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There is a history of resident cats in the British 'corridors of power', including the prime minister's residence, the War Office and the Treasury, dating as far back as the time of Henry VIII, when Cardinal Wolsey was his Chancellor of the Exchequer. In more recent times, Frilly was resident cat at the British War Office in around 1909 and was on the official payroll. When he died the employees had a collection to pay for him to be stuffed and preserved for posterity, and in this guise he appeared at the Imperial War Museum's Animals' War exhibition in 2007.
One former Treasury cat, a fine 'marmalade' tom rejoicing in the name of Rufus of England, later became better known as Treasury Bill; he served under Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald from about 1924 and was a formidable mouser and ratter. He was said to bring his trophies to his boss, but when he found that they were being picked up and put by the rubbish bins in the hallway, he soon realised the proper procedure, and after that the cleaners would find the mice neatly laid out by the bins for them to deal with! There's a story that when he began to decline in his latter years, becoming thin and rather languid, the Secretary to the Treasury submitted a claim to the Lords of the Treasury that Bill's food allowance was insufficient owing to a sharp rise in the cost of living, and should be increased by at least fifty per cent. Their lordships replied that after giving 'careful consideration to the matter' they were 'unable to approve a rise'. Bill himself is said to have taken matters into his own paws, and finding the door to the Chancellor's office ajar one day he walked in and exercised some of those blandishments that cats know so well how to use to get their way. Chancellor Philip Snowden a man noted for his tight-fisted guardianship of public funds looked at Rufus, and softened. He turned to his desk and made a note: 'Treasury vote: approve increase in cat's pay.' The budget bill for a 50% increase in the cat's pay was submitted to Parliament, debated, voted on and passed: and that is how Rufus came to be known thereafter as Treasury Bill.
A cat called the Munich Mouser is mentioned as being 'in office' under Neville Chamberlain and was resident in Downing Street when Winston Churchill moved in as prime minister in May 1940; we think this cat died during 1943. We haven't been able to find out his real name; apparently he was nicknamed the Munich Mouser, somewhat disrespectfully, by Churchill as he was a holdover from former Prime Minister Chamberlain's administration. He was, though, treated with great kindness, as Churchill was very fond of cats. Our photo outside 10 Downing Street, taken from undated newsreel footage but probably around the time of the outbreak of war, may show the Mouser, but we're unable to confirm that; another possibility is that it's Nelson, one of Churchill's own cats, who was black and did spend some time at No. 10.
At some point there was also Emily of the Home Office, apparently picked up in the street by a charwoman, but who became so wise and engaging that she always sat in at conferences with the Home Secretary.
Wilberforce was just a kitten when he was acquired from the Hounslow branch of the RSPCA in 1973, when Edward Heath was prime minister. The black-and-white cat proved to be a terrific mouser; he also outlasted several prime ministers. Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have bought him a tin of sardines in Moscow when she was visiting a supermarket there. When he made a TV appearance with her, it was Wilberforce who received more fan mail! Sir Bernard Ingham said that the cat caused him, as an asthmatic, some trouble when he came to work on Monday mornings as Wilberforce 'lounged on my desk over the weekend in between mouse-catching duties'. Wilberforce retired in 1986, after 13 years of loyal service, and went to live in the country, where he apparently devoted his time to dominating a large dog! He died in his sleep on 19 May 1988 and gained numerous appreciative obituaries in the press. A painting of Wilberforce can be seen at the end of this article.
But it was Humphrey who really brought the position of resident mouser at Downing Street to the public's attention. He was a stray, long-haired, black-and-white cat who became one of the most popular and admired cats in Great Britain. He was found by a member of the Cabinet Office staff (70 Whitehall, next to the prime minister's London residence of No. 10 Downing Street) in October 1989, late in Margaret Thatcher's prime ministership, and remained throughout John Major's term in office (one of the few inhabitants of No. 10 to outlast Mrs T!).
He was about a year old and, following a ballot among staff, was named after Sir Humphrey Appleby in the very popular BBC television comedy show Yes, Minister, and given the official title of Mouser to the Cabinet Office; his food was paid for by the departmental budget. The cost of £100 a year was said to appeal to Mrs Thatcher because it was much cheaper than hiring a pest-control contractor (the previous one charged £4,000 a year and was said never to have caught a mouse!).
Humphrey's eight years in the corridors of power saw him mingling with the great and the good (and others), which he did with aplomb and the natural dignity of his kind; he was described as a laid-back and relaxed cat, which was probably just as well. He paid scant attention to politicians, heads of state or even royalty, and seemed quite unfazed by photocalls. There's a book containing various photographs of Humphrey going about his duties (A Day in the Life of Humphrey, as told by David Brawn, published by HarperCollins in 1995). He wandered freely between No. 10 and No. 11, the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the adjacent Cabinet Office.
