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Cats' Adventures 18
The idea of building a replica of the Mayflower that took the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620 was conceived in the early 1950s, as a means of commemorating the friendship and cooperation between Britain and the United States during WW2.
Project Mayflower came to fruition in 1955 and the ship was built during 1955-6 in Brixham, Devon, using the traditional methods of British shipbuilders and the original blueprints, which were held by the Plimouth Plantation museum in America. Finance came from that museum, from British sponsors and, according to some accounts, collections made by American schoolchildren. The vessel was launched on 22 September 1956, and set sail on her transatlantic crossing on 20 April the following year. The voyage to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the ship is now preserved at the Plimouth Plantation Museum, took 55 days and was blessed with mostly good weather.
Not long before sailing, a tiny black-and-white kitten, just a few weeks old, was brought on board. Looking at the tiny ball of fluff, the captain Alan Villiers and some crew members felt it would never survive the voyage; Felix, as he was named, had other ideas. His principal carers were two cabin boys, the English Graham Nunn and his American cabin-mate the only American aboard Joseph Meany Jr.; they wisely kept Felix out of the way until the ship was at sea, and fed him to start with on condensed milk. He did have a rough couple of weeks to start with, and his fur became all matted; then one day one of the boys, while taking a bath, decided to give Felix one too! Well soaped and scrubbed, this seemed to have the desired effect and he never looked back. After a few weeks he had grown apace and was eating just about any rations they gave him, including cooked flying fish, but had a preference for canned fish. The kitten gradually gained his sea legs and within about seven weeks was able to adjust his little body to the movement of the ship. Then there was no stopping him!
He climbed ropes, visited every cabin, slept in every bunk and commenced using up most of his nine lives with a series of narrow escapes! A small black kitten on a dark deck on a black night is not easy to see; he got stepped on once and a leg was broken. It was set by the ship's doctor, and then Felix was confined to quarters and fussed over by the boys; fortunately young bones heal quickly and there was no permanent damage. He was almost swept overboard by a large wave, being caught just in time by a crew member; on another occasion he was asleep on a coiled halyard when it was uncoiled and he was tangled in it and shot up into the air. He jumped safely to the deck and no harm was done. He had become a real ship's cat, and when it rained and leaking timbers made bunks wet, Felix would be sure to find the driest place on the ship. The only thing he wouldn't tolerate was a lifejacket; a crew member made him a tiny one after all, he was a crew member like everyone else but when the jacket was put on him he became semi-mutinous. After that, he went into hiding whenever there was a lifeboat drill!
Upon arrival in Plymouth, MA, the kitten stayed on board, knowing all the hiding places where he could avoid the numerous people who asked after him. The Mayflower then sailed to New York, where she docked at a pier that already held many exhibits, and she was opened to the public. There was a ticker-tape parade for the crew on Broadway, to which Felix allowed himself to be taken, but on being presented to the Mayor he scratched the dignitary's hand! When he started to wander around the pier exhibits, it was decided it was time to find him a home, before someone catnapped him or he was run over.
His guardian Graham Nunn was not able to return him to England because of the strict quarantine regulations, so Joe Meany took charge of him and took him to his home in Waltham, outside Boston. There Felix learned about grass, and met his first cat! (He had already encountered a dog at a New York hotel.) He grew bigger, and a bit wilder; and as the Meany household already had several pets, Felix went to stay with the Barrys, family friends who lived not far away. His new guardian was Ann Barry, the 19-year-old daughter of the family. He became sleek, handsome and confident (see main photo above), wore a green collar and occasionally deigned to play with a green rubber mouse. As far as we know, he happily lived out his days with the Barry household; as for remembering his early days on Mayflower Felix twitched his tail and remained inscrutable.
This account is adapted from an article in the American Yankee magazine of November 1958, Felix, the Mayflower Cat, by Ora Dodd. We are most grateful to current Yankee Executive Assistant Debbie Despres for sending us a copy of the article and giving permission to use it. Other accounts mentioning Felix appeared following the voyage in National Geographic and Life magazine.
Felix's life on Mayflower is also recounted in a children's book, Felix and His Mayflower II Adventures (image above left) by Peter Arenstam, published by Plimouth Plantation Press for the 50th anniversary of Mayflower's journey in 2007 (no ISBN given).
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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