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Sunday, July 03, 2016

Bureaucats at the heart of government

Whilst we wait with baited breath to see who will be governing us in a few months time and indeed, if there will be an opposition worth its name to hold them to account, this piece on the National Archive blog reveals who has really been running the country since the 1800s.

They say that for the last 200 years or so, there has been a secretive group of government employees who have been given free range over Whitehall, allowed to stroll into Ministers’ offices during the most sensitive of conversations. They have been paid out of the public purse to preen, sleep and hunt in the corridors of power. They are the government’s cats.

They say that the UK government has been unofficially ‘employing’ cats since the mid 19th century for the gruesome task of ridding Westminster of mice and rats. Today they are presided over by Larry, Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office )pictured in action above). The Foreign Office's rescue cat Palmerston has gained a substantial following on Twitter. The archive tells us more:

Most of these mousers have been unofficial, and left no paper trail. However, records were created when departments applied to the Treasury for a feline upkeep allowance, making these cats official. Details of some of them are preserved in The National Archives.

In 1936 for instance, the Cabinet Office applied for an allowance for their resident mouser, Jumbo. Jumbo died in 1942, his name forever ‘recorded in our CAT-alogue of Events during the war’. In light of the need for men at the front, it was suggested by one Cabinet wag that his replacement be a female feline (catalogue reference: CAB 150/7).

It is the Home Office who kept the most meticulous record of their feline employees, and their exploits are detailed in The National Archives’ file HO 223/43.

It all began in 1929, when the Treasury agreed to 1d (one pence) a day being spent on the upkeep of Peter, a black cat already resident in the Home Office. The upkeep was not applied for because Peter was underfed, the Home Office said, but quite the opposite – titbits brought in by besotted civil servants had led to Peter neglecting his main duty as the office mouser.

On his new diet, Peter performed his mousing duties admirably. When part of the Home Office moved to Bournemouth in the Second World War, Peter’s services were so missed they applied for an allowance for two cats. London agreed, with the poetic caveat that it be made sure the cats didn’t breed:

‘To pay for grub we hesitate

For ‘pussies’ who may propagate’

It has not always been a puurrfect life for these cats. Peter was put to sleep on 14 November 1946 at the age of 17 and replaced a month later by a two month old male kitten, dubbed Peter II. Unfortunately the second Peter was to have a tragically short tenure as the Home Office’s chief mouser. Peter II was struck by a car while crossing the road from the Home Office to the Cenotaph 3.15am on 27 June 1947 and put to sleep on the advice of the RSPCA.

A later occupant of the Home Office, was a Manx cat, originally called Manninagh Katedhu but renamed Peta. She was a gift of Ronald Garvey, Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man and was presented to the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, on 7 May 1964.

In 1967 she was accused of brawling with Nemo, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Siamese cat, leading to Mrs Wilson being injured. The Home Office’s cleaners and office keeper are on record as having complained about Peta’s behaviour and lack of house-training.

Comments on the blog reveal that the records of the Scottish government in the eighteenth century were looked after by a cat. (See an article on the subject: Athol L. Murray, ‘The Exchequer Cat, 1715 to 1842’, Scottish Archives, vol. 12 (2006), pp. 53-56.) Whilst, there are articles elsewhere on the internet on the Post Office cats.
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