His life was not without adventure, though, and when US President Bill Clinton came to visit, Humphrey apparently narrowly escaped being run over by the two-ton, armoured, presidential Cadillac, which naturally he had decided to investigate. Then in 1994, during John Major's tenure, he was accused of killing baby robins in the No. 10 garden, which caused a bit of a fuss; however, Major staunchly defended him, saying, 'It is quite certain that Humphrey is not a serial killer.'
In 1995 the cat had his greatest adventure when he disappeared, and it was assumed that he had died ('possibly from eating too many Civil Service biscuits', as one commentator wryly put it). But in fact he'd wandered about a mile away to the Royal Army Medical College, then at Millbank, where he was presumed to be a stray, taken in and given food and shelter. Some three months later The Times reported that he was probably dead and published an obituary picture whereupon the medics realised that their 'stray', known as 'PC' ('Patrol Cat'), was actually Humphrey! (right) He was duly returned, with international press coverage and a congratulatory message from America's 'First Cat', Socks Clinton, and resumed his post as First Mouser.
It perhaps isn't so widely known that Humphrey had another adventure away from home when he was 'cat-napped' by a German travel agent, Hanni Velden, who in 1997 found him wandering around St James's Park. She thought he was a stray and took him home to her apartment in a seventh-floor tower block in Lambeth. But when she took him to the vet for a check-up he was recognised by a member of the public, and when the Cabinet Office was phoned they confirmed that he'd been missing so Hanni had to return her 'stray'. And he appeared on the 1996 and 1997 Cabinet Office Christmas cards!
In May 1997 a Labour government was elected, and within six months, on 13 November, he had left his prestigious residence. All kinds of political humour was bandied about (. . . voting with his paws. After eight happy years under the Conservatives, he could take only six months of Labour . . .; Perhaps, like all other groups who have suffered from Labour's broken promises, he didn't get the loving attention he was promised in May from the new occupants of Number 10; and so on). Cherie Blair was said to dislike cats and to consider them unhygienic: even to be allergic to them. Still, there is a photo of her holding Humphrey (right), even if she doesn't look altogether thrilled about it (but neither does Humphrey).
There was even a rumour that poor Humphrey had been put to sleep (possibly for leaving puddles on Tony's carpets to express his disapproval?), but in fact it seems he was 'retiring from politics for health reasons'. He'd had a kidney complaint for some time, and his medical advisers felt it would be better for him to retire from his hectic environment and take life more easily in the suburbs. A Conservative member of Parliament asked for proof that the cat was still alive (left), though, and so political journalists took up the case.
Downing Street smuggled the media to a secret location in south London; they included Sean Dempsey, who had photographed Humphrey many times. 'He greeted me like an old friend,' said Dempsey, 'and there was no doubt it really was Humphrey.' As hostages are, he was photographed with the newspapers of the day to prove there was no trickery, and with his new pal, a goldfish.
So a political crisis was averted, and the former No. 10 feline continued to enjoy his well-earned retirement. His new owners were not identified, neither was the location; but they said he was happy, had put on weight, and that they had had no trouble with puddles. After some years of living in retirement, perhaps dreaming of the days when he was on familiar terms with the rich and powerful, it was reported on 20 March 2006 that Humphrey had died in his sleep the previous week. He had reached the grand old age of 18.
ConservativeHome's Tory Diary blog noted his passing with a quote from Roger Gale, MP, who met Humphrey on a number of visits to Downing Street during the Thatcher and Major years: 'Humphrey was often curled up on the doorkeeper's chair and a very reassuring presence to those entering No. 10 on business. We were sad when Humphrey was 'retired' with the arrival of the Blairs. Humphrey clearly had a much loved and comfortable old age. We were all sorry to learn, today, of his death, and we shall all remember the Downing Street cat with great affection.'
At the beginning of 2005 many government files were released to the public for the first time under the Freedom of Information Act, and these included some of the papers relating to Humphrey, made available by the Cabinet Office as one very large PDF document (may take some time to load in view of its size). It makes fascinating reading, but I wonder what happened to the ones before 1996? For example, I enjoyed a 1992 memo that I read of elsewhere stating about Humphrey that: 'He tends to eat little and often, no doubt because he knows he can get food whenever he wants. He is a workaholic who spends nearly all his time at the office, does not socialise a great deal or go to many parties, and has not been involved in any sex or drugs scandals that we know of.'
Perhaps one day we'll be able to read about 'Humphrey: the Early Years'!
