Pet keeping: a brief history

Picture from 'Illustrated Book of the Dog', by Vero Shaw (1890)

Illustrated Book of the Dog, by Vero Shaw (1890)

National Pet Month (7 April – 7 May) is now drawing to a close but one of the enduring messages of the initiative is the benefits of pets for people, and vice versa.   What we need from our companion animals has changed over the centuries, dogs are no longer solely hunting partners, and cats are more than ‘rat catchers’.  We offer our pets shelter and food in exchange for companionship.  A bond based on similar mutual benefits was the foundation of the first human-animal relationships.

The earliest domesticated animal was almost certainly the dog, with the West Asians and Egyptians taming their native wolves.  Rock art in Western Iran places the domestication of the wolf some 12,000 years ago.  Wolf cubs might have been tamed with raw meat or drawn to settlement’s discarded food; they were then trained to as guards, herders and hunters.

Evidence of feline domesticity was found in Khirokita, Cypress where human remains have been found buried alongside cats, dated to around 9000 years ago.  It is thought that Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians kept cats to kill the vermin that would invade grain stores.

In Britain, animal care was rudimentary until the Romans invaded in AD 43.  Along with superior technology, the Romans also brought better health care to our shores, and with that our first form of pet care.   External surgery, wound care, even spaying and castration were practiced.

Dogs and cats were our very first pets but over time other animals have been domesticated.   In the 19th century animal fancying emerged as a hobby which led to all sorts of animals, from chinchillas, to rabbits to birds, being kept as pets, bred and entered into shows.

Over the coming months we will bring you more on the history of the domesticated animal – you can look forward to pieces on rabbit keeping and breeding, bird fancying and more on man’s best friend, the dog

If you would like to read a more in depth history of pet care as carried out by veterinary surgeons, check out ‘A short history of British small animal practice’,by Bruce V. Jones, in Veterinary History, Vol. 15(2), 2010.

The many layers of the dog

There has been a lot of discussion of anatomical illustrations recently following the opening of the exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery Leonardo da Vinci anatomist.  We have a number of stunning anatomical illustrations in the Historical Collection – the most well known would be in Stubbs’ The anatomy of the horse and then there are those in Carlo Ruini’s Anatomia del cavallo, infermita, et suoi rimedii and Andrew Snape’s Anatomy of an horse.

Although I admire these works my favourite anatomical items are the books of models that we have.  Turn the page and lift the flaps to see what lies behind – it is like being a child again.

We have two complete series of these ‘flap books’:  Vinton’s livestock models – which includes the pig, the sheep, the bull, the cow, the horse, and the mare and foal and Philips’ anatomical and technical models, series 2.

This second set by Philips covers domestic animals.  Again we find the horse, the ox, the sheep and the pig but interestingly we also find the dog. Why interestingly? Well these books were produced in the 1890s, a time when the practice of keeping a dog as a companion animal was not common.Cover of The Dog: its external and internal organisation

The dog: its external and internal organisation: an illustrated representation and brief description was edited by Alexander Constant Piesse MRCVS who graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in 1885 and the anatomical description is by William S Furneaux.

It starts with a 28 page text which gives the general characteristics of dogs, then divides dogs into two types – non-sporting and sporting and gives the characteristics of the main breeds.  This section is illustrated with some rather nice images.

There then follows “a detailed account of the anatomy of the body of the dog; [which] will be illustrated by means of a folding model of the St Bernard”.  The various ‘layers’ are then discussed – starting with the exterior, the skin, and ending with the genital organs.

Finally, there is an explanation of the folding plates with each section numbered to correspond to the model. So we have: Head  – (1) Nose (2) Crest of nose (3) Mouth and upper lip etc

There are 5 folding plates in all – and you lift the flap to reveal the next ‘layer’. The inner ‘layers’ are a mass of flaps – so much so that instructions are given as to how to open them “No 13 [left lung] may be turned upward and 18 [left ventricle] to the left …the interior of the hear them become[s] visible”.

The Dog: its external and internal organisation. Plate 5 the internal organs

Plate 5 showing the internal organs

Please get in touch if you want to visit and explore the layers of the dog – or horse or pig ….

