Here is a brief note about Wilberforce one of 10 Downing Street’s resident mouser cats and companions. He was a large black-and-white cat. And he proved to have greater staying power than the prime ministers he served under. He outlasted several of them. He carried out his duties during the occupancies of Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher. It is said that Margaret Thatcher bought a tin of pilchards for him on her state visit to Russia. After he appeared on television with Mrs Thatcher he received more fan mail than her.
Wilberforce was acquired from Hounslow RSPCA in 1973 as a kitten. It appears that rival factions argued about his name. Winston, Disraeli, Galston, Pitt or Walpole were suggested. Dr. Desmond Morris in his book Cat World states that the caretaker of 10 Downing Street became irritated by an overenthusiastic member of the Disraeli lobby and looked up at a bust of William Wilberforce at No. 10, who had fought to abolish the slave trade for 20 years, and announced “This cat is called Wilberforce”.
Dr. Morris says that he was so successful as a mouser that all the mice at No. 10 evacuated the premises and moved over the road to the Home Office. I wonder whether he means they moved to the Foreign Office which is adjacent. The mice moved there because they had no resident mouser at the time.
Wilberforce served for 13 years at No. 10 after which he retired to the country where he allegedly bossed around a large dog in between taking press calls at 10 Downing Street. He died two years later with glowing obituaries in the newspapers. He died peacefully in his sleep on May 19, 1988.
As Wilberforce was so famous he was painted by Frances Broomfield. She was invited to paint him in 1987 as he was about to retire as chief mouser. The photograph on this page shows her and her painting. Fans of the Netflix series The Crown can see the painting in the series on Thatcher’s study wall.
Broomfield contacted Downing Street for permission to do a painting as she thought Wilberforce was an interesting subject. She was invited to tea by a senior staff member who looked after Wilberforce. She met the cat, who at that time was quite elderly, and was shown around 10 Downing Street for background subject matter.
She said that it was quite a privilege. She said that “I was quite nervous approaching the world famous front door of Number 10 but once inside I was made to feel welcome. The tea was, of course, perfect.
She decided to use the exterior view of the building which she felt was more recognisable to the general public. The painting was exhibited at Bond Street’s Portal Gallery. It was sold to a private collector. Staff at 10 Downing Street presented Mrs Thatcher with a framed copy of the picture signed by Broomfield. Apparently she was delighted and it is said that she placed the picture on her study wall personally.
Note: Dr. Morris referred to the book The English Cat at Home by M Sturgis published in 1986 by Chatto and Windus, London. I am thankful to Dr. Morris for the information.
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