After 10 catless years at the PM's residence, Humphrey had a successor when on 11 September 2007 a new resident of 10 Downing Street made her public debut. Sybil was a black-and-white female, and the Downing Street website reported that 'Sybil has arrived from Edinburgh with Chancellor Alastair Darling and his wife Margaret. She will make her home in the residential quarters of Number 10. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his family live in the flat above Number 11. Sybil is Downing Street's first cat since Humphrey, who retired in 1997. She will have free rein to come and go around the Downing Street estate.'
The then prime minister, Gordon Brown who lived above No. 11 Downing Street but worked at No. 10 and his wife Sarah confirmed via a spokesman that they were happy to have Sybil around and she would be free to wander at will over the whole premises. 'It's in the nature of things that cats are difficult to confine,' said the official. A Treasury spokesman said that Sybil was 'a confirmed mouser', so clearly she would be taking over the official mousing duties.
Sybil was apparently named after Basil Fawlty's wife in the celebrated BBC television series, Fawlty Towers, but (unlike the probable reaction of her namesake) Sybil the cat seemed slightly unnerved by the press call. Downing Street put up a short video at YouTube.
Unfortunately Sybil's tenure was short-lived. It seems she did not settle well in Downing Street, and so after about 6 months she was taken to live with friends of Mr Darling's who lived in a quieter neighbourhood. There were some reports that she'd returned to their Scottish home in Edinburgh, but as far as we can gather, although that was what the Darlings wanted for her, it did not happen. She died in London in July 2009 after a short illness, the nature of which we don't know.
So Downing Street was catless again and seemed likely to remain so, even after a change of government in 2010.
2011: time for another cat?
In January 2011 many were speculating whether another official mouser should be engaged by No. 10, after a rat was seen scurrying across the step in the background of evening TV news reports from Downing Street. This occurred on at least two occasions during live reports by BBC and ITN correspondents, and several videos are available at YouTube and elsewhere: here's one, and of course the story was also covered in the press and extensively online. Staff at No. 10 were said to be pressing for a new feline recruit, and a spokesman for David Cameron confirmed there was a 'pro-cat faction within the building'. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home helpfully pointed out that they had many rescued cats on their books, waiting to be rehomed, who would be admirable for the job. They invited the Prime Minister to choose a suitable candidate, and suggested that a three-year-old tuxedo cat by the name of Crocket could be ideal.
But prospects appeared slim for another Humphrey or Sybil, or indeed Crocket, as it was also reported that the PM would 'not be bringing back the Downing Street cat despite the fresh sightings of rats', as he was 'not particularly concerned about the rat situation'.
A short news video by Newsround for the CBBC children's TV channel also covered the story and included brief footage of Humphrey in his heyday.
A change of heart enter Larry
On 14 February 2011 it was reported that a new Downing Street feline staff member had, after all, been appointed. Although not officially confirmed at that stage, news reports spoke of 'insiders' indicating that the successful applicant was Larry, a stray from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, who had been selected from a shortlist but with David Cameron's two eldest children having the final say on which they liked best.
By the following morning the BBC was reporting that Larry was indeed due to arrive at Number 10 later in the day to take up his duties, and that a photocall would be held: watch the BBC News video. During the afternoon there was coverage of Larry arriving in Downing Street and being taken inside No. 10 in a pet carrier. Battersea had issued a press release saying the former stray was 'a great match, because he is a very sociable cat who enjoys attention and loves human contact.' And the prospects for the rats? Battersea said, 'Our cats live in a cattery but there are usually tell-tale signs of the hunter instinct from a previous life in some cats and even in the cattery Larry showed those signs.' His age was estimated at between three and five years old, and he had been rescued in early January from the London streets where it was thought he'd been living rough for some little time. Battersea described him as 'a bit of a bruiser', but very affectionate and sociable, and sufficiently confident to settle into the busy lifestyle within the building with all its comings and goings.
Later news bulletins showed Larry exploring his new surroundings at the PM's official residence. With the attendant press and TV attention it must have been a rather nerve-wracking and bewildering experience for him many cats would have fled the scene altogether, but on the whole he held his composure and didn't appear too unsettled. Apart, that is, from a slight slip when things became a little too overwhelming, and he scratched a reporter as he struggled free from her arms when she picked him up for a one-to-one 'interview'! Some lovely images came out of the photocall, two of which we reproduce here (left, and above right). By the end of the day in Britain, news of Larry's arrival, photos and videos had circled the globe online. Within even less time at least three Twitter accounts had also been set up claiming to be Larry.
