In the 75th anniversary year of the start of World War II, Louise Mudd looks back through The Cat magazines of the day to chart the gritted determination of a charity under siege

We are rightly proud of our title as a nation of animal lovers and any notion that we would advocate the mass destruction of domestic pets seems inconceivable. Sadly that is exactly the situation cat owners found themselves in September 1939. In order to understand how this message, issued centrally from government in pamphlet-form, had such an impact it led to the destruction of 750,000 pets in one week alone, it is necessary to go back in time and see the world through very different eyes.

The Cats Protection League (CPL) was formed in 1927 to raise awareness and knowledge of our feline friend by raising its status; some of the issues faced in those early days were immense and one of the key activists was a certain Albert Steward. He began his long association with the charity through the work of the Slough Branch and later became their first paid secretary in 1932. He worked tirelessly and without fear, often facing criticism from both outside and inside the organisation. The charity owes its survival during WWII to his and the small Executive Committee’s sheer refusal to give up or give in whatever the odds.

Speaking up for cats
To ensure the voice of the membership was heard and promote the work as widely as possible, a magazine entitled The Cats’ Mews Sheet was published in 1931, changing to The Cat in 1935. In the pre-war years, debates on major issues were hotly discussed through these pages. In a world where the cat population was unrestricted by anything other than death or misadventure, routine neutering was viewed as an unnecessary and expensive intervention with nature. The only other option was for the charity to undertake the task of humane destruction to improve the fate of many unwanted or rejected cats and kittens. The creation of the ‘lethalising box’ was the answer to the suffering of many a poor soul and would soon come into large scale use.

When the first shadows of war loomed over Europe in April 1938, The Cat was quick to put forward options available to all animal lovers. It is important to remember that the country had already endured The Great War, during which stray cats had been left to fend for themselves in towns and cities across the continent. It was those images of starving and injured animals, which came back with startling ferocity for those who had witnessed them first-hand or heard reports second-hand.

At the first intimation that war insanity had again broken out in the world, and that this country would be involved, they would put aside their personal feelings and would at once see to it that their cat, or any other animal, was made safe for ever from risk of torture by gas, mutilation by bombs, homelessness, terror and starvation.” (The Cat, April 1938)

By September 1938 Chamberlain’s deal with Germany seemed to avert the threat of war and in the October issue, the message to readers was clear – plan and prepare now there was no immediate danger and avoid making rash decisions. Advice was given on preparing a gas-proof room for people and their pets; collars with contact details were vital and where possible arrangements for short-term care of the cat should be organised in advance. By the December issue, there is a palpable sense of the country taking a deep sigh of relief and The Cat was instead declaring 1938 their year – positive publicity and a series of feel good stories in the press filled the membership with a sense that the tide was beginning to turn their way. The literature distributed in the form of postcards, leaflets and posters had doubled from 50,000 to 100,000. For a small specialist group this was an impressive achievement, which was brought to a sudden halt.

By March 1939 Germany had taken control of the whole of Czechoslovakia and this was reflected in the magazine. In May’s edition, the readership was asked to help two cats, who had fallen foul of Austria’s invasion. With their owner, Frau Weingarten, they had been carried overland, through Belgium and France where they sought safety in England, only to be faced with an £18 bill for quarantine. Frau Weingarten refused to abandon her feline companions and appealed for assistance from the public in England. Needless to say cat lovers responded and the £18 was soon raised to bring them over to safety.

In September 1939 England found itself in an impossible situation. The invasion of Poland was to bring about the very situation feared most – the country was at war. At the same time, fear of immediate invasion prompted owners to have their pets put down.

Preparing for war
Alarmed at the demand for their lethalising boxes, Cats Protection along with other animal charities tried to offer alternatives and provided practical advice on how to cope. The message was clear: only put down a pet if all other options have been explored first. The October issue was filled with ideas to adapt to wartime constraints – it explained how to help a cat cope with its rapidly changing world. Wartime menus were created, ideas for substituting meat for other foodstuffs, such as offal and tinned salmon. Readers wrote in with amazing stories of pet cats happily eating a whole variety of meals from bread soaked in milk and marmite to beetroot. If people could adapt then so could the cat, if only given the chance. Supplies of commercial cat food disappeared as the war progressed and the U-Boat blockade took its toll. Cat owners faced increasing pressure to have their animals put down, accused of being unpatriotic for feeding a cat. One worried lady wrote in to ask “Is it right to give an animal the meat, fish etc which might feed a human being?” The answer was very direct. “Yes it is selfish and anti-patriotic to keep useless pets in these days. But the cat is no idle food consumer. He is one of the best food protectors known. He saves the community literally millions of pounds’ worth of foodstuffs annually.”

The shift was to promote the status of the cat, from that of a stray or pet, to being valued as a war worker. Stories were published showing cats as part of the team protecting England’s warehouses from attack by rats. Indeed, the wholescale loss of cats in the first months of the war created a shortage of mousers and the rat population exploded in some areas. The charity pushed home their message again and again – to be an effective hunter the cat must be fed. The myth that they could survive on mice alone was repeatedly heard and repeatedly challenged. The Government conceded that cats were indeed needed to protect foodstuffs and allowed damaged milk supplies to be given to warehouse cats. In certain places some cats were given a salary, kindly converted into food supplies by their human co-workers.

