The UK has no shortage of unusual ceremonial titles, and alongside the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod and the Grand Carver of England is the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office. As you may have guessed by the name, the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office is actually a cat. It’s not a new position, Cardinal Wolsey had a cat with him when he was Lord Chancellor in the early sixteenth century. Although there have been cats in the heart of government for a long time, the records about them and their work are less than a hundred years old, with Frilly being the resident cat at the War Office in 1909 and was on the payroll. When he died, there was a staff collection to have him stuffed and preserved, which allowed him to make an appearance in the Imperial War Museum’s Animals’ War exhibition in 2007. Records then show the history of some of the cats to have been appointed, formally or informally, as Chief Mouser start just after that, with some of the cats being employed by the Home Office before the Cabinet Office took responsibility for them.
Treasury Bill 1924
Treasury Bill was originally called Smokey, and had a reputation for presenting Ramsay Macdonald with his catches. He was described as marmalade in colour.
Peter was allocated a daily allowance of a penny by the Treasury in 1929, and was in Downing Street before that. He was a well fed black cat who patrolled the Downing Street area, doing such a good job that when the Home Office moved to Bournemouth during the war, they applied for an allowance for two cats to cover the work that Peter had been doing in London. Peter was joined at various times in his period at Downing Street by Munich Mouser and Nelson. Nelson was Winston Churchill’s cat, and Churchill is reported to have said “Nelson is the bravest cat I ever knew. I once saw him chase a huge dog out of the Admiralty. I decided to adopt him and name him after our great Admiral”. Peter died in November 1946, at the age of 17.
Peter II 1946-1947
Peter had performed so well that his successor was named after him. However, he was not to have as long a tenure as the original Peter. Peter II had arrived in December 1946 as a two month old, and quickly got to terms with the role. In the early hours of 27th June 1947, Peter II was struck by a car, and despite the best efforts of the RSPCA to save him, he did not survive.
Peter III, “Peter The Great” 1947-1964
The third Peter to hold the role took up office in August 1947. Peter was good at his job, and the relatively new medium of television meant that he was better known than his predecessors. He appeared on the BBC in 1958, and there was much public conversation about whether his salary was high enough. He eventually passed away in March 1964, and the government received many letters of condolence, not just from the UK but including many from Italy and one from Etti-Cat, a New York based cat who was employed to make travelling on the subway more courteous.
Peta or Manninagh KateDhu 1964-1976
When Peter III died, Ronald Garvey, Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man, wrote to the Home Secretary to express his condolences on the loss of Peter, and to offer to provide a Manx cat for the role. He added that the cat would be without a tail – as a Manx cat – but with a guaranteed nine lives. On the 7th May 1964, at a ceremony attended by the BBC and the National Press, the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, was given Manninagh KateDhu, which means Black Manx Cat, and the Home Office renamed her Peta.
In an era when gender stereotypes were being challenged, with for example Valentina Tereshkova becoming the first woman in space less than a year before, Peta became the first female cat to hold official office in Downing Street. It may sound trivial now, but this was six years before the UK parliament passed the Equal Pay Act and more than a decade before the Sex Discrimination Act came in to force.
Just as the media had taken to Peter III, Peta became a star. Official memos show how Peta’s salary was discussed. As she had come from a “diplomatic background” rather than her predecessors who were considered to be “industrial grades”, she was moved to an annual salary rather than weekly pay. Peta started on £13 a year, double what her predecessor earned.
Peta shared Downing Street with Nemo, Harold Wilson’s Siamese cat. It was not an easy relationship. During one fight, Wilson’s wife Mary was scratched so badly by Peta that, it is reported, she had to cancel dinner with the Italian Prime Minister.
Although Peta was popular with the media, she was seen as lazy and fat by her colleagues in the Home Office, and records show that there were complaints about Peta and her behaviour. In 1976, a memo shows that Peta had gone into retirement some time before that date, and lived with a civil servant until her death in 1980.
Wilberforce 1973 – 1986
Wilberforce was adopted from the Hounslow branch of the RSPCA in 1973 during Edward Heath’s tenure as Prime Minister. The policeman on duty outside the front door of 10 Downing Street was instructed to ring the doorbell to allow Wilberforce in if he wanted to go inside. He had a reputation as a great mouser, and was popular with many including Margaret Thatcher who brought Wilberforce a tin of sardines from Moscow.
Wilberforce, like his predecessors, was popular with the media, and the BBC coverage of the 1983 general election included Esther Rantzen holding Wilberforce.
One frequent visitor to Downing Street, Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, was less of a fan. He was allergic to cats and tried to avoid Wilberforce, however, Wilberforce went to say hello. Sir Bernard said “Bloody Wilberforce used to sit under my desk and I would have a fit of sneezing. I hate cats”.
Wilberforce held office for thirteen years before retiring to the countryside with a former caretaker from 10 Downing Street in 1986. He died in May 1988.
Humphrey 1989 – 1997
After a three year hiatus with no cats in post, Humphrey arrived as a year old stray. He was named after Sir Humphrey from the BBC sitcom Yes Prime Minister. Humphrey’s salary was £100 per annum, and he always seemed keen to pose for the press outside 10 Downing Street. He served Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair.
