Are you a cat person or a dog one? I have cats but love dogs too; I just don’t have time in my life for them at the moment. Cats are more self-contained after all, they pretty much do what they like and interact with us when they want food or attention. These days cats are – at least in urban areas – simply pets. Their role is solely to provide companionship. In the past people kept cats for other reasons, most often to keep down pests like mice.
That’s why Benjamin Carter and his wife had a cat. They had ‘no end of mice’ and so when their cat disappeared in June 1890 they were both upset and angry to find that a neighbour had killed it. Carter obtained a summons and brought James Butterfill to court at Woolwich.
There he explained the situation to Mr Marsham, the sitting magistrate. The cat had vanished on June 28 and, having heard rumours that Butterfill was responsible, he confronted him. James admitted taking the cat but said he had put it into a basket (intending to give it ‘a hiding’) but it escaped.
The cat never returned and Carter carried on with his investigations, finding a little girl who said she saw Mrs Butterfill take the cat from the Carter’s door and carry it into her own house. This girl told the magistrate the same story and it became clear that the cat was now dead, killed by the Butterfills. The question was why?
James Butterfill told Mr Marsham that he and his brother-in-law kept pigeons, trained ones (so perhaps racing pigeons or ones used to carry messages). The Carter’s cat had killed several of these by June and they decided enough was enough.
‘You should have sued the owner in the county court’, the justice told him.
‘We did, and were nonsuited’, Butterfill replied.
Nonsuiting means that the case was stopped in court, either because the plaintiff (Carter) withdrew – unlikely here, or because the judge decided there was insufficient evidence for the case to carry on. However, the judge at the time declared that if he’d found a cat killing his pigeons he would have destroyed it. That was enough for the Butterfills who resolved to deal with the problem themselves should it happen again.
It did happen again. The Butterfills lost four pigeons and then six more a few days later.
Robert Ashdown, the brother-in-law, said that his pigeons were worth £5. They had acted to defend their property and Mr Marsham had some sympathy with them. He added that if anyone was directly to blame it was probably Mrs Butterfill, not James and so the summons was incorrectly directed. He thought the action taken was justified and dismissed the summons on a technicality.
The Carters would have to find a new ‘mouser’ (apparently they were readily available for about 10s– £40 today) but hopefully one that didn’t attack birds. They could do with one of my two. They will kill mice if they catch them but just sit and stare at pigeons, making that strange noise that cats make.
The pigeons are not at all bothered by them.
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 30, 1890]