Cats in the 19th Century (Part 3 – Cat Ladies)

Not long after the increasing interest in pet ownership began in the 19th century, the first cat ladies became known.  Appearing in children’s literature in such stories as, Dame Wiggins of Lee and Dame Trot and her Comical Cat, cat ladies seemed acceptable and taught children moral and ethical lessons. 

Dame Wiggins of Lee cat ladies


Dame Wiggins of Lee original cat ladies


Dame Trot and her Comical Cats cat lady

However, in reality cat ladies were punished for their excesses.  In 1887, one of the first cat ladies, the Countess de la Torre, was charged with having too many cats in her rooms in Lille-road, Fulham.  A well known cat lover, she had acquired too many cats to the consternation of her neighbors.  In 1885, she had 21 cats living with her in a flat as per the rather lengthy news article below.


The Countess and Her Cats.

Te Aroha News, New Zealand, Volume II, Issue 73, 25 October 1884, Page 5

 The Countess and Her Cats.

One day recently the Countess de la Torre, who is famous in London as the owner of a large number of cats, was summoned in a Police Court and ordered to destroy her pets, as they had become a nuisance to her neighbours. On this the “Pall Mall Gazette ” sent their enterprising interviewer to see the Countess, with the following result:


I pulled the bell at 35, Pembroke Square, but it offered no resistance and made no sound. I knocked with my knuckles, but there was no answer. The lower sitting room seemed to be empty, and the house, above and below, gave no sign of life. The door was evidently new, and had received a first coat of red paint. It was without a knocker, or a handle, or a number. I was beginning to think that I had come to the wrong house when a boy who was playing in the square cried out, ” Look out ! She’s coming! ” and I heard steps, and, after some unbarring of bolts, the door was cautiously opened. “The Countess de la Torre?” “I am the Countess. Come in.” The door was carefully closed behind me, and I found myself in the narrow passage which would be called a hall by courtesy, half lighted by a long window opening on to the staircase. What little space there was was blocked with dishes, bottles, and bundles of newspapers. I followed the Countess into the sitting-room. She seated herself in a low chair near the window, guarded by wooden shutters drawn close together for protection from stray stones and iron, which sometimes came crashing through. She motioned me to a low oak chair, the only remnant of luxury in the room. The floor was carpetless. In one corner was a small heap of blankets; at my feet was a small open hamper half filled with straw, the bed of one of her cats. Between us stood a deal box, which might be used as a table, but was occupied by various cats during my sitting of two hours. By her side was another box filled to overflowing with letters and papers, to which she constantly referred. The wall was papered. The mantel-piece was littered with an undiscribable(sic) mass of odds and ends; a few empty shelves were fixed in one corner, and that was all. Through the open folding-doors I saw another room, containing a plain iron bed with a few bed clothes, the only piece of furniture, unless one counted boxes and jugs, and plates of rod disinfecting powder. That, I presume, was the bedroom.


In her chair by the window, in that bare room, surrounded by her cats in council, sat the Countess, her face in the shade. She is apparently about forty-five years old, with a pale, intellectual face, furrowed by much trouble, a broad high forehead, from which her dark grey hair is brushed away. Her face lightens up when excited, and the wildness of her brown eye softens when her cats jump up on her lap. A grey knitted shawl was fastened round her neck and fell to her waist, where it was joined by a well-worn cotton dress. “Perhaps,” she began, ‘ ‘ I inherited my fondness for animals from my father. He had a passion for cats. Whenever I take a poor starved creature in I think of my father, and fancy that I am paying a tribute to his memory. I have no other tie in the world but my cats, no one to care for, no one to care for me.” The Countess was born in the purple. Her father was Italian and her mother a Scotchwoman, but she herself is cosmopolitan, and speaks fluently English, German, Italian, and French. The united fortunes of herself and her husband made a most handsome income, but much of it was gambled away, and the Countess has lavished her own share with a free hand. Garibaldi was indebted to her for large sums of money, and that the Countess, who has paid so much for the cause of Italian freedom, should be reduced to her present extremities, should serve as a warning to intending patriots; for, alas! she has not found the gratitude which she expected. “I have spent gold enough to fill this room — aye, and more — to benefit my fellow-beings. They have proved to be ingrates. My charity has been abused. Animals are more grateful than my fellows. I now devote my small means to the cause of suffering cats and dogs and dumb creatures.” The Countess, it may be added, besides devoting much of her large fortune to the cause of Italian freedom, took charge of one of the hospitals during the war, and when in charge of the ambulance was twice wounded. Her sobriquet was the Italian Nightingale, in allusion not to her powers of singing, but of nursing. In 1870 she was busy again at Versailles nursing the German wounded. “I come of a military family. I shall stick to my post. At present I am in a state of siege. l am ordered to abate the nuisance, and daily I am subject to a fine of ten shillings a day until I do so. I keep my doors locked, so that my enemies shall not enter if I can help it. Will, oh! will the law allow them to come and kill my cats?” And here there was a flood of tears. The little boys and girls — wicked urchins ‘ — who deserve to be devoured by wolves like the rogues who mocked at the prophet, cry at her:” Hoh ! hoh ! mother of dogs and cats ! Thou shouldst be burned, thou wicked one ! Harbourer of unclean animals, thou shouldst be drowned as a witch ‘” “Are we living in the Middle Ages? Will they duck (drown) me? or will the ordeal be by fire ?”


