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How England’s First Feline Show Countered Victorian Snobbery About Cats

The 1871 cat show ushered in a new era of appreciation for the furry rat-catchers.

An 1892 painting by Carl Kahler, entitled My Wife’s Lovers. (Image: Public Domain)

In the 1860s, the cats of England were suffering from a major image problem. Having experienced the highs of Ancient Egyptian veneration and the lows of medieval torture on account of their supposed allegiance with the devil, cats were regarded by the average Victorian as scruffy, mewling rat-catchers who weren’t welcome in well-appointed rooms. Then came one man who, with his unabashed adoration of his feline friends, shook up the cat world for good: Harrison Weir, organizer of England’s first cat show.

Before Weir united cats and aristocrats, kitties were considered street animals. Cats provided a useful service—rodent extermination—but were not generally valued for their cuteness, cuddliness, or companionship. Charles Darwin lamented their “nocturnal rambling habits” in 1859’s On the Origin of the Species, while Windsor Magazine noted that the cat was merely a “necessary household appendage.” To snuggle with a cat would be to snuggle with your pest exterminator—it just wasn’t their function.

Weir, a lover of many creatures including poultry, pigeons, dogs, and rabbits, considered cats “possibly the most perfect, and certainly the most domestic” of animals. Weir was not always a cat enthusiast—in his 1889 book Our Cats and All About Them he confesses to having had “a bias” against them and says he took “some time coming to this belief.” But once convinced of cats’ merits, Weir became a feline evangelist.

Harrison Weir. (Image: Public Domain)

“Long ages of neglect, ill-treatment, and absolute cruelty, with little or no gentleness, kindness, or training, have made the Cat self-reliant,” he wrote, taking care to capitalize the word “cat.” He also threw in a gratuitous interspecies jibe: “The small or large dog may be regarded and petted, but is generally useless; the Cat, a pet or not, is of service.”

Weir’s view of the cat as “an object of increasing interest, admiration, and cultured beauty” led him to develop a whole new form of competitive entertainment: the cat show. To give the whole thing an air of legitimacy and attract an upper-class crowd, Weir drafted a set of points and standards by which the cats, divided by breed and size, would be judged.

The cat-lover appointed himself as an adjudicator, along with his brother John and a priest named Reverend Macdona. With the help of his newly appointed show manager, F. Wilson, Weir then approached cat-owning acquaintances and rounded up “a goodly number” of animals to be evaluated.

Fulmer Zaida

Fulmer Zaida, a champion show cat born in 1895 who ended up earning over 150 prizes. (Photo: Public domain)

On the train heading to the Crystal Palace for the big event, Weir happened to run into a friend, who enquired as to his well-being and the purpose of his journey. When Weir explained the cat show, his friend was astonished. “A show of cats!” he cried. “Why, I hate the things.” 

Weir took a deep breath. “I am sorry, very sorry, that you do not like cats,” he said, before spending several minutes explaining all the reasons he adored the animal. They can unlatch doors, or even knock with their paws for admittance! They catch rats and mice! They are full of sense!

According to Weir’s book, Our Cats and All About Them, this impassioned evangelism became a bit much: “’Stop,’ said my friend, ‘I see you do like cats, and I do not, so let the matter drop.’”

A litter of kittens was now adorable, not a menace. (Photo: Public Domain)

When Weir finally arrived at Crystal Palace—with his resentful friend from the train in tow—he discovered to his delight that the show was to be a great success. Cats of varied sizes, colors, and markings were lapping at milk, “reclining on crimson cushions,” and being coddled by their doting owners. 

The judging process pleased the aristocratic crowd, but for Weir the show meant more. In drawing attention to the wide variety of breeds, he hoped to convince people that all cats had great potential—”a beauty and an attractiveness to its owner unobserved and unknown because uncultivated heretofore.”

A Crystal Palace cat show. (Photo: Public Domain)

That first show at Crystal Palace certainly had an impact on the perception of cats, who gradually became more welcome in homes. More cat shows were mounted around the nation, and cat appreciation clubs began to form. In 1887, Weir founded the National Cat Club and, as president, helmed its first official show, again at Crystal Palace. Over 320 cats were entered into the competition

But although the numbers said success, all was not well in cat fancying land. In 1892, Weir wrote a new preface to the second edition of Our Cats and All About Them. In it, he expressed his remorse at being part of the National Cat Club, whose ideals he no longer believed in. “I now feel the deepest regret that I was ever induced to be in any way associated with it,” he wrote.

The main problem, he said, was that narcissistic pet owners had made cat fancying all about themselves instead of focusing on the animals: “I found the principal idea of many of its members consisted not so much in promoting the welfare of the Cat as of winning prizes, and more particularly their own Cat Club medals.” (Weir would never give up his reverent capitalizing of “cat.”)

Evaluating the entrants at an English show. (Photo: Public Domain)

The general public was not eligible to win these special Cat Club medals, which were reserved for Cat Club members and their felines. Weir found that haughty approach distasteful. Seeking to raise respect for cats, he had courted aristocrats to attend that first show, then been burned by their elitist tendencies.

Though cats in general were no longer considered dirty and wicked, class issues and snobbery continued to pervade cat shows. Some judging categories were divided by the class of the cat owners, which resulted in uppity remarks. “I am sorry to see that some cats entered into the working-men’s classes are also entered in the ordinary classes,” wrote one reporter who attended a National Cat Club show in 1899. “[T]hese, to my mind are only bogus working-men’s cats.”

The less-than-egalitarian nature of cat shows didn’t stop the animals from securing a more general affection. ”[T]he cat is gradually creeping into the affections of mankind, even in this busy work-a-day world,” wrote Frances Simpson in 1903’s Book of the Cat. Simpson singled out Weir as a difference-maker, noting that “great strides” had been made in the realm of cat fancying since that day in 1871 when Weir “was laughed at by his incredulous and astonished railway companion.”

Lady’s Realm magazine expressed a similar opinion in 1900, saying Weir had “done wonders for the amelioration of pussy.” In three decades, cats had gone from being chased in the streets to being welcomed onto the hearth. Whether they won a prize at some snooty show was beside the point—as Lady’s Realm said, “how great has been the change in the conditions of life of the harmless, necessary cat!”