A Guardian political correspondent, after checking with No. 10, noted in his blog that Larry was 'for Downing Street'; in other words, his status is that of an office cat rather than a family pet or an official civil service cat as his predecessors have been. As such the cost of his food and upkeep do not come out of the public purse, but from staff at the building who also share in his care and welfare. He is able to access almost all parts of Nos. 10 and 11, to sleep where he wishes, and has the run of the enclosed gardens. Early indications were that Larry showed every sign of being able to adjust to his new surroundings and situation; indeed, a No. 10 spokesman said Larry was 'chilled'.
Shortly after his arrival a story was circulated that his former owner had stepped forward after seeing his story in the media. 'Margaret Sutcliffe' claimed Larry was in fact 'Jo' who had disappeared a few months previously, and that she 'nearly died' when she saw his photos. The tale went that her nephew 'Tim' had begun a Facebook page to campaign for Larry's return and several hundred people had already joined, some saying they had written to Downing Street in support. The Daily Mail and others ran with the story, and it was quickly reproduced at many online sites. However, it turned out the whole thing had been a deliberate spoof to draw attention to 'churnalism'.
It wasn't until one day in late April 2011 that Larry was observed climbing in through a Downing Street window with a mouse clamped in his jaws. He is said to have dumped it unceremoniously at the feet of the secretaries, and after their initial shock they gave him a cheer, as it was the first mouse he was known to have caught. In June Mr Cameron said the total count had risen to three, so evidently Larry had been quietly getting on with his job! (But see below ...).
He did, though, celebrate the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton on 28 April, when he was seen sporting around his neck a natty bow in the British colours. On 25 May there was more excitement for Larry when he met Barack Obama during the American President and First Lady's state visit to Britain; and on behalf of the US Government he was also presented with a replica rat which seemed to meet with his approval! David Cameron revealed that Larry was 'a bit nervous' around most men, but had 'liked Obama'.
We wish Larry well, and a long and happy life as the latest in a distinguished line of feline residents in the corridors of power. However, it was reported in late November 2011 that Larry was not fulfilling his duty well in terms of catching mice, although the rat problem had diminished. He was said to spend too much time either sleeping or visiting his 'girl friend', a cat called Maisie, in St James's Park!
More photos continue to be published, either in the press or released from Downing Street, and here are just a few.
See also the following 'Larry links' for more:
In April 2011 British folk singer and guitarist Alan ('Big Al') Whittle composed a little ditty called Larry the Cat hear Al sing it at his site.
A second cat in Downing Street
During June 2012 it was announced that Freya¸ a handsome tabby with superb whiskers, had been found after three years and was taking up residence again with George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his family, who also currently live in Downing Street. Long before they moved there, and when she was only a few months old, Freya had disappeared, and after searching for her and putting up posters to no avail, they assumed she had been irretrievably lost, or possibly run over. It turned out she had been in a garden not far from the Osbornes' permanent home in Notting Hill, where she had been looked after and fed by a neighbour who had not seen the posters. Only when a visit to the vet revealed a microchip was it realised who she belonged to, and she was duly installed in Downing Street. She was said to have settled in happily and to be getting on well with her family, the staff and Larry.
In September 2012 it seems that Freya took over the official mousing duties and sidelined Larry, who had not exactly distinguished himself in the mouse-hunting business since his arrival at No. 10 in early 2011. The crunch came when Mr Cameron reportedly found Larry asleep on his chair in his study, while a mouse ran across the room. He attempted to wake Larry to spur him into action, but all the feline could manage was to open one eye and didn't budge an inch. The prime minister therefore drafted in tabby Freya as the new Mouser of State to patrol Numbers 10, 11 and 12, although to avoid any hurt feelings the situation was described as a 'job share'. The two cats have a sort of armed neutrality towards each other, although a photo was published of them having a bit of a sparring match on one occasion.
We haven't heard whether or not there has been a dramatic reduction in the rodent population in Downing Street since Freya's takeover. For a full report on the reshuffle, see the Daily Mail.
Further linksWikipedia: Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office
BBC Nov 1997: Humphrey bids a feline farewell
BBC Nov 1997: Purr-fect ending fur Humphrey
BBC Mar 2006: Downing Street cat Humphrey dies - short video also available
CBS News video Mar 2006: Three Prime Ministers & A Cat
BBC Sep 2007: No 10 gets new feline first lady
BBC Jul 2009: Ex-Downing Street cat Sybil dies
Independent Jul 2009: Farewell to the original New Labour cat
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Simon of HMS Amethyst.
He remains the only cat ever to have been awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry under enemy fire,
in what became known as the 'Yangtse Incident' (1949).
Read Simon's story.
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