Our home on Horseferry Road – 100 years old today

Today we are celebrating the 100th birthday of 62-64 Horseferry Road, the current home of the RCVS.

The plaque on the corner of the building records the laying of the foundation stone like this:

“Mr Fegan’s Homes” (incorporated)
to the glory of God and the welfare of orphan,
needy and erring boys, here and
hereafter, the foundation stone of
this House of Mercy was laid by
the Right Honourable Lord Kinnaird
20th May 1912.
“His compassions fail not  Lam. III 22 ”

Why ‘House of Mercy’?   This was something that intrigued me and several other staff so the anniversary seemed like a good time to try and find out more.  A quick search on the web revealed that the charity Fegans still exists today offering support to children and their families in South East England.

An email to them brought forth a wealth of fascinating material about the history of the building and its intended use.  ‘House of Mercy’ refers to the fact that it was being built to house the new headquarters of “Mr Fegan’s Homes”, a shelter for homeless boys under 16 and a hostel for poor working boys.

James Fegan (1852-1925) started his work helping street urchins a few years after he completed his education,  founding a charitable society in 1870 and opening his first home in 1872.   The society continued to expand and by 1912 was in need of a new building.

Loving and Serving (the society’s magazine) for March 1912 tells the story up to the point when the foundation stone was laid in May 1912 – a story full of trials and tribulations.  It seems that, not long after they had completed the purchase of 87-91 Tufton Street, some of the frontage was requisitioned by the Council as part of a road  widening scheme.  This meant that 62-64 Horseferry Road had to be acquired as well to give them enough land on which to build – the whole (corner site) was eventually cleared for the new building in February 1912.

Leaflet - ceremony to lay the foundation stone

Leaflet for ceremony to lay the foundation stone copyright Fegans

The building was to be called “The Red Lamp” – its red lamp, on the top most corner of the roof,  would “shine night by night as a beacon of hope and help…”.

Loving and Serving May 1912 records the laying of the foundation stone by Lord Kinnaird at a ceremony which was attended by several prominent clergymen.  The programme for the event had hoped for £3,000 in ‘gifts and promises‘ towards the cost of the building, but this was surpassed on the day when a total of £4,426 was pledged.

Laying the foundation stone

Laying the foundation stone copyright Fegans

“The Red Lamp” was designed by AE Hughes and is described by Pevsner 1 as ‘free Neo-Wren’(1).  The finished building was slightly different to that shown on the leaflet for the laying of the foundation stone –  with two doors in Horseferry Road and only one in Tufton Street (the original plan had been for two doors in Tufton Street) , presumably this was due to the loss of frontage in Tufton Street.

The official opening was held just over a year later on 17 June 1913 . There was a public meeting at Church House, Westminster (just around the corner), then those in the crowd who had reserved tickets to view the building moved to Horseferry Road where the three sections of the building were declared open. The event is described in detail in the July 1913 issue of the Society’s magazine, which was now renamed The Red Lamp.

opening day 17 June 1913

Opening day 17 June 1913 copyright Fegans

To give a flavour of the event – it was ‘a bright summer afternoon’ there was ‘sweet and effective singing’ and a ‘substantial Thank-offering, £837’. The only negative thing recorded was the theft of the caretaker’s watch!

completed building

Completed building copyright Fegans

Unfortunately the high hopes for “The Red Lamp” were curtailed by the outbreak of war in 1914, with the shelter and hostel closing at that time.  The offices and  advisory centre remained in Horseferry Road until the building had to close due to bomb and fire damage following an air raid on 16 April 1941.   (The then RCVS building in Red Lion Square was also hit by a bomb, on 10 May 1941, and suffered similar damage).

If you are interested in finding out more about the work of Fegans today, please visit their website.

All images were kindly supplied by Fegans who retain the copyright.

1.  Bradley, Simon and Pevsner, Nikolaus London 6: Westminster (Pevsner Architectural Guides: Buildings of England) Yale Univ Press 2003

From burial ground to picnic spot

May is local and community history month so that, together with a rather nice photograph from 1913 that was included in the material we received from Fegans (see the previous post), has led to me writing about one of the places I go to eat lunch – St John’s Gardens on Horseferry Road.

