Changing History: Exploring the Origins of the Modern Cat Fancy

Posted on February 8th, 2013 by The British Newspaper Archive

We’re endlessly fascinated and impressed by all the different types of researchers who are gracefully prowling around the Archive. Truly, all human life is here.

drawing a kittenJust recently, Amanda Bright, an ailurophile from Toronto, tweeted to tell us about the research she is doing on the origins and history of the modern cat fancy. Amanda was already familiar with the Newspaper Library at Colindale from the time when she lived in England, and had previously carried out some research there. So she was delighted to stumble across the BNA website, as this means she can now do her research by, um, getting her mouse to do all the work.

Amanda has written an excellent article about her research on the modern cat fancy and has very kindly allowed us to publish it on the blog. If, like the ancient Egyptians, you believe that cats should be venerated, then you’ll enjoy reading Amanda’s article below.

 

Introduction and background
For the past 40 years the cat fancy has played an important part in my life. Breeding and showing pedigreed cats was a family hobby when we moved to Canada from England. I was always interested in the history of the different breeds and 40 years later I am as fascinated by the people and cats of this great hobby as I was in the early days. These days I also judge but, through it all, I have continued to delve into the history of the breeds and the people who have gone before us.

Over the years I have collected many books and magazines that document our history and, any time I have returned home to England on a family visit, I have tried to get to the British Newspaper Library to research this topic further. Now I have electronic access to all kinds of information that I couldn’t get to before, and it is opening up whole new dimensions of research for me.

 

The origins of modern cat fancy
The beginning of the modern cat fancy dates from the late 1800s in England and Harrison Weir is credited with being the father of the cat fancy. In those days, the show results and all kinds of other information were published in the newspapers. The breeding and showing of pedigree animals was a past-time of society people to start with, and so the results were reported in newspapers and in journals specifically devoted to cats. So in my research I look at anything I can find on cat shows and judges and people to help build a larger and better picture of the early cat fancy.

As I read through the information in the articles it is like stepping back in time – although other articles often catch my eye for a short while – but it is also revealing some interesting things that we didn’t know before this information became accessible, things that are changing long-held views.

 

The world’s first cat show and Harrison Weir
Harrison Weir was a famous artist of his time and is the author of the 1889 book Our Cats and All About Them; Their Varieties, Habits and Management that sets out standards for the different breeds. In the late 1800s, breeds had a very different definition. Harrison Weir defined colors as breeds, whereas today we focus on the physical structure of the cat. He promoted cat shows at the Crystal Palace and many sources refer to him as the Father of the Cat Fancy and the talk about how he ran the first show at the Crystal Palace in London.

In Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia, Desmond Morris says of Weir that he “…has justly been described as the father of the pedigree cat show. The holding of the first major cat show – at the Crystal Palace in 1871 – was entirely his idea. He also organized it and he and his brother were two of the three judges.” It is certainly true that Harrison Weir is considered the father of the cat fancy but he did not actually organize the first cat show at the Crystal Palace. From the digitization of the newspapers at the BNL a significantly different view emerged.

The first cat show at the Crystal Palace was organized by the Naturalist, Mr Fred Wilson in 1868. There it was in the London Standard article on page 6, from Wednesday 18 October 1893:

article on the origins and history of cat shows

London Standard – Wednesday 18 October 1893

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000183/18931018/052/0006

 

‘The Cat Show at the Crystal Palace’ and Mr Fred Wilson
This article turned everything I had known about the beginnings of the cat fancy on its head. Other articles confirmed this new view of the cat fancy and so Mr Fred Wilson is someone I want to know more about. An article titled “The Cat Show at the Crystal Palace” from page 5 of the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette (Thursday 20 July 1871) confirmed Fred Wilson’s role in the development of the cat show.

article on the origins and history of cat shows

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Thursday 20 July 1871

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000221/18710720/026/0005

He had worked on collecting the cats for the exhibition and had achieved an entry of 150 cats. He had charged for the entries but the prizes were cash awards provided by the crystal Palace officers. Cash awards were something that helped the cat fancy grow in those early days — it was a genteel way to make some extra money by entering cats that could win the cash prizes. This article is from 1871 — the year that Harrison Weir is supposed to have run the first cat show at the Crystal Palace!

