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Church Cats 5

Cathedral Cats at Salisbury, Wiltshire

Wolfie the church cat, recent incumbent at Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire. Photo copyright Richard Surman

Wolfie, the most recent incumbent at Salisbury Cathedral
Image copyright © Richard Surman

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Salisbury, a city in the county of Wiltshire in southern England, has one of the country's finest cathedrals and the one with the highest spire, at 404 feet (nearly 125 metres). There have been cats at Salisbury Cathedral for a number of years in modern times, and probably much longer altogether.

The first 'official' cat in recent times was Captain, a black-and-white gentleman described as 'debonair'; he was clearly a great character and took his duties seriously. One early morning he followed the verger, assistant priest and bishop in procession as they moved into the cathedral for the day's first Communion service. On another occasion he was found to be sleeping on the cushion in the dean's choirstall when the choir processed in to Evensong. He liked to sample all types of service, so he appeared at Sung Eucharist one Sunday morning and settled down by the high altar (or could it have been the under-floor heating that attracted him to the spot?). The Cathedral News commended Captain and reported that he 'never flagged in the vigilant pursuit of duty', so when he disappeared in March 1980 he was greatly mourned and missed. What happened is that he was set upon in the cathedral close by a rogue Alsatian dog; he was seen walking away from the encounter, but no one saw him again. Perhaps he found the experience too unnerving and sought a safer place to stay.

Grave site of church cats under the mulberry tree, Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire

There was lively discussion as to which of several candidates should succeed him as Cathedral Cat; nearly a year later the matter had not been resolved, with some people feeling strongly that Captain was irreplaceable and the post should be left vacant. Mr Baggins was at the time undisputed 'king of the close', while Amber — affectionately known as Ginger or 'Ginge' — and his sister Tiddler ('Tid') were workshop cats and reigned over the stoneyard. There were also Psyche, Sultan and the bishop's cat, Topsy. I'm not sure which of these — if any — became Cathedral Cat. Ginger died in 1988 and he and Tiddler are buried beneath one of several ancient mulberry trees that are to be found in the cathedral precincts (left). The graves are next to each other (right); the inscriptions read 'Ginge 1976-1988: a cat of great character' and 'Tid 1976-1990: gentle sister of Ginge'.

Ginger's gravestone - church cat of Salisbury Cathedral Tiddler's gravestone - church cat of Salisbury Cathedral
Stained glass window showing laying of foundation stone, Salisbury Cathedral, 1220

Ginger has another claim to fame in that there is, in a side chapel of the cathedral, a modern stained-glass window commemorating the laying of the foundation stone of the edifice in the year 1220 (left). A tiny image of a cat can be seen on the window (right), and is said to be in honour of Ginge (although the cat shown appears to be white).

Detail of laying of foundation stone at Salisbury Cathedral, showing the cat

In the early 1990s Simpkin appeared on the scene with her family, who had moved from Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. They lived first in a different part of the city, and then moved into the cathedral precincts. The second move seems to have upset Simpkin; she first returned to the previous house, and then after she had been brought back she kept a close eye on the family by following them everywhere, perhaps in case they should move again! She would even follow the children to school, and sometimes wait all day by a road crossing for them to emerge. Eventually settling down, Simpkin graced the occasional Morning Service with her presence; on one memorable Palm Sunday she obviously thought that if there could be a donkey in the procession, there should certainly be a cat too! She remained at the donkey's heels from beginning to end of the service.

Church cat Wolfie checks on progress in the Works Department of Salisbury Cathedral. Photo copyright Richard Surman.
Image copyright © Richard Surman

The most recent incumbent of the post of Cathedral Cat was Wolfie (left and above), which is short for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; he came as a kitten with Canon June Osborne when she was appointed Dean. However, after living with her for six months he became more nomadic, and although she still funded his upkeep he then befriended the craftsmen of the Works Department — especially the glaziers, whom he would follow up ladders and scaffolding; the pupils at the Cathedral School; the staff at the Visitor Services desk, where he gained his own chair and a box of cat treats; and the librarian (although he wasn't actually allowed in the library). Like Captain he attended early-morning services; he spent one Eucharist gazing at the dean and accompanying her when she went up to read the Gospel for the day. A procession consisting of altar boy–verger–bishop–cat was considered quite normal at Salisbury!

One of Wolfie's less popular exploits occurred when one Christmas, having found the Nativity crib a nice, comfortable place to sleep, with straw thoughtfully provided to burrow under, he was unknowingly locked in when the place was closed for the night. Waking at around 3 a.m. and wishing to go out, his movements set off the alarm system — and a none-too-pleased verger had to crawl out of bed to find out what was going on! On another occasion, asleep by the crib, the cat awoke to find himself the object of a donkey's curiosity.

Wolfie gave pleasure to the cathedral staff and visitors for over 16 years, but died after a short illness in November 2011. His memory remains on souvenirs such as fridge magnets bearing his likeness, which were sold in the cathedral shop.

A much earlier cat, which had lived by the cathedral with its lady owner, made local news in 1782 when after its owner moved to Oxford, it decided to return to Salisbury, a journey of some 60 miles (nearly 100 km):

About three weeks since, a lady of the Close went to reside near Oxford, taking with her a favourite cat. In a few days the animal was missing, and was publicly cried, advertised, etc., but to no effect. It was, however, soon afterwards found in the Close, having traced its way to the original habitation across the country and through a space of about sixty miles. This is an absolute fact, and a greater instance of feline sagacity can seldom be adduced.

Salisbury & Winchester Journal, 12 August 1782

Very many thanks are due to Suzanne Eward, Cathedral Librarian and Keeper of the Muniments at Salisbury Cathedral, for her kind assistance when I was researching this account, and for providing the above extract and much other information about the Salisbury cats. For his kind permission to use his photographs of Wolfie we are much indebted to Richard Surman; they are from his superb book Cathedral Cats (the second edition) — for details of this and other 'cat titles', see our Feline Folios section.

Read about some more Church Cats

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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.

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