Cats on board – the ships’ cat

group photo on deck of ship, with cat and dog

The ship and crew of Moel Eilian, c1889 (DX/1328, Maritime Archives and  Library)

This is a photograph of the ship and crew of Moel Eilian taken in c1889. The Moel Eilian, built in 1877, was a sailing vessel, an iron barque; barques have three or more masts, square rigged on all except the aftermost mast, which is fore and aft rigged. The photograph shows the crew on deck including the ship’s cat, held by the mariner on the back row, just right of centre, and a dog on the front row.

Ships have carried cats on board for thousands of years, as far back as ancient Egyptian times. There are a number of good and very practical reasons for the association of cats with ships, especially vessels of the early 20th century and earlier.

Cats’ natural hunting instinct for mice and rats makes them an obvious choice to protect the fabric of ships, particularly sailing vessels, which included large quantities of rope and wood for example. Equally ships’ food stores required protection from rodents as might their cargo, grain for example.

Reducing or eliminating vermin on board a ship could also minimise the spread of disease, especially during long journeys when food supplies might be low and the crews’ health already compromised.  

Cats can also provide companionship for lengthy periods at sea, when they can create a sense of homeliness and wellbeing. This is also true of other animals such as the dog that we see in this image. Sailors would sometimes acquire cats from the ports that they visited, potentially bringing unusual breeds back to their homeland.

This photograph is an albumen print which contains egg white, hence its name, which produced a smooth surface with sheen and was common during the latter half of the 19th century until about 1890; prints take on yellowish tones like this one when deteriorated. The print would have been made from a glass negative which produces a clear image. After the invention of photography and its announcement in 1839 the technology and science of the technique progressed and the cost of a portrait reduced, which meant that the crew as well as the captain could have their portrait taken when in port.  

In this image we can see that the Moel Eilian is in port; the masts of other vessels can be seen in the top left of the photograph.  Here the photographer has gone on board the ship to photograph the entire crew; they would have used a large camera, which essentially looks like a wooden box, supported on a tripod.

Life on board ship would have been hard in the late 19th century but all the crew look clean and healthy.  A number of shipping and passenger acts passed in the 19th century moved towards regulating conditions on board vessels resulting in some improvements. The man sitting with hands clasped on his lap over to the right in the central row is likely to be the captain; the cook, who wears an apron, appears in the centre, to the left of the captain and quite a number of the crew wear baggy woollen hats with pompoms, what look like tam-o’-shanters.   

The humble cat was always a constant in shipboard life; generally they were thought of as bringers of good luck, which must surely be linked to their positive role, inadvertently played, which had both economic implications for the ship and the well being of the crew. So well done cat and quite right that it was thought fitting to include it in the photograph as part of their crew; part of the team with a very definite and significant role.

This photograph is from the Maritime Archives and Library collection at Merseyside Maritime Museum.