Memos from 1993 show that Humphrey suffered from a kidney issue which meant that instructions were issued not to feed Humphrey the treats that many Downing Street visitors had been used to giving to Chief Mousers.
Humphrey turned out to be an appropriate name, as he seems to have been involved in more political intrigue than any of his predecessors. In June 1994, the Daily Telegraph published an article accusing Humphrey of killing four robin chicks that had been nesting on a window ledge at Downing Street. The following day, the then Prime Minister, John Major, told journalists “I am afraid Humphrey has been falsely accused”. In 2006, the Daily Telegraph confirmed that there had been no evidence to accuse Humphrey.
In 1995, Humphrey went missing for three months. This was not initially disclosed to the press, and when the story did get to the Times, it appeared on newspaper’s front page in September of that year. This publicity helped Humphrey be located; it turned out he had been living at the Royal Army Medical College on Millbank. Safely back in Downing Street, Humphrey issued a statement through the press office saying “I have had a wonderful holiday at the Royal Army Medical College, but it is nice to be back and I am looking forward to the new parliamentary session”.
1997 was a year of change in British politics, with Tony Blair winning a landslide victory in the general election in May. Very soon after moving in to Downing Street, rumours circulated that Cherie Blair was not a fan of Humphrey. The press office announced that 10 Downing Street “is Humphrey’s home and, as far as the Blairs are concerned, it will remain his home”, and issued a photo of Humphrey with Mrs Blair.
Later that year, it was decided that Humphrey would be retired off and in November that year, he went to live with an elderly couple in London. This was a significant news story at the time.
However, that was not the end of the intrigue around Humphrey. Conservative MP Alan Clark declared Humphrey a “missing person” and there was much debate as to whether Humphrey had actually been put to sleep in secret. A group of journalists was taken to a secret location to confirm that Humphrey was still alive and in good health, and to prove the story, photos of Humphrey with the newspapers of the day were released.
In 2005, the Daily Telegraph made a Freedom of Information request for details as to how Humphrey was. In March 2006, Tony Blair’s office announced that Humphrey had passed away.
The rest of the Blair premiership saw no cats appointed to the role of Chief Mouser.
Sybil 2007 – 2009
With Blair standing down in 2007 and replaced by Gordon Brown, Downing Street again became cat friendly. Sybil, named after the character from Fawlty Towers, was the family pet of Alistair Darling, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer and resident of 11 Downing Street.
Sybil was about a year old when she moved to Downing Street, and her tenure at the heart of government was to be short. In January 2009, she moved back to Edinburgh, and later that year, it was reported that she had died after a short illness.
Larry 2011 – present (jointly with Freya, 2012 – 2014)
2010 saw the arrival of the Conservative led coalition government with David Cameron as the new prime minister, and in keeping with the times of austerity, the salary for the Chief Mouser moved from a government responsibility and to the staff of Downing Street, who organise fund raising events for Larry.
Larry came from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, and is very much his own cat. He is reported to prefer sleeping to catching mice, and enjoys the company of a female cat friend called Maisie. His lack of mousing – a key role of the Chief Mouser – has been much reported, but Larry showed his killer instincts to the press by presenting them a dead mouse.
This was not enough to save his reputation, and he was briefly joined by a second Chief Mouser, Freya, cat of George Osborne from 2012 to 2014 (see below).
Larry is reported to be nervous around men, although he made an exception for visiting US president Barack Obama. There was much speculation as to how good the relationship was between the Camerons and Larry, with bookmakers offering odds as to which would leave Downing Street first.
Cameron left office in 2016, and Theresa May became the new Prime Minister, and Larry stayed in office. He has complex relations with other animals. He is reported to have a female cat friend, Maisie, and a good relationship with Freya (most of the time) and Osborne’s dog, Lola. However, his relationship with Palmerston, the Chief Mouser to the Foreign Office is anything but cordial, with numerous fights reported. With this in mind, it was reported in 2016 that a new Chief Mouser to be called Cromwell, was to be considered. To date, Larry remains in post.
Freya 2012 – 2014 (alongside Larry)
Larry’s lethargic appearance seemed to mean that his key role of mousing was being neglected, and in 2012 it was reported that Larry would be sacked and replaced by George Osborne’s pet cat Freya. However, it was then confirmed that the cats would be jointly in post and would job share. Freya went missing just after moving in with the Osbornes in 2009, and was found in 2012, when she moved from her former home in Notting Hill – she had found another home there whilst missing – to Downing Street, where she took up a joint role with Larry after he had struggled with mousing.
In 2014, Freya was hit by a car and helped by a vet, and Osborne decided that Freya should retire to the countryside.
Palmerston, Chief Mouser to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 2016 – present
Freya made frequent visits to the FCO, and when she retired and Larry did not seem interested in covering that territory, a young cat from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home was adopted and named after Lord Palmerston.
As well as mousing in the King Charles Street offices of the FCO, Palmerston is also responsible for appointing mousers to British High Commissions, embassies and consulates around the world. In October 2017, he appointed Lawrence of Abdoun to the British Embassy in Amman, Jordan. Then, Leyla Pixie was appointed to the British Consulate General in Istanbul.
The next big steps in the Chief Mouser world are likely to be who replaces Larry when he retires, which feels like it’s not too far away, and whether Palmerston is replaced when he retires. Perhaps we could end up with each government department having a Chief Mouser?