LUCKY BLACK CAT: Nine Lives Dr Alec Gill MBE

Why is it that only the British believe in ‘Lucky Black Cats’? Most foreign seafarers (including USA mariners) prefer a white cat aboard their ships. Cats spark off contradictory reactions in all sorts of areas.

In Wales, if a black cat crosses your path, it was best to stroke it for good luck. A Yorkshire landlady boasted that she was non-superstitious; but if ever she received a postcard depicting a black cat, she dare not throw it away. In Manchester (1952), if a black cat crossed in front of your car, you would get a puncture soon afterwards.

Cats are well embedded within the world of literature: Old Possum T. S. Eliot has his mysterious Macavity plus other cats; Alice in Wonderland encountered a Cheshire cat; Dick Whittington would have been lost in London without his cat; then there is Puss in Boots, the Cat and the Fiddle, Postman Pat, and Cats the Musical (back to Eliot). 

The enigmatic cat is, of course, easily at home in the world of superstition and casts a long black shadow. In the sphere of magic, our feline friend has been treated as everything from a Deity to the Devil. Not surprisingly, therefore, she figures in various beliefs of fishing families.

One account told about the wives of Yorkshire fishermen who liked to keep a black cat at home so that “her man will return safely from sea”. And, if there was a death in the family, the cat disappeared until after the funeral. A noteworthy point is that the British Isles is unique in its attitude toward whether a black cat is lucky or unlucky. In the USA and most European countries, the white cat is lucky, while black is synonymous with Satan. It was unlucky, however, to have two cats aboard the same ship – double trouble.

Back in 1787, it was considered extremely unlucky to drown a cat at sea – a storm will follow. A cat must never be thrown overboard. This belief certainly links to a particular Hull trawler in March 1913. Both Skipper Edward Durbin and Mate Ernest Ellis (23) of the Sea Horse (H.533) must have been shocked when they saw their ship’s cat being washed overboard by a big wave. In their disparate attempt to get the cat safely inboard, they were both swept over themselves. There was a storm raging at the fishing grounds (around a dozen Hull trawlers were lost that year). Sadly, the mate vanished from sight, but the skipper managed to swim back to the Sea Horse – no mention was made of the cat.

The golden rule for Hull’s deep-sea trawlermen was never chase a cat off the ship – otherwise, it would take its nine lucky lives with it. Some crewmen took their own domestic cat to sea. But it was an even better omen if a cat strayed aboard of her own accord. Despite the desire to have this creature on board, the word ‘cat’ was taboo. As yet, I have not traced an alternative name – perhaps that is where ‘moggie’ comes in. One line of thought is that a moggie is a ‘non-pedigree’ cat. The root of the word might link to ‘mongrel’; but experts disagree and associate the term more with dogs than cats. Do you know the source of the word ‘moggie’?

The Admiral Collingwood (H.341) had a cat called Tich. Since the ship’s maiden voyage in October 1936, cook Bill Worsey had taken his Tich on the first four trips. Collingwood was part of a new generation of ‘super trawlers’ – the pride of the port. Under the command of top skipper Fred Danton, she was due to set sail for a Christmas trip on 12 December that year. Just before Bill left his Brunswick Avenue home, he suddenly decided not to take Tich because “it might be too cold for the poor cat at Bear Island”. His wife pleaded with him to take the cat “for luck”. But Bill left Tich with his two young sons – never to see his family or the cat again. The Collingwood was last heard from on 30 December. In horrific gales she was smashed to pieces on the west coast of Norway, near Aalesund – with the loss of eighteen Hull crew. It is stories like this which confirm the view that cats have nine lives – well, it was certainly true for Tich.

In addition to the life-saving aura associated with cats, it was believed by some that they had supernatural powers to foretell the weather. During a fishing trip some members of the crew watched the behaviour of the ship’s cat very closely. If she washed behind her ears three times, then rain was due. Another sign of imminent rain was if the cat sneezes – and three sneezes in a row meant a crewmember will catch cold before too long. Whenever the cat dashed about in a wild frenzy and clawed viciously at the furniture, this signalled strong winds. And, if she sat with her back to the stove, a frost or even a storm was on its way – which was highly likely within the Arctic Circle. 

