Cats in Fables, Fairytales and Festivals


Articles in Fabled Felines are written by
Patrick Roberts

Copyright © 2003-14 Purr 'n' Fur UK

Certain features on these pages use JavaScript


[ Home | Famous | Featuring | Fans | Fabled | Folios | Fun | Philately | Fragments | Flotsam ]




Possible origins of

The Cheshire Cat

 

Please would you tell me, said Alice, a little timidly . . .
why your cat grins like that?

It's a Cheshire cat, said the Duchess, and that's why.

John Tenniel illustration of the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


Left-click thumbnails for enlargements (JavaScript should be enabled),
but please allow all images to load before doing so, or some may not display
(if this happens, use Refresh from your toolbar to reload the page)



Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898 The origin of, or inspiration for, Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat has puzzled people ever since Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865, and has given rise to a number of theories — but the truth remains unknown. It could have been that he was referring to real cats, or a coat of arms featuring a cat, or even a family called Catt.

Illustration of the Cheshire Cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland One thing does seem to be clear, though, which is that Carroll was not the originator of the phrase 'to grin like a Cheshire cat'. The first mention is in Peter Pindar's Pair of Lyric Epistles published in 1795, which contain the line:
'Lo, like a Cheshire cat our court will grin.'

Peter Pindar was a pseudonym of John Wolcot, or Wolcott, who died in 1819. Apparently the term 'grins like a Cheshire cat' also has a mention in Goss's Slang Dictionary of 1811, but I have not been able to trace that.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the possible sources for the enigmatic creature.


Chester cats

Cheshire is a dairy county, long noted for its cheese and dairy products, and there used to be a cheese warehouse on the banks of the river Dee in the county town of Chester, when that fair city was also a port. The port cats were said to assemble on the dockside and await the rats and mice that would leave ships when they docked ready to take on a cargo of Cheshire cheese. This made them the happiest cats in the kingdom — hence their grins!

One source says there used to be a monument to the Cheshire Cat on the site of the Chester cheese warehouse, later occupied by Copfield House. The house was demolished in 1979, though, and the last people to live there told me they had no knowledge of such a monument. As neither the Cheshire Records Office nor the Chester Heritage Centre can throw any light on the matter, this — like the origin of Carroll's cat — remains a bit of a mystery.


Cats from Cheshire

Grinning Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland An intriguing idea is that British Blue cats, which are known for a 'smiling' expression, are descended from much earlier British cats that may have originated in Cornwall, but moved over time to Cheshire with their people. This fascinating theory was proposed by David Haden of D'Log: the article is unfortunately no longer available as we understand it is being revised [January 2013], but we hope it will be made public again in the future. Lewis Carroll would surely have been familiar with these cats and their 'grins' from his time in Cheshire (see Cheese below).


Cheese

One of the Lewis Carroll memorial windows at Daresbury parish church Detail of the Cheshire Cat from one of the stained glass windows at Daresbury parish church Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was born and grew up in the Cheshire village of Daresbury until he was 11 years old. He would have regularly seen the local cheeses that were fashioned into various animal shapes — one of which was a grinning cat. There are Lewis Carroll memorial windows in Daresbury parish church, and one of them pictures the cat.


Heraldry

The cat could have been derived from Cheshire's early heraldry; the arms of the first Earl of Chester were inscribed with the Lions of England, for example. Lions were common in heraldic designs, and medieval artists were often required to depict snarling lions — animals they had never set eyes on. What they came up with often looked remarkably like grinning cats.


Inn sign

Inn sign depicting the Cheshire Cat, Christleton Rather than a heraldic coat of arms, the cat — by a similar argument — could have come from an inn-sign painter charged with painting a lion (a very common animal on British pub signs), but equally unfamiliar with the real animal. Pub signs date back many centuries and lions or leopards shown on them were often referred to as 'cats'. One of the best contemporary signs showing the cat as Carroll imagined it (left) belonged to the Cheshire Cat inn and hotel at Christleton, just outside Chester; but it has now been replaced by another which, although it shows a fine cat, looks rather less authentic.


Carving 1

Cat carving at St Wilfred's Church, Grappenhall, Cheshire There's a carving on the tower of the twelfth-century church of St Wilfrid's in Grappenhall, a Cheshire village near Warrington. Carroll's father, who was a vicar, used to preach there and the boy would surely have spotted the cat during his visits. The animal is placed above the main door, but is remarkably difficult to photograph well because of its position and the proximity of the Parr Arms pub next door.