An animal smell pervaded the house, but without I did not detect anything unusual, however one might regard the Countess as a next-door neighbour, it is ridiculous to say that her establishment is a nuisance to the whole square. Since the decision of the magistrate on Saturday, poison has made sad havoc among the cats. The Countess burst into tears as she told of the death of her red cat ” Ruby,” of the tabby Manx “Rosie,” of the decease of “Jumbo,” of ” Bella,” and another whose name has escaped me. Post-mortems have revealed the strychnine. How have they come by their death? Is it the neighbours? For, strange to say, after the appeal case, which went against the Countess, poison carried off two of the collection, “Bob” and “Cobby,” who are now at rest. “I would not have sold them for a hundred pounds apiece,” sobbed the Countess, crying bitterly. “How can they inflict this agony upon me? My cats are all I have to care for in the whole world. My left-hand neighbour does not complain; it is the people on my right who are persecuting me. Ask the postmen or the policemen whether my house smells strongly enough to be a nuisance. Why, my windows are always open; my cats are never allowed to go out at night, so that there may be no noise. Every morning at daylight I put on my dressing-gown and let them out. As for the smell, why, my windows are open all day long, with a draught of fresh air constantly ventilating the house, and dishes of carbolic powder in every room. Does the law of England say how many cats or how many dogs I shall keep? No. Why the pigeons in the square have damaged my roof, but I have said nothing about it. Then why shouldn’t I be allowed to have my cats in peace there are seventy houses round about me; every house has its cat, I daresay, and those seventy are actually allowed to do as they list at night, whilst my poor pets are put under lock and key to preserve the peace.”


 The Countess then lead the way down the steps on to the kitchen floor, down a passage which took us to the area.” Here are my dead pets,” she cried, as she pulled open the door of the coal-cellar. On the top of an empty hamper lay two fine black-and-white cats, rigid with the colds of a violent death. These were lifted up, and beneath the hamper were three more fine cats, also dead, apparently from strychnine. With careful step I then went into the strip of garden, a little wilderness with one or two trees, the grass long and uncared for, and the beds choked up with weeds, low party walls separating it from the gardens on each side. The dogs, bright, cheery fellows, barked a welcome, and one or two cats appeared and followed us with every mark of affection. ”Ah!” said the Countess with a shriek, “there is something wrong with this poor cat,” lifting it up, smelling its mouth, and carrying it indoors. Then we went into the dark kitchen, in which it is easy to picture the Countess, brooding over the ingratitude of the men and women whom she had befriended, and thinking of the treasure that has been thrown so recklessly and so fruitlessly away, seated on a broken-backed chair, with a few embers burning in the grate, and a halfpenny candle stuck in the neck of a bottle. “Let us go upstairs,” said the Countess; and, mounting the narrow bare steps, followed by half-a-dozen cats, we entered a room overlooking the square, one window being open, the other closed, with the shutters fastened across. This room is the old nursery. An old sideboard stood in the middle, on “which was a waste-paper basket filled with litter, where inclined a big grey cat. A small, low chair, such as passengers use at sea, covered with a bit of sheepskin, stood by the open window. Before the fireplace were the cradles ranged round. On a torn and battered sofa were half a dozen little baskets for the reception of the mothers and their offspring. The room, like the others in the house, had a poverty-stricken air, being altogether given up to the animals. Close against the walls were jugs and pails of water, plates full of the red disinfectant powder, dirty glasses, and an old basket or two.