The bombs fall
The previously imaged horrors became reality in September 1940 when the Blitz began in London and its population was subjected to the terror of bombings, then Doodlebugs and V2 rockets. Thousands of people had to be evacuated and only a few were able to take their animals with them. Carrying baskets owned by the charity were loaned out, allowing cats to travel in safety; however many a cat had to make do with a hatbox or cardboard box. For the many cats left behind, the price was high.

Mr Steward and his colleagues felt they needed something to galvanise efforts for these feline victims and an idea was born – The Tailwavers. This scheme began in June 1940 with the following aims, to:

  • Ensure clinical and rescue work was maintained
  • Ensure the continued support of members
  • Assist with demands from affiliates and branch groups
  • Keep the magazine going

The idea was this – any cat could be enrolled as a Tailwaver by its human companion at a cost of 5/- per year. The scheme proved itself a success and Pip was the first cat to be signed up by his owner Mrs Ellison. The Tailwavers scheme threw cats a lifeline. Throughout the bombed-out cities, cats and kittens were in desperate need and the financial support from Tailwavers enabled volunteers to feed, treat or humanely destroy thousands of cats. The charity worked closely with the RSPCA, PDSA, National Canine Defence League, as well as the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) stations, police, fire crews and any other volunteers to help any animal in distress.

Will any London reader with time to spare on Sunday mornings volunteer to help two ladies to rescue stray cats, which swarm in Bermondsey; they are in a truly tragic state.”

Cats are sensitive creatures and soon earned a reputation for warning their owners when bombs were about to fall. The dreaded Doodlebugs and V2 rockets caused immense damage, but the cats were able to hear the high frequency whistling long before impact and made for cover. The magazine was filled with heart-rendering tales of heroic cats fighting their way over rubble to alert rescuers to the presence of their families, both feline and human. They were also credited with alerting sleeping owners to fires which threatened both life and home.

The fear for Mr Steward and the charity was that the longer the war continued, the harder it was to keep the public’s sympathy for cats in general. The threat of ‘wartime hardness’ was ever present. Their way to overcome this indifference was to show it mirroring the enemies’ attitude:

There is a very close link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to human beings. We have seen the results of the doctrine that a superior breed of men can treat inferior races as it pleases.”

As the war gathered pace, cats began to appear more and more in stories of the soldiers and sailors abroad. Ships were a familiar home for a cat, but all too often they suffered the same fate as the crew – Susie had the dubious honour of being the first cat to be torpedoed, aboard the trawler Rudyard Kipling. Thankfully she returned home safely to Belfast and was first down the gangway with her crew in tow.

Another cat Tawny had to fight not only the Germans, who sank his fishing boat, but Swedish bureaucrats. When their fishing trawler sank, a passing Swedish ship rescued both cat and crew from the sea. However the German vessel intercepted them, taking the English fishermen prisoners and leaving Tawny behind. When the ship docked in Gothenburg, quarantine regulations meant Tawny would have to be destroyed. Hearing of his plight, the staff at the Consul stepped in to stop this happening and residents of Gothenburg wrote in with offers of help, eventually finding this brave little cat a secure home in Sweden.

The Cat in kitten-form
As signs of change in fortune in favour of the Allies appeared, Mr Steward began to publish ideas for the future of the charity; model clinics, boarding homes, a cat museum; all seemed possible. However the end was not as close as hoped for and by June 1944, a dire financial situation was threatening to overwhelm the charity. The workload at HQ was appallingly high; petrol shortages meant rescues were restricted, calls for advice rose tremendously as leaflets went out of print, The Cat was restricted in size and quantity, and had to be produced in ‘kitten-form’. Mr Steward repeatedly urged members to promote and encourage new memberships and donations to keep the charity afloat. As one of the smallest groups, it was sheer determination that saw them through. “As a baby society, we can only take very short steps as yet especially as we are suffering from an attack of financial rickets.”

Thankfully by the beginning of 1945, the tide had turned and The Cat began to note a rise in memberships once more. However the stress of such a workload almost became too much for Mr Steward, who was taken ill with a severe attack of scarlet fever and struggled slowly back to health. By May 1945 The Tailwavers scheme had recruited 481 members and had carried the group through some very dark days. With peace on the horizon, the idea of continuing this scheme to fund peacetime activities was seen as the best way forward.

To celebrate VE day The Cat featured a photograph on the front cover for the first time in five years – a ‘Victory Cat’ called England, born in 1941, with a distinctive white V marking on its chest. For the country the war was over.

As for Cats Protection, post-war austerity would bring fresh challenges but with the experience gained from the war years these would be met by a stronger and unwavering charity, determined to improve the plight of Britain’s cats.

This article first appeared in the autumn 2014 issue of The Cat magazine.  My huge thanks to Francesca at The Cat magazine for giving me permission to publish Louise's brilliantly informative article on my website.

Louise has written several books which can be found on her website for her local history group:  Do stop by for a visit!



One Cat is Company

"One cat is company.
Two cats are a conspiracy. 
Three cats is an attempted takeover.
Four or more cats is a complete coup!"

Shona Steele (Australia)

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