This Hull view is reflected in the wider sphere by Haining (1979). He confirmed the British position that “Cats are lucky creatures to have on board, particularly all-black ones – and they also act as a weather omen, for when they are particularly lively, sailors say they have the wind in their tails and are giving warning that a storm is brewing”. The opposite view is put forward in Scandinavia where “Swedish sailors refuse to take a black cat on board, for it carries storm in its tail” (Rappoport, 1930). The belief here is that the cat herself actually causes the storm. This thinking dates back to ancient times when cats were seen as having mystical powers to control the climate. Before we look at the global origins of the cat taboos, there are many more local and war-time sea-cat stories to relate.

There are two tales about one very lucky fish-dock cat. She is un-named and the two yarns span a ten-year period. So whether it was actually the same cat, I am doubtful. In August 1929, it was noticed that this cat removed all her new-born kittens from St.Andrew’s Dock. The next day, Sunday 25th, some new dock buildings, still under construction, went up in flames and the fire spread far and wide. What people in the nearby streets remember vividly about the vast inferno was the wave of rats which swarmed from the dock to invade the community. This same cat (apparently) then leaps to 1939. 

By this time our moggie had found her way aboard the Jutland Amalgamated trawler Lady Jeanette (H.466) – with some of her nine lives still intact. In addition, she managed to get herself a minder in the shape of chief engineer Frank Green (from Rosamund Street). He had a soft spot for cats and took a particular shine to the Jeanette’s mascot. Then, in February 1939, after returning from a fishing trip, he realised that the cat had suddenly disappeared from the 472-ton side-winder. Frank also decided to follow suit and took a trip off – a fateful decision which saved his life. Upon the Lady Jeanette’s return from the winter fishing grounds off Norway, the unpredictable Humber Estuary was in an angry mood. High winds and an extraordinary strong spring tide battered the 164-foot vessel.

The Jeanette strained at her anchor as she awaited the high tide and the opening of the lockgates to St.Andrew’s Fish Dock. But the force of the driving current snapped the anchor chain and swept the two-year old Jeanette helplessly up river. She struck a sandbank and sank in no time. Nine lives were lost, including that of the replacement chief engineer. Nancy Green told how her husband Frank, like his feline friends, was also blessed with extra lives. 

Besides surviving the dangerous convoy work aboard ships in the Second World War, he decided to switch trawlers on about half-a-dozen occasions, just before they were lost. The most notable change being when he left the Lorella (H.455) in 1955. On her next trip, she iced-up and heeled over on the 26 January along with the ill-fated Roderigo (H.135) – there were no survivors. Despite his tremendous luck, Frank had a gut feeling that he would die at sea. It seemed that Fate had other plans. He died in bed at home aged 75 in 1981. Nancy added “he seemed disappointed to end his days that way”.

Cats in Flinton Street were at serious risk of being taken to the Arctic Circle whether they wanted to go or not. Bosun John ‘Chuffer’ Harrison, whenever he was on his way to join a ship, “just took any moggie he happened to see sitting on a window-sill”. His own household cat was a landlubber and had had enough of being taken to sea. She recognised the signs that Chuffer was preparing to head back to sea again, and so ‘disappeared’ until after he had set sail. Frantic neighbours rushed up to his wife Annie May yelling, “Your John’s taken our p***ing cat to sea again!” Instead of kidnapped, the Flinton Street moggies were cat-napped (only borrowed on a temporary basis for three weeks).

Cats in the Royal Navy have a long and colourful history. Back in the days of sailing ships, rats were a serious problem. The remedy was to enlist or ‘Shanghai’ cats – just like Chuffer did. Charles Hodgson – a former Royal Marine – wrote a charming article about his happy encounters with several naval cats during his war-time service. He not only named them, but also provided sketches of each mouser (Hull Daily Mail 27 May 1995 p9).

The luckiest of all his cats was called Oscar. This cat certainly had more than his fair share of nine lives. Added to this, Oscar must be the only feline ever to have served in both the German and British navies. He had, indeed, been the prized mascot aboard the mighty 50,000-ton Bismarck with over 2,000 crewmembers. The big battleship was hunted down and shelled by three British warships and sank in the Atlantic Ocean on 27 May 1941. Whilst searching the wreckage for survivors, a keen-eyed sailor from HMS Cossack spotted Oscar clinging onto some wreckage – and saved Oscar’s soul (SOS!!). And so he switched sides and joined the Royal Navy.

Five months later, also in the Atlantic, HMS Cossack was torpedoed and badly damaged by German submarine U-563. The Cossack was being towed by British tugs towards Gibraltar, in bad weather, and sank (26 October 1941) with the loss of 159 crewmen. Nevertheless, lucky Oscar was rescued yet again – this time by the crew of the pre-eminent HMS Ark Royal aircraft carrier (only the best for our Oscar). The following month, when Ark Royal was taking much needed aircraft from Gibraltar to Malta, she was hit by German submarine U-81 (13 November 1941). It seems all but one of the crew got safely ashore – including Oscar.

