Cats in the 20th Century History (Sir Winston Churchill’s Cats)

Cats have even been long standing residents of 10 Downing Street brought to the address by Prime Ministers and other staff as mousers or as just pets.  However, perhaps the most famous cat lover and resident of 10 Downing Street was Sir Winston Churchill, who served as Britain’s prime minister from 1940-1945 and 1951-1955. Sir Winston Churchill’s cats were at his side for most of his lifetime at both his private and official residences. Sir John Colville wrote about a meeting he had with Churchill.

Churchill kept his wife informed of the goings on of the cats while she was on a cruise in the South Pacific in a letter dated March 2nd 1935 he writes, “The cat (Tango) treats me well very graciously and always wishes to sleep on my bed (which I resent). When I dine alone, and only then, she (Tango was actually a male) awaits me on the table”(Soames, 1999).

During a particularly bad time in the war, on June 3rd, 1941, Sir John Colville noted what transpired during the lunch which he had with Churchill that day. 

“I had lunch with the P.M. and the Yellow Cat, which sat in a chair on his right-hand side and attracted most of his attention. He was meditating deeply on the Middle East, where he is intent on reorganizing the rearward services, and on Lord Beaverbrook who is proving particularly troublesome….While he brooded on these matters, he kept up a running conversation with the cat, cleaning its eyes with his napkin, offering it mutton and expressing regret that it could not have cream in war-time” (Coleville, 1986).

Grace Hamblin, who was both Churchill’s secretary as well as his wife’s from 1932-1965, commented on Churchill’s love of animals, in particular cats, at the 1987 International Churchill conference. 

“He loved cats. So do I and he knew it. He always had a cat, if not two. I must tell you one lovely cat story. It was way, way back in the Thirties. He came to his door one morning with some papers in his hand and a cat was sitting in the passage: “Good morning, Cat.” But the cat didn’t answer. It was one of those horrible snooty things. So he said again, “Good morning, Cat.” The cat made no effort to be near him. He slashed at it with his papers and the cat ran from the house. Cat didn’t return the next day or the next or the next. Finally he said, “Do you think it’s because I hit him?” Of course I said, “Yes, definitely.”

That evening I was whiling away my time while the family had dinner downstairs, when Sarah came up and said, “Hambone, I have a message for you from Papa. He said if you like you may go home, and if you wish before you go, you may put a card in the window to say that if Cat cares to come home, all is forgiven.” Cat did come home several days later with a wire round his neck. Given cream and the best salmon and so on, he did recover, I’m glad to say” (Hamblin, 1989).

Two resident cats of Chartwell were Mickey, a large tabby, and the orange tabby Tango.  William Manchester, Churchill’s biographer, recalled an amusing incident while Churchill was speaking on the phone with the Lord Chancellor.  His cat Mickey started to play with the telephone cord and Churchill shouted, “Get off the line, you fool!” Quickly afterwards he realized the misinterpretation and said to the Lord Chancellor, “Not You!”  Manchester wrote, “he offered the cat his apologies, which he never extends to human beings, cajoling the pet, cooing, ‘Don’t you love me anymore?’ and proudly telling his valet at breakfast next day, ‘My Mickey came to see me this morning.  All is forgiven”’(Manchester, 1988).

Even though quite a bit has been written about Churchill’s cat Tango, a grey cat named Nelson was the most well-known during the war years.  Churchill commented about Nelson stating, “Nelson is the bravest cat I ever knew.  I once saw him chase a huge dog out of the Admiralty.  I decided to adopt him and name him after our great Admiral…”  While speaking, Churchill sneaked pieces of salmon to Nelson under the table (Reynolds, 1964).  When Churchill had been elected prime minister, and it was inevitable that he would move to 10 Downing Street, the press commented that “Nelson will follow his master shortly to Downing Street and make a problem of protocol.  How, it is asked will the Munich cat (a mouser that was already living at the residence brought in by Neville Chamberlain’s administration) react to Nelson?  Will he follow Chamberlain next door to his new home at No. 11 leaving the field at No. 10 to Nelson?  Or will he refuse to abdicate and call for a show-down in His Majesty’s court of justice?” (Washington Post, 1940).  Soon afterwards, Nelson chased Munich Mouser out of the residence.

Another cat who took up residence at No. 10 was another grey cat, Smoky grey.  In January 1943, while Churchill was traveling to meet President Roosevelt in Casablanca, Mrs. Churchill wrote, “The “Annexe” & No 10 are dead and empty without you—Smoky wanders about disconsolate—I invite him into my room & he relieves his feelings by clawing my brocade bed-cover and when gently rebuked, biting my toe through it.” (Soames, 1999, p 471)

While meeting with President Roosevelt in August 1941 aboard the HMS Prince of Wales, the ship’s cat Blackie came up to Churchill who bent down and patted his head.  The moment was caught in a photograph which was widely published.  Shockingly though the Prime Minister’s behavior toward the cat was criticized by the Cats Protective League, that stated, “He should have conformed to the etiquette demanded by the occasion, offering his hand and then awaiting  a sign of approval before taking liberties” (NYT, 1941). The crew of the ship renamed Blackie Churchill in honor of the meeting. 

Sir Winston Churchill's cats, Blackie on HMS Prince of Wales

Throughout the years Churchill enjoyed the company of many cats and kittens.  His last cat was given to him for his 88th birthday in 1964 by Sir John Colville.  Churchill named the ginger cat with white chest and paws Jock after Sir John Colville. Later he even commissioned a painting be done of Jock.  When Churchill died at age 90 with Jock at his bedside, he made sure that provision was made to keep the beloved cat on at Chartwell, which became a National Trust.  He also requested that there always be a cat named Jock at Chartwell.  The original Jock died in 1975 at age 13 and was replaced by a new ginger cat called Jock II.  The tradition lives on today and Jock VI now inhabits Chartwell.  

Churchill and Jock VI

 

Sir Winston Churchill's cats, Jock

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Comments

  1. I loved this article! Love reading anything about Churchill, and anything about cats!!

  2. Gerald Schafer says:

    Lol! I love the line when Churchill was on the phone, and the cat was playing with the cord! “Get off the line, you fool! No, not you!”

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