The Church Cat 1912 – 1927

The Church Cat gravestone
The Church Cat gravestone. Photo by iyers on Flickr
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This is a comment from the Flickr website by the photographer who took the photograph above of the gravestone of “The Church Cat” at St Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, UK:

“I’d looked for it a few times and then given up – I happened to be sat on a bench by the church, soaking up the sun and eating a sandwich yesterday, when a gaggle of ladies apparently on a sightseeing tour made a beeline for it! (I of course waited until they’d moved on to the next item of their itinerary before I shuffled over and took a snap for posterity)”

The gravestone lies on the ground surrounded by grass which must make it quite difficult to see. The church where the gravestone is found is a grand, imposing building in the city centre of Bristol in south-west England. There is no graveyard outside the church but just outside the main door on a grassy area there is this unusual memorial to a cat.

Verger and cat Tom
Verger and cat ‘Tom’

The cat’s name given by the verger of the church at the time, Eli Richards, was Tom. Tom was in fact ‘owned’ by a lady called Alice who lived near the church. She had named him Blackie.

Alice and her sister Jessie were the church cleaners. Tom followed Alice everywhere including to the church and as a consequence he spent a great deal of time there. He would sit on the church pews with her and the family during Sunday services. People believed that he was the church cat belonging to the verger.

St. Mary's Redcliffe
St. Mary Redcliffe

In effect, he was the church get because he spent more time at church services than any one of the clergy! Tom spent most of the 15 years of his life at St Mary Redcliffe church. He became quite a celebrity.

On occasions he would sit with the choir and he liked to sit on the stool with the blind organist, Alfred Hollins, as he played during rehearsals and even during services.

He would sit on someone’s lap in the congregation during services as well. Although he wasn’t allowed in the chancel. He clearly loved to be in the church and he served the usual purpose of a ‘working cat’, which was to minimise the presence of rats and mice. He also like to keep in check the large number of pigeons. He hid his prey within the church. Apparently, when the altar cross was removed, in the early 1920s, there were enough remains of his prey to fill three bathtubs.

When he died in 1927 he was given a wonderful send-off with a grand funeral service. A small coffin was made for him, which was carried by the verger to his final resting place accompanied by the churchwardens and the vicar. Alfred Hollins the organist played suitable music on the organ.

A sonnet was written in his memory by Gilbert Croker:

Beneath a stone in Redcliffe’s churchyard lies
What was a strange thing in God’s house: a cat,
Which was, before its very sad demise,
Often upon the organ-stool just sat
Listening to the music played soft and sweet,
Or, in the organist’s lap so still and warm,
It would not ‘turn a whisker’ at the treat
Of the noise changing to a pedalled storm!
Its purpose in life was to keep from view
Those furry creatures, lest they think a pew –
Especially at Harvest time of year –
To be a place that would, to them, be dear.
Now the number of its years can be found
To all who look within this holy ground.

My thanks to:

  • Finn for finding this story for me and
  • Purr N Furr Featuring Felines (link) and
  • The Flickr photographer, username: iyers

My research indicates that the gravestone was renewed (replaced in fact) at some stage.

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