“I have now only five of my own left. I have eight or ten stray ones, three dogs, and a few puppies. Do not think that I go to look for them. No, no. They come to me. There is a poor little kitten who came mewing to my door last night. I must give it shelter. Sometimes I have more, sometimes less. It is all the same to me. Letters often come asking me to take charge of a cat whose mistress is going to India, or to some far-off country. “Will you take my cat, Countess, and care for it? they write. I take it, of course, and when my house gets too full I try to provide homes elsewhere for the poor creatures. Look at Bijou,” stroking a pretty cat sitting beside me purring most contentedly. “He was brought to me a few weeks ago by a poor girl, a seamstress, whose garret full of furniture had been sold for a debt. She came to me sobbing as if her heart would break, and beseeched me to take the poor fellow. Bijou came, and you ask about the existence of affection in a cat. Why for many hours he never moved from one position, and refused all food. At last he settled down, but the other day his mistress came here, and the cat made a great spring to her lap, kissing her face, and evincing the greatest joy at her appearance. Some day she will take him away again, poor girl! There is a cat which a lady who has sailed for India sent to me. I had to pay three shillings for its carriage from Brighton,” added the Countess with an odd smile. “When a stray cat first joins the circle, starving and “wretched, I put her down in the middle of the room before a basin of milk or soup. The others, who have probably gone through the same experience and know quite well how the case is, watch their new comrade from a distance, eyeing her with vigilance taking her food. One by one they approach nearer, looking at me and then at the cat. Gradually they form a circle, and sitting each on her haunches, they regard the new-comer with complacency, never thinking of helping themselves.” “Cats,” mused the Countess, sadly, “have a prescience of coming death. My dear ones who have just gone hovered round me for the last week closer than ever, clinging to my skirts, and looking up at me with forbodings of evil omen in their eyes. I watched them with all the greater care and tenderness. But I have always noticed this in the cats. Ruby gave two great bounds and jumped to my bosom. She died there, and her last look said, ‘Mother, they have poisoned me.’ “


“I never allow anyone to feed my cats but myself; no other hand touches their food. They have bread and milk at times, but I find that soup with biscuit is the best diet. I take a sheep’s head, and make a good stock. I then break the biscuit up into it. The food costs me about a penny a day. You see how beautifully clean my cats are; that is by the constant use of the brush. It is most cruel to wash a cat, which abhors water. The greatest insult you can offer to a cat is to throw water at it. If a strange cat comes into a house, and you wish to get rid of it, do not drive it away with a stone or a stick; throw a glass of water over it. You will then see the cat retreat indignantly, and with a haughty indifference to the consequences of a retreat, as much as to say, ‘ You dare to throw water at me. I leave you. I shake the dust of your house from my paws. Nevermore shall you see me.’ It is like pork to a Jew. Of all cats the tortoise-shell is the most intelligent. They are almost human. Prince Krapotkin’s experiments, of which I read the other day, I have repeatedly tried myself. I have seen cats look into the mirror, paw it gently, walk right round it, over and over again, puzzled, and eventually beat a retreat, completely at a loss to understand the phenomenon. Now that we are discussing the cat, it is worth noticing that during the whole of one year, with all my cats of both sexes, I have only had one litter of kittens, of which the father and mother have been my own cats. They prefer fresh faces like human beings.” The Countess at this moment rose from her chair and called in a soft voice for some of her familiars. They came in from every corner. Upstairs I heard the patter of feet, as they had evidently jumped up from their sleep, and then the sound of their footsteps coming down the steps. ‘( Is the instinct of locality very strong in the cat ? Do the cats that are placed in your charge never find their way back to their former homes?” No. I find that cats that have been petted very much and have never been allowed to roam soon settle down.” “Surely in your large family it is a little difficult to preserve order “—a question suggested by a very severe lick in the face administered by a sedate-looking black-and-white cat to a too playful kitten. ‘ I call the black-and-white there the Policeman. He settles all quarrels. He is exclusive in his friendships, and keeps order in my house. He is my oldest friend, and is rewarded with an odd mixture of fear and respect.” “If I had seventy cats in my house, do you think that they would have the same dispositions ?” “No. Cats are as human beings. ‘One is sulky, another affectionate, one is spiteful, another combative, one sentimental, another may have a sweet disposition, be soft and gentle, one may be fond of wandering, another prefers the fireside. When a strange cat comes into the house it shows much concern as to its surroundings. It refuses food perhaps, and sits on a box or a chair for hours together, looking intently at me as I sit here. ‘Who are you ?’ ‘ Are you going to be kind to me!

‘Why do you go out of your way to show me all this kindness ?’ That is what the strange cat says to me. Having made up its mind quite suddenly that I am its friend, she makes a great jump at me, and clings to me, purring and caressing me.”