The garden started life as the burial ground of St John the Evangelist, Smith Square  which is now used as a concert venue.

The burial ground was consecrated in July 1731 and very quickly became overcrowded, so much so that 20 years later three feet of earth was deposited over the whole site to solve the problem.  According to one report 5,126 graves were dug in a 10 year period.

In 1781 two watchmen were appointed to protect the site, and a wall was added in 1784 – at that time the stealing of bodies for dissection was common.  In 1814 it was felt necessary for the watchmen to be armed with pistols!

The burial ground was finally closed in 1853, with Lord Palmerston claiming it was a public nuisance.

After 30 years lying neglected, a group of local residents formed a committee with the aim of converting the ground into a public garden.  Their plans were finally realised in 1885 when on the 23rd May The Duke of Westminster declared the gardens open.

This photograph of the gardens was taken from James Fegan’s office window on 17 June 1913, the opening day of what is now Belgravia House, the home of the RCVS.

St Johns Gardens 1913

St Johns Gardens 1913 copyright Fegans

The view from the same spot today is not that different – the layout of the flower beds and pathways is similar, though there are more buildings surrounding the gardens.

If you look carefully today, nearly 160 year after the burial ground closed, you can still see evidence of the former use – some of the gravestones are lined up against the walls.  Sadly most are so worn it is hard to see that they are gravestones at all – and the inscriptions have long gone.

There is though one unmistakable link with the past – the sarcophagus of Christopher Cass (1678-1734)

Christopher Cass' sarcophagus

Cass was Master Mason to His Majesty’s Ordnance and worked on a number of London churches as well as Blenheim Palace and the stonework front of Burlington House.  The grade II listed sarcophagus is said to be the earliest granite monument in England.


St Johns Gardens © Copyright Fegans and used with their permission.

Image of Christopher Cass’ sarcophagus © Copyright Kevin Gordon from the Geograph website and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Rabbits: from prey to pet

Domestic rabbits in 'A Practical Treatise...' by Moubray, 1834

Domestic rabbits in ‘A Practical Treatise…’ by Moubray, 1834

Even though the domestication of the rabbit occurred 2000 years ago, rabbit care before the 19th century was not in the local vet or farmer’s repertoire.  This explains the lack of lagomorph related content in our historical collection.

Contrary to what you may think, rabbits don’t belong to the rodent order but sit in a separate group called lagomorpha.  Lagomorphs have four incisors in the upper jaw and are entirely herbivorous – unlike their similar-looking cousins, the rodents.

We can thank central European monks for the full domestication of the wild European rabbit.  Within the monastery walls rabbits would freely roam and eventually became tame.  In 600 AD, Pope Gregory the Great declared that unborn or new born rabbits were no longer considered meat.  Strangely enough they were to be thought of as aquatic creatures.  Conveniently, this meant they could be eaten during Lent and so the practice of rabbit keeping steadily increased in monasteries.

One of the few books in our historical collection about rabbit keeping has the rather wordy title A practical treatise on breeding, rearing and fattening all kinds of domestic poultry, pigeons and rabbits; also the management of swine, milch cows and bee; with instructions for the private brewery on cider, perry and British wine making by Bonington Moubray (1834).  In this book, the subject of rabbit rearing is lumped together with all the activities that could take place on a small holding, so that a countryman could have one volume for all his needs.  The book contains tips on cooking rabbits (“they make a good dish, cooked like a hare”), extols the quality of the skin and fur (the author is “in the habit of drying the skins, for the linings of nightgowns”) and mentions the four types of rabbits (warreners, parkers, hedgehogs and sweethearts, in case you were wondering).

By 1840, the Metropolitan Rabbit Fancy Club was established in England, were members showed only one breed, the ‘lop eared’.  As animal fancying swept Europe in the late 19th century, rabbits were still killed for their meat but were increasingly kept as parlour pets and exhibited at shows.

Rabbit care has changed a lot over the centuries but one thing still rings true “the teeth of rabbits are very effectual implements of destruction to anything not hard enough to resist them” (Moubray, 1834).  Those lagomorphs can bite!