Perhaps it could easily be argued that Oscar himself was the luckiest cat on the ocean waves but, from the point of view of his fellow shipmates, he was more of a jinx! In their wisdom, the British Admiralty decided to ban all cats from navy vessels from 1975. Does that ruling still stand in the Royal Navy – no cats allowed?

My good mate Arthur Cowan told me a World War Two tale about another cat. She was brought ashore from HMS Bramble – a Halcyon-class minesweeper that was on escort duty during the Russian Convoys. Apparently, someone killed the cat by hanging her in a Hessle Road air-raid shelter (for what malicious purpose I cannot say). Shortly afterwards, on New Year’s Eve 1942, HMS Bramble was shelled and sunk by a German destroyer in the Barents Sea with the loss of 121 men. That was obviously a coincidence – or was it?

It is curious that British seafarers hold a fondness for having a cat aboard ship. For centuries the cat was cast in such a weird light. She was associated with malevolent black-clad witches. Cats were despised as a witch’s familiar whereby the supposedly evil woman changed herself into the shape of a cat. In the bleak Dark Ages at the fearsome time of the witch-hunts, cats were burnt alive along with their owners in villages throughout Europe. 

Our mariners’ affection for the cat, however, seems more rooted in the pre-Christian times when felines were venerated. There were ancient cat cults in Egypt, Ireland and Scotland. Caithness in the far north beyond the Scottish Highlands, apparently, takes its name from the Catti tribe or ‘cat-people’. The Greek goddess Diana of Nemi assumed the form of a cat. And Freya (or Frigg), the Scandinavian goddess of love and fertility, had her chariot drawn by a team of cats. Pagan goddesses had mystical links with the moon, and so does the cat. Like the moon, the cat is a creature of the night. In the bright light of day, the cat’s eyes are narrow; but at night, they shine wide open and gleam like the full moon. The cat is described “as a child of 

the moon”. And, as the moon controls the tides, there is an obvious link with mariners.

We saw earlier how Hull trawlermen were prepared to sacrifice their own life to save the ship’s cat. Let’s end with another perilous tale in the Arctic Circle that has echoes of a reverence towards cats that stretches back to the Nile Valley. It was sacrilege to kill a cat in Pharaoh’s Egypt (dating back to 3100 BC). The 20th century Hull trawlermen, in a convoluted sense, honoured this tradition. It was usually understood that if a trawler was in distress, the cat must be saved first. This happened with the St.Honorius (H.66) owned by the trawling firm Thomas Hamling. The trawler had just arrived off the North East coast of Iceland on 19 January 1933 when she struck an uncharted rock. The 1929 Beverley-built vessel sprang a leak. The small black-and-white cat of chief engineer Harness was brought up on deck. Skipper Furniss later told how “the cat must have known that something was wrong. When put in the small boat it never made a move” – despite the freezing, wet conditions. They took this as a warning and decided to abandon ship. 

Despite a strong wind blowing off the land, the 14-man crew struggled to row ashore.  They came across two small farms where they rested. Although very friendly, Icelandic officials were extremely fearful of influenza from England spreading to their small nation. So the men were quarantined at the isolated farm for a month. They were a very long way from Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, and knew they had a tortuous journey ahead of them. After the quarantine period ended, they set off westward. The first leg involved an eight-hour sleigh journey in which the men nearly froze to death. Furniss even had icicles on his eyelashes – the men’s faces blistered in the bitter cold. Another stage involved a long and rough motor-boat journey. The awful petrol fumes made them all feel sickly. 

Then it was necessary to take a coastal steamer on a mail boat to Reykjavik. From there, a few days later, s.s. Godafoss set sail to Scotland into the teeth of a storm-force gale. When the St.Honorius crewmen finally arrived back in Hull by train, they had only the clothes they stood up in. Two of the crew even lost their false teeth during their odyssey. But their most precious item which they brought with them through their entire rigorous ordeal was their ship’s cat (HDM, 20 March 1933, p1). I only wish I had the name or a photograph of this brave pussy cat. The trawlermen of the St.Honorius certainly ‘honoured’ their lucky mascot, brought her back to spend out the rest of her remaining nine lives in Hull.

Leave a Reply