Cats of Lacock
The Lacock archive is as full of references to cats as there are currently cats living in and around the abbey. Although these are mostly photographs, there are also text references to cats. The earliest reference I’ve found is from the 19th century. Charles Henry Talbot, who owned Lacock from 1877, kept most of the letters written to him (although sadly didn’t make copies of the ones he sent) and from there we can find several interesting references to his home life and relationships with his family and friends – and animals! We know from correspondence that Charles had at least two cats in the last part of the 19th century, called Stripy and Bunny. It appears that he was very fond of them. Matilda Talbot, who inherited Lacock from her uncle Charles, was equally fond of them and many photographs of cats have appeared from amongst her papers.
In a letter to his uncle of 1893, William Gilchrist-Clark advises Charles regarding the mange that his pet is suffering from: “On my way from Brighton I heard of your cat’s illness. I said to Auntie Monie [Rosamond Talbot] that I thought it must be mange, and she asks me by letter this morning to write to you about it. I thought the cat was not in a healthy state when I saw it in Jan – the hair was too matted and it didn’t look right. The regular vet is laid up, but I am sure the best thing you could do would be to have the matted hair cut off as much as possible and the skin dressed with sulphur and hair oil – the cat would be in an unpleasant state for a bit and would hardly do for the house – but if it was kept in a stable for a bit it would soon feel right again – you could get the dressing from any local vet, and at the same time find out if it was the best thing to use – I always use it for dogs myself.” Personally, I think the first thing I’d do is visit the vet, and find out if it was suitable before I even considered buying the dressing. But it is interesting to see how people dealt with animals’ illnesses. Charles must have been very worried about his cat, and William likewise as he wrote to him so quickly. Let’s hope the strange concoction for the cat’s skin worked, and 1893’s “Grumpy Cat” (I would be if I was kept in a stable and dressed with sulphur) got over his mange and his health improved!
A letter from Rosamond Talbot to Charles of 1898 suggests that Charles has had to find a new home for one of his cats due to it possibly hunting his chickens, and she is helping: “We think that a good home has offered for poor old Bunny, in Somersetshire – people who want a grown up tame cat, so I must see about it when I get home. I cannot think that she has been interfering with the chickens again, now that they are grown so much older – besides she has been so constantly and carefully kept indoors during the middle of the day when the chickens are free, but still it is best to be on the safe side, if we can, for the future. Do you think the fox has put in an appearance again?” The phrase “poor old Bunny” is very apt here. It appears that the poor cat was rehomed as a scapegoat for the fox, although we cannot rule out the possibility of Bunny being a natural hunter and deciding that actually, grown-up chickens were also quite appealing. It is not known if Bunny was eventually rehomed. Maybe Charles decided to just be a bit more careful about where she was kept in relation to the chickens.
In 1899, Grace Gilchrist-Clark, sister of William, briefly refers to another of Charles’ cats: “It was very good of you to write, and I was glad to hear about Stripy. It sounds as if the kittens might be tamed after all.” This was the first time I remember hearing about a cat in the Lacock archive. One of my volunteers found the letter and all we could do that day was marvel at the prospect of Charles, such a solitary man and a careful researcher and historian, had a cat called Stripy.
Charles was almost a recluse, who suffered from ill health and often shut himself away in his study researching Lacock’s history, or writing articles for natural history magazines and societies. It is lovely to think that he had this soft side and owned cats called Stripy and Bunny. If only photographs of them had survived – but the photographs we have from the Lacock archive seem to be a bit more recent, more connected to Matilda Talbot, who inherited Lacock in 1916.
This photograph of a group of ladies standing outside Lacock Abbey includes, captioned on the back of the photograph, Nutkin the cat, in Matilda Talbot’s arms. It is undated but was probably taken in the 1940s or early 1950s. Nutkin was clearly a key member of the party visiting Lacock that day!
Amongst a large bundle of items relating to Matilda Talbot’s time in the WRENs in the First World War, there appear two photographs of cats. This lovely arrangement of photographs includes three of some smartly dressed WREN women at Cranwell Camp, one of a building in the camp, and one of a cat! The cat was obviously an important part of Cranwell. There is another photograph, this time of a group of women in uniform, with Matilda Talbot in the centre of the group, and one of the women in the front holding a tabby cat.
Next we have the beautiful Flossie. I love this picture because it is labelled, so we know what the cat’s name was although sadly not when it was taken. Luckily though, it is also labelled “Lacock” so we know that whenever it was taken (probably in the middle of the 20th century) the cat was most likely a resident of Lacock Abbey, and possibly belonged to Matilda Talbot. One final photograph I found is this one of a very young girl struggling to hold a very young cat!
Nowadays, one can see the lovely Morag watching over her precious abbey and meeting and greeting the visitors, not to mention current residents of the abbey flats including Sootie, who as you can see blends in nicely to the National trust surroundings. I hope there continues to be many cats in Lacock in the future, as they were clearly such an important part of Lacock in the 19th and 20th centuries.