 

Baroness Burdett Coutts – a venerator of cats
And then in the article “Cat Show at the Crystal Palace” from p5 of the Morning Post – Saturday 26 October 1872, we again find Mr Fred Wilson (the naturalist) and Harrison Weir mentioned in connection with the Crystal Palace shows. Together the two men had grown the initial idea of the first cat shows into something larger than resulted in larger numbers of cats being exhibited. However, the concept itself does not appear to have originated with Wilson & Weir but with “… the Baroness Burdett Coutts, the Duchess of Sutherland, and a few other ladies…” The idea of the Baroness was to encourage people to take more interest in cats and to treat them with more care. So even the concept of the cat show cannot be credited to Harrison Weir or to Fred Wilson!

article on the origins and history of cat shows

Morning Post – Saturday 26 October 1872

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000174/18721026/027/0005

 

Mr Harrison and Mr Wilson at the Crystal Palace cat shows
On page 2 of the London Standard of Monday September 22nd, 1873, we find that “The judges of the merits of the animals were Mr. Harrison Weir, Mr. J. Jenner Weir, and Mr. P. H. Jones ; and the general arrangements of the show were under the direction of Mr. F. W. Wilson, of the Natural History Department of the Palace.” London Standard – Monday 22 September 1873 p 2. So while it is true that Harrison Weir and his brother Jenner were two of the judges at Crystal Palace shows, the organization of those shows was still very much in the hands of Fred Wilson. Harrison Weir had entered those early shows and had judged them for Fred Wilson and together the two men established the basis for more lasting competitions.

 

Harrison Weir – ‘Father of the Cat Fancy’
So, what was Harrison Weir’s contribution to the modern cat fancy? Can we still see him as the Father of the Cat Fancy? I think the answer here is that he had a significant influence on the development of the modern cat fancy and that as such we can still see him as the Father of the Cat Fancy – but for very different reasons than those we had believed. Harrison Weir worked with Fred Wilson to promote the cat shows at the Crystal Palace and is one of the first judges for cats. As a judge myself I know that you have to have a basis on which to make comparisons and it is Harrison Weir that defines the first basis for comparison for competition – that is, he defines the first set of standards that are used to judge cats.

While his standards were very different from those we use today, he can be credited (from evidence so far) with writing the first set. Most of his standards were based on colors, he did have standards for the few early breeds that we still recognize today such as the Angora, Persian, Siamese, and Manx. An interesting color-based description is one for the blue shorthair that recognizes 2 distinct origins and a difference in type which go on to become the blue British Shorthair and the Russian Blue in today’s cat fancy. (Russian Blues are my specialty and the newspapers are giving us a lot of interesting new background on this breed.)

He can also be credited with promoting and developing a flourishing cat fancy around the pedigreed cat. He accomplished this through his work on the Crystal Palace shows and his written publications. His book, Our Cats, is a seminal book in the beginnings of pedigree cat recognition but he also started a journal publication devoted to cats and also titled Our Cats, which became a seminal place for the exchange of information and thought around the breeding of pedigree cats in these early days. It is the first journal or magazine I am aware of that was solely devoted to cats.

 

The British Newspaper Library and the British Newspaper Archive
The British Newspaper Library at Colindale has a set of these early papers which I read at the British Library whenever I can – sadly, they are showing their age and some of the paper is crumbling. They are a specialty publication and so are not part of the current digitization project. While probably only of interest to the few, these publications are exceedingly important records for a specialized corner of the world. Hopefully they will get digitized before they simply fade away into the dust–it would be very sad to lose such a great resource for those of us interested in this area.

 

Harrison Weir and the National Cat Club
Harrison Weir can also be credited with driving the formation of the first cat club. The National Cat Club had many famous members but artists Harrison Weir and Louis Wain were key members. Their artwork also helped promote the cat. A second cat club also developed in competition but later the two merged and ultimately became the basis for today’s Governing Council of the Cat Fancy in Great Britain.