“Countess, have you taught your doctrine of kindness to your cats ? Suppose Bijou there spied a mouse, would she sit contentedly then on the box?” “No, alas! Bijou and Bob, Jumbo and Bella, soft and gentle as they are, are but cats. When the millennium comes then they will play with a mouse no longer. But can you explain the horrible cowardice which shall make a man able to abuse an animal. Now I feed the sparrows in the square with a few handfuls of crumbs, but when they come fluttering to me — for they have learned to know me well— why the boys, urged on by bribes, or by their own innate cruelty, stone them to death. Only the other day they killed one before my eyes with a catapult ; another I rescued, and gave the poor bruised thing a shelter. I put it in the sun, and in two or three hours it revived and took wing. When I hear a woman say, ‘Oh ! I hate cats,’ I look upon her with contempt. The heart of a woman should be open to the sufferings of animals and all dumb things A woman who is cruel to an animal would be cruel to a child. A hard hearted woman is an error of nature. Why, I could tell you of many great men and women who have cherished the cat. Mahommed himself when his cat fell asleep on his sleeve, it being time to go to prayers at the mosque, rather than disturb the slumbers of the cat, cut off his sleeve. Richelieu had his portrait painted with cats in his arm; then take Chateaubriand, George Sand, or Victor Hugo. The Princess of Wales once said at a meeting of the Society for the Protection of Animals: ‘ If I have saved one cat from misery, I shall feel that I have done something.’ What a charming answer !” But all animals are fond of the Countess. She has even cherished spiders more for their delicate beauty of their workmanship than for themselves. “I used to bring them to me by a peculiar low hiss.”


Letters of sympathy came pouring in upon this unfortunate lady. Some are genuiune enough. Others may be judged of by what follows : “My lady, — I am sorry for the magistrate’s decision against you on Saturday, and in case you should wish to find sympathy with the human race, instead of the feline,” etc. Certainly neat. The writer then goes on to tell a sad enough story, and winds up by proposing that the Countess shall purchase the pawn-tickets for what follows : ” Girls’ button boots (nines), 3s. ; flannel petticoat, 4s. 6d. ; black overcoat, 12s. ; light trousers, 6s. ; half-dozen table knives, Gs. ; half-dozen cheese knives, 5s; best plate half dozen table forks, 7s. ; ditto half dozen desert, 6s. ; ivory carver and fork, 7s. ; ditto poultry ditto, 6s. ; silver watch, 15s. ; metal ditto, 7 ; ” etc. There is a touch of humour in the postcript, “All warranted good as new and carriage paid. Cash with order, as they have to be redeemed from the pawnbrokers’ — suitable for presents {sic).” “Self and wife are members of the Church of England ” damns the fellow at once. Then I bade the Countess good-bye, thinking of some of the grim stories which she had poured out, half sadly, half fiercely, of women who had lain in amid those sad surroundings, of families she had succoured within those bare walls ; and but over these it is best to draw the veil of oblivion. Her whole life affords another proof of the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. So ends the story of the Countess and her cats. I met the cat’s-meat man with his armful of skewers on the door step. The door closed upon him, but I heard the cats chorusing a devouring welcome. Some day they may devour the Countess. There may be no gratitude either in man or beast. It would be a sublime ending.

 and from …..


            from the London Daily News

published in the New York Times, January 22, 1885

 The Countess de la Torre is in trouble again.  This no doubt is in some sense her own fault, but in another sense it is her misfortune.  The grand lady seems to afford another illustration of the mischief that is apt to result from square pegs getting into round holes.  She appears to have a rather gushing, ill regulated love of animals, which she has not the means of gratifying in an altogether rational and unobjectionable way.  If Mr. Bartlett could find a comfortable little berth for her at “the Zoo,” or if she could be engaged at the Hone for Cats and Dogs at Battersea, or the Brown Institute in Wandsworth –road, she would probably be happy and useful.  Her little hobby is really a very harmless and amiable one, though it is a pity she will indulge it in unsuitable premises and in defiance of a Justice’s orders.  She has acquired a reputation which in many ways in unfortunate.  It seems that not only do stray cats somehow betray a marvelous knowledge that her house is a refuge for the destitute and come hungrily mewing about her hospitable door, but not a few are specially sent to her by unknown persons, who sometimes overlook the little matter of the prepayment of the carriage.  People of sterner stuff would of course know how to meet such impositions.  The Countess de la Torre, however, meekly submits, and from pure pity seems quite incapable of driving a cat away.  The creatures come over her garden wall, and always somehow seem to be holding a sort of Ecumenical Council when the Inspector of Nuisances drops in.  Hence there is always a conflict of evidence when she comes to court.  The Inspector has counted 21 animals; the Countess and her witnesses declare that she has only 8 or 10.  Of course she must obey the law, and must take the consequences if she does not.  At the same time it is impossible to refuse her some degree of sympathy.  She must certainly be anything but a pleasant neighbor, but there is a very evident disposition to make the most of her foibles.  For instance, it was complained of her on Tuesday that she had placed on the walls of her house placards of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—truly a shocking offense; and it was further added that large “crowds of disorderly boys were in the habit of assembling outside the house to read the placards.”  There are evidently some very remarkable boys in that part of London.


Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats



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