When Cats Took Over the British Museum

A feral cat colony numbering in the dozens wreaked havoc on the British Museum following World War II. After considering some drastic measures to curtail the population, the museum decided to put the cats to work.
The British Museum's professional mousing staff answered to names like Black Jack and Poppet.
The British Museum's professional mousing staff answered to names like Black Jack and Poppet. / Nina Pearman/Moment/Getty Images

Among the priceless artifacts and cultural treasures at the British Museum, a visitor in the 20th century might have also found a roving gang of cats named Black Jack, Mike, and Poppet. 

Cats have been employed as official mousers at the British Museum since at least the 19th century, according to The New York Times. An 1868 letter stored at the British Library cites a pay rate of 1.5 pence per day, per cat, for keeping the museum free of mice. Felines on the payroll also received healthcare, historic lodgings, and plenty of fish and cooked meat to supplement their diet of vermin. 

For a time, the cats were considered a beloved part of the staff—but that wasn’t always the case. Following World War II, a colony of feral cats numbering in the dozens threatened to overtake the museum, forcing a group of cat-loving employees to take the tiger by its tail.

Unlikely Mascots

In the early 20th century, cats went from a practical presence to part of the museum’s identity thanks to one feline in particular. Black Jack—a black cat with a white chest and “remarkably long” whiskers—preferred the Round Reading Room to the cold alleys outside the building. After finding himself locked inside one day, he passed the time by shredding up a volume of newspapers. He would have faced a fate worse than a night outdoors if it hadn’t been for two museum employees who harbored him from their less merciful colleagues. Black Jack was presumed dead, and when he magically reappeared in the reading room several weeks later, no one made the correction. 

Ancient Egyptian cat statue housed at the British Museum.
Ancient Egyptian cat statue housed at the British Museum. / Paul Hudson, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the cat understood how important connections were to getting ahead in his career. He won the heart of Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, the British Museum’s Egyptologist, and after adopting a stray kitten, Black Jack wisely dropped it at the feet of the famous scholar, who promptly took him home in 1908.

Dubbed Mike, the cat would grow up to eclipse his predecessor in fame and popularity. He split his time between Budge’s home and the museum, where he chased away any stray dogs bold enough to wander near. Though he came from the streets, Mike had a spoiled upbringing and was accustomed to treats from the museum staff. If there was no milk waiting for him in his usual saucer in the refreshments room “he would stick his claws gently into a leg as he nuzzled it and mewed,” according to the assistant keeper in the department of printed books. Sole, sardines, and haddock were part of his diet, and he turned his nose up at cod. When he died in 1929 at age 20, his obituary was published in The Evening Standard.

By then, the stray cats that lived around the British Museum had benefited from the goodwill of Black Jack and Mike for decades. But without their charismatic mascots, the multiplying felines were eventually downgraded from honorary pets to pests to be eradicated. 

A Cat-astrophic Development

One unexpected consequence of World War II was an out-of-control cat population in London. House cats made homeless by the Blitz were left to fend for themselves on the streets, where they formed groups to survive. These colonies exploded to unmanageable proportions in the decades following the war, and by 1960 one such gang had set up camp at the British Museum.

These cats had a harder time winning hearts compared to Black Jack and Mike. They were mean, dirty, and disease-ridden. And they weren’t satisfied skulking around the backstreets: Many managed to sneak inside, where they bit and scratched employees and birthed kittens on the bookshelves.

The British Museum, London, 20th Century.
An early 20th-century image of the British Museum in London. / Print Collector/GettyImages

For 15 years, the museum tried numerous tactics to curb the population, including nets, traps, and banning unauthorized feedings. When the colony’s numbers approached 100, they considered a more drastic approach: total extermination. This was the solution endorsed by the British government, and the museum was fully prepared to set the plan in motion.

Fortunately for ailurophiles, though, an anonymous group of staff members convinced those in charge to try a more humane strategy. Their proposal involved rounding the cats up, having them spayed and deloused at the Royal Veterinary College, and placing them with capable owners. After a few months, that strategy had shrunk the unruly colony to a mere six cats. 

This more manageable population opened the door to a new era of museum mousers reminiscent of the early 1900s. Around the same time, in the late 1970s, Rex Shepherd joined the British Museum as a cleaner and saw an opportunity: He and other members of the staff formed the Cat Welfare Society, a group dedicated to maintaining the humane mission that got the colony under control in the first place. In addition to providing the museum cats with veterinary visits, the organization got the cats on a “payroll” funded by donations, set up dedicated feeding areas, and built a shelter separate from the museum’s delicate collections. Cats like Poppet, Pippin, Maisie, and Susan officially took up the roles last held by Mike and Black Jack. 

Not-So-Ancient History

The Cat Welfare Society and its charges may have become victims of their own success. The museum’s spay and adoption program worked so well that by 1985, the cat colony had dwindled to zero. The Cat Welfare Society has since disbanded, and any stray felines seen prowling the property today are unofficial visitors.

The museum isn’t the only place that has embraced the benefits of having hungry cats on the premises. Exeter Cathedral in southwest England has a cat door dating back to the 16th century, and today the British government employs thousands of felines to keep rat and mouse populations under control. But the only evidence that remains of the British Museum’s cats are some clippings in the archives, a sign warning that feeding the cats is “strictly forbidden” outside certain areas, and the memories of those cherished mousers.