There have been so many changes at sea, through the ages, and of course most of them technical, but I was thinking the other day about a change that few people recall and that is the loss of the ship’s cat. I was always fascinated by this very special animal which from time immemorial almost all ships carried. They were of course appreciated for their control of the rodents on board so were usually very well cared for. And in common with most the crew when we reached a foreign port they valued their shore leave. Unfortunately, although the crew were well notified of the intended ship’s departure time, there was no way of advising the cat. So the true ship’s cat, far from feeling stranded in a foreign port if the ship had sailed without it, simply joined a different ship where the chances were it would be equally welcome.
In 1956 I was 4th Mate on the ‘Eurybates’ a fascinating ship built in 1929 which was, together with two sister ships, fitted with an engine that was half diesel motor, and half steam. It had been converted to complete diesel, simply because the current rules required twice the number of qualified engineer officers. Anyway she had a lovely cat that everybody loved. One day while we were discharging cargo in Amsterdam she jumped up on to what she thought was the hatch top only to discover that the hatch covers had been removed to discharge the cargo and she fell into a large deep tank of heated up, palm oil. We managed to rescue her but she was totally soaked in the palm oil. We asked the ship’s agent to rush her to the vet's hospital, and at great cost they managed to save her life. All the crew chipped in to pay the vet’s bill, which totally amazed the agent.
Only a few years before this another of our ships, the ‘Menestheus’, had a serious engine-room fire and as the fire could not be extinguished it was necessary to abandon ship. As everybody climbed into the life boats nobody could find the ship’s cat so they had to leave her while the entire ship burned out. When tug boats from Los Angeles arrived to tow the burnt out vessel they were surprised to find a very scorched cat still alive and well, clinging to the only bit of the wooden deck on the poop deck. It made headlines in the American press, and the cat was taken care of by an animal charity.
There seem to be so many stories of famous ship’s cats and with the current news item of discovering Ernest Shackleton’s ship ‘Endurance’ at the bottom of the Weddle Sea. The ‘Endurance’ cat was known as Mrs Chippy as he always followed the Ship’s Carpenter about (despite her name she was found to be a tom cat). The cat became famous as Caroline Alexander wrote a book about the expedition from the cat’s view point. In a former article I told of my being privileged to have known the surgeon of the Shackleton expedition, Dr James MacIlroy, and how I asked Maggie Williams while on her Antarctic sea bird cruise, to take a photograph of McIlroy Peak, on South Georgia which had since been named after him so I thought it appropriate to include the photo of her kindly pointing it out.
Finally I must mention Simon, the ship’s cat of HMS ‘Amythest’ who was wounded when the ship was under fire in the Yangtse Incident in 1949. 25 of the crew, including the Captain, were killed but Simon survived and was the only cat to be awarded the Dickin Medal, the animals’ VC. He was given the Naval rank of Able SeaCat.
In 1981 I was promoted to Captain of the 'Bengal Enterprise', a small geared container ship introducing containers between Calcutta and Colombo. By this time the ship could be fined for having a cat on board. One came on board in Calcutta and I asked all the crew not to feed it on our way to Colombo so that it would then be anxious to get ashore for a good meal. However, one evening while sitting in my cabin I felt sorry for the cat hiding amongst the containers and took down a saucer of milk to where the the last place the cat had been observed. To my surprise there were several other saucers of milk already there. So much for my instructions being observed where a cat was concerned.
(This article was first published in the April 2022 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine.)