Jim scoured and scrubbed,
His job was to bow and bend,
But he saved the scraps from every meal
For the cat that he now called a friend.

They circled the coast 'till their anchor dropped
At the port of the White Star Line,
Where the ship was loaded with lobster and steak,
And silver and crystal and wine.

The cat seemed troubled when the trials were done,
Though she loved her life on the ship.
With kittens in tow, she disembarked,
Refusing to make this trip.

She carried her babies, one by one,
Down the gangplank to the quay,
Two thousand passengers clambered aboard,
But the cat went the other way.

Jim followed his friend and he left that ship
About to sail the Atlantic.
He bid farewell to the maiden voyage
Of the RMS Titanic.

When Jim tells the tale of that wise old cat,
He gets naught but a sneer and a scoff.
Over one thousand drowned when that ship went down,
But Jim and the cat got off.

Down with the ship that fateful night,
Went fathers and sons and wives.
But the cat saved Jim by lending him,
One of her own nine lives.


  1. What a great article. I'm glad Doodles found a retirement on dry land. And I'll bet plenty of sailors and officers in the Royal Navy discreetly bend the rules when they see a cat somewhere on board their ships.

  2. Great stuff, Undine and - of course - close to my heart. Dogs too have a long history at sea with terriers being particularly popular in the era of the birth of the Royal Navy as rodent hunters and companions. Tudor sailors, it seems, were afraid of cats.

    1. Yes, indeed! I'm hoping to eventually write a companion piece on Sailor Dogs, if I can find enough material on the subject.


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