Similar organizations developed in other countries at different points in time but the credit for the first cat club and the first organization to develop a registry for cats goes to Harrison and the National Cat Club. And it is these firsts that lead to championship competitions of the modern cat fancy.

 

The first Championship cat show
And we see the establishment of the championship show in an article on page 3 of the October 14 1896 Morning Post that refers to “The first Championship show held under the auspices of the National Cat Club …”.The Show Committee consists of well-known cat fanciers such as Lady Marcus Beresford and Mr Sam Woodiwiss and the judging panel includes Harrison Weir and Louis Wain. So Harrison Weir is a common thread through the development of the concept for the first cat show all the way through the development of the formal cat fancy with cats competing for titles under a set of rules and standards and a governing body that oversaw the awarding of titles and the recording of pedigrees. In that sense he is truly the Father of the Cat Fancy.

article on the origins and history of cat shows

Morning Post – Wednesday 14 October 1896

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000174/18961014/026/0003

 

Summary
There are many other fascinating stories that the papers in the digitization project are revealing – stories about breeds that no longer exist such as the Australian Cat and the Crimean Cat; the male tortoiseshells that have played a role in the development of the cat fancy and the need to understand genetics and how mutations occur along with the overall development of scientific beliefs; and the lives of major players in the cat fancy so we can understand them more as people.

Thanks to the digitization project at the BNA, I can now explore these stories and many others that are emerging from the pages of these old newspapers. Now if we could just get a project to digitize the specialist papers like Our Cats and Fur & Feather I’d be in 7th heaven! We are fortunate to live in a time when these documents are becoming available to all of us no matter where we are in the world.

Amanda Bright

This entry was posted on Friday, February 8th, 2013 at 10:30 am and is filed under News from the past. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

  • Yasmin Wijnands

    Great and interesting article. Well done Amanda!

  • http://www.tonkinese.me Linda Vousden

    Hi Amanda,
    A very interesting article, thank you. I so agree with your summary. As one who has spent many years researching the history of my own breed (Tonkinese) within the Cat Fancy, I share your thrill of finding these gems of information and long may we continue to do so – especially with the digitizing of these precious records. Kind regards, Linda

  • judith milling

    This is great. I am the co-editor for TICA newsletter and editor for the SE Regional newsletter. This will come in handy. Thanks

  • Kristi Smith

    Bravo. Well done!

  • http://www.Siberiancats.com Lynda Nelson

    Thank you for all your hard work and Kudos to you for your diligence

  • Kim Chenault

    Amanda, amazing article. I always tell people you are the TICA Cat Historian. Great job!

  • Steven Savant

    Thank you, Amanda and the promoters of the digitization project! It is truly rare to find this type of information that adds to the wealth of knowledge surrounding our beloved hobby…the Cat! Another layer for understanding that which leads those of us to produce cat shows, breed beautiful cats, show them to the world, and judge! You are a treasure of our fancy!

  • Linda Wilson

    I loved this, fascinating research. I’m a historian of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, mainly of women, and also a cat lover. I’d be interested to see the links between cats and femininity/women explored – was it seen as unusual for men to take an interest in cats? One or two comments I have come across, as well as one or two of those newspaper articles, indicate this.

    • BNA

      We’re glad you liked the article, Linda. We’de be interested in learning more about cats and femininity, too. Maybe you or Amanda could write an article about this in the future?! Regards, Grant.

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  • http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35450/35450-h/35450-h.htm dodo

    Note Harrison Weir’s eventual displeasure with show folks’ focus on winning.

    “In my former edition of “Our Cats,” I wrote hopefully and expectantly of much good to be derived from the institution of the so-called National Cat Club, and of which I was then President; but I am sorry to say that none of those hopes or expectations have been realised, and I now feel the deepest regret that I was ever induced to be in any way associated with it. I do not care to go into particulars further than to say I found the principal idea of many of its members consisted not so much in promoting the welfare of the Cat as of winning prizes [...] I therefore felt it my duty to leave the club for that and other reasons. I have also left off judging of the Cats, even at my old much-loved show at the Crystal Palace, because I no longer cared to come into contact with such “Lovers of Cats.””