Carving 2

Cat carving inside St Christopher's Church, Pott Shrigley, Cheshire St Christopher's Church, Pott Shrigley, in eastern Cheshire
Right over in the east of the county of Cheshire lies the small village of Pott Shrigley, where the thirteenth-century church — St Christopher's — also has a cat-head carving on the wall inside, close to the pulpit. Might this also have been seen by the young Lewis Carroll?


Carving 3

From Cheshire, Carroll moved at the age of 11 to Croft-on-Tees in north-east England. His father was by then rector of Croft church and Archdeacon of Richmond (from 1843 to 1868). Much of Alice is said to have been set in and around Croft church and rectory. In the church is a sedilia — a seat for the clergy — built into the wall, and at one end of it is the carved stone face of a lion. If it's viewed from one of the church pews it seems to have a wide smile; but looked at from a standing position the grin cannot be seen — so it disappears, like that of the Cheshire Cat.


Well, I've often seen a cat without a grin, thought Alice, but a grin without a cat? It's the most curious thing I've seen in all my life!

The Cheshire Cat fades away, leaving only his grin - from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

When the floorboards of Croft rectory were taken up in about 1950, some Victorian artefacts were found that could well have belonged to the Dodgson family. They included a white glove — belonging to the White Rabbit?


Gargoyle

Later in his life Carroll lived for some years in Guildford, Surrey, from where he is known to have often visited the nearby village of Cranleigh. St Nicholas' church in Cranleigh has a cat-like gargoyle on a pillar; could the Cheshire Cat have been based on that?


Court jester

One reference I came across suggested there had been at one time a jester named Cat Kaitlin, who hailed from Cheshire, and since people wanted to be as happy as he appeared to be, the term 'to grin like a Cheshire cat' was a tribute to him. The writer admits, though, that all his efforts to verify that such a jester ever existed had come to nought, and so this is perhaps the least likely explanation.


Peg-board game

A very interesting possibility — perhaps even the most likely one — is that Carroll would have been familiar with the 'grin' of the British Blue cats of Cheshire (see Cats from Cheshire, above) and incorporated that into a dice game he invented to amuse his young friends, in the same way that he came up with Alice's Adventures to entertain the real Alice Liddell during a summer river trip. He made fantastical references to things that would be familiar to children — and so his peg-board became 'Alice's Cheshire Cat'. As the game progressed on the peg-board the cat's head gradually vanishes, leaving only the grin.


Disney's cartoon version of the Cheshire Cat The Cheshire Cat as it appeared in the computer game, American McGee's Alice
Whatever the truth, Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat continues to entertain and fascinate us. Disney had a film version of him sporting pink and purple stripes; it is depicted on several postage stamps. A darker and quite different interpretation of the cat appeared in the computer game American McGee's Alice of 2000.

If anyone knows of any other theories about where the grinning cat might have originated, please contact me!

Further reading

Alice in Wonderland: on the trail of Lewis Carroll by Elizabeth White at Culture24, Feb 2010



If you'd like to comment, or provide any additional information,
please e-mail me,
or drop in at our Facebook page

Return to:
Fabled Felines index

Other sections:
Famous Felines
Featuring Felines
Fans of Felines
Feline Folios
Feline Fun
Feline Philately
Feline Fragments
Feline Flotsam

or visit the Purr 'n' Fur home page



Our featured feline at the head of the page: it was with great regret that I decided to let Pushkin be put to sleep early in 2006, following intractable health problems, a gloomy prognosis and a much diminished quality of life. He was a 'rescue cat' of uncertain age, but I would guess 12 years or more. He will be remembered with great affection as a cat with perfect manners: a gentle soul who seemed even more inscrutable than the average feline. There's a small tribute to him here.


Copyright © Patrick Roberts & Purr 'n' Fur UK 2003-14
All rights reserved
Images and content (whether original or used at Purr 'n' Fur with permission) may NOT be reproduced
at another website or otherwise copied or used without prior permission.
Direct linking (hotlinking) to ANY images on this site is strictly forbidden.
If you want something, !
Page created February 2006, with later revisions and additions