The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


3.2.4. Adopt a College Cat

No animal so dimly acquiescent, so unconditionally slavish as a dog could feel at home in the academic courts of Cambridge, but cats—watchful, self-contained, inscrutable cats—are their natural companions.

—Mary Archer, Cambridge Cats

Jesus College, Cambridge. Art photography by Derek Langley, Darkness & Light.

Little did I know what I was about to get into when I decided to write a short item for the Collegiate Way about college cats. A simple follow-up to the passing mention I had made on the College Life and Annual Cycle page (3.2.4) was all I had intended. The cats had something else in mind.

Twice during my years as Senior Tutor of Strong College, a feral cat took up residence under an unfinished cement stairway in the college, and on one occasion produced a litter of kittens. Remembering the enjoyment that this brought to the students, and remembering vaguely that I had read something about college cats somewhere once, I recommended in an earlier essay that every residential college should have a cat. Since most universities prohibit students from keeping pets in their rooms, I suggested that an “official” pet would not only be a friendly addition to the community, but might also help to satisfy the urges of those students who cannot live without companion animals and are forever trying to smuggle them in.

(Whether a cat would have sufficed for one of my former students who was discovered to have a large black scorpion in his room, I don’t know. He kept the scorpion in an aquarium and argued that this made it contextually a “fish,” and that fish were permitted under the rules. As a systematic biologist, I was not persuaded.)

So an extra paragraph or two, I thought, about college cats and their advantages, perhaps with a picture, might be a useful addition to the Collegiate Way website. Then I began to do research. Two volumes of photography turned up right away: Tony Jedrej’s Cambridge Cats (Thomas Duckworth, 1994) and Richard Surman’s College Cats of Oxford and Cambridge (HarperCollins, 1994). Then the beautiful photo prints of Derek Langley. And then a whole host of web pages about college cats past and present. Synthesis became impossible. I fell back on selection.

But wherefore this exordium? Is this not silliness? After all, you don’t need a multi-million dollar education grant to buy a cat, so what good could it be? What can you possibly learn from a college cat? Quite a lot, if you’re clever.

You can learn there is a place for everything…

Please keep noise to a minimum.

Do not mishandle or deface books in any way.

Do not smoke in the library.

The hoarding of books on library tables is not allowed.

Please do not let the college cat into the library.

(Library Rules and Emergency Procedures, Jesus College, Cambridge.)

…and that the world is full of mystery…

Titan, Trinity’s beloved cat, has not been seen this year. The first sign that there might be something wrong was when she did not attend the Christmas Service in the Chapel. Then she didn’t show up for her Tutor’s meeting at the beginning of the Lent term. She is no longer seen waiting outside Hall for scraps … the ‘warm spot’ over the heating pipes remains vacant. Fellows’ cars don’t get paw prints any more … she doesn’t jump up onto the table during supervisions … in short, we’re all missing her rather a lot.

Has anyone seen her? She’s a well-fed muscular tabby with a banded stripey tail and is easily identified because of a curious spot in one eye (I can’t remember which). She has been known to wander far afield—she likes the boys dorms at St. John’s Choir School! Perhaps she’s found a cosy spot somewhere.

If you’ve an idea where she is then please let me know. (Still no news at 15 May 2000.)

(Hugh Hunt, “Titan, the Trinity College Cat, is Missing,” Trinity College, Cambridge. Photo by Alan Bain.)

…and perhaps even conspiracy;

The search is continuing for a Cambridge University college cat—a year after he disappeared.

Benson, the Jesus College cat, went missing 12 months ago after eight years of enjoying the high life among the academics.

Undergraduates were instructed to look out for Benson after his disappearance but so far to no avail.

Despite his long absence there are no plans to replace him.

Head porter at Jesus Grahame Appleby said: “Benson always had a history of straying but nobody’s seen him now for a year.

“He’s quite a character. We’re still looking out for him, there’s certainly been no talk of getting a replacement.”

The famous cat has been featured on television, in newspapers and magazines and on the covers of two books.

The eight year old tabby cat was adopted by Prince Edward’s former college after being rescued from an animal home.

He was made an official member of the college, with full dining rights and an £80 a year annual allowance.

Benson’s predecessor, Corrie, was buried with full honours in the Fellows’ Garden.

Last year Titan, the official Trinity College cat, also disappeared and was never found.

(Duncan Milner, “Jesus College Cat Still AWOL,” The Cambridge Network, 15 November 2001.)

…you can learn freedom always has limits…

Sam is the quintessential College cat. Enjoying free run of New Hall he can be found sun bathing on the walkways or curled up in the most comfortable chair of any College office. Everyone from the Porters to the housekeepers makes sure that he is well fed, and each new year of students who comes up learns how to pamper the sometimes finicky feline. Only during the springtime when ducklings are hatching in Fountain Court are his movements restricted.

(“Sam the College Cat,” New Hall, Cambridge. Photo by Jamey Dumas.)

…and that connections are important;

Get on the right side of the Porters. The porters do the day-to-day running of much of the College; being on the right side of them can be very handy.

Get on the right side of the College Cat. Most colleges have at least one cat; these are generally a calming influence, and a little time spent with them is well-spent.

(John C.G. Sturdy, “Being a Student—Some General Advice,” Cambridge University Computer Laboratory.)

…you can begin a promising career;

You walk nonchalantly across the front quad and pitter-patter up the stairs to the JCR. At three in the afternoon it is deserted. Your eyes scour the room, taking in the half-deflated balloons, the over-stuffed sofas and the photographic evidence of last night’s JCR Cocktail Extravaganza and fix on a pile of newly-delivered newspapers in the corner. You scurry over and flick nervously to page six. There, in glorious black ink, is your name. You post sixteen copies home to your parents, safe in the knowledge that your mother will frame and hang above the fireplace your twenty-word masterpiece about the new college cat.

(Laura Barton, 2000 Fresher’s Guide, Oxford University Student Union.)

…you can learn the ways of war and peace…

Oriel College officially declared war on Pembroke this Sunday, as apparent attempts to calm tensions between the two colleges failed. The move came in reaction to the declaration of war made two weeks ago by Pembroke, concerning the loss of Molly, the Pembroke college cat.

Tensions have continued to mount, with both colleges already beginning to mobilise their forces.

The move by Oriel, following the acceptance of the war-motion in a packed JCR meeting, came in response to the “brutal rejection” of a tin of cat food sent as a peace-offering by Oriel’s JCR President, David Follows. The tin bore a message on “Oriel College: with compliments” paper, reading “because you couldn’t afford it” in letters cut from newspaper.

Signs of a peaceful way out of the situation looked unlikely when, late last Friday night, Pembroke’s “shambolic” defences were breached, and a pig’s head allegedly placed in the Pembroke College Quad, with the act captured on CCTV cameras in the college.

The Oriel War Council, headed by Marcus Walker, declared in front of an already heated audience “now is not the time for speeches; now is the time to destroy evil Pembroke” as well as “all those who harbour Pembrokites.” He followed by reading a speech by St. Bernard of Clairvaux announcing the Second Crusade.

The Council has since insisted: “We are at war with the college, not just the JCR.”

Events came to a head at the Pembroke JCR meeting on January 19th, when “outright war” was proclaimed. Since then, relations have continued to worsen since the disappearance of the college cat, with Pembroke JCR President, Josh Kern, proclaiming numerous sightings of the cat as “irrefutable proof” of her theft by Oriel. In addition, posters have been procured from Oriel requesting “Molly Dead.”

Reports have described Pembroke attempting to strengthen alliances with Worcester, St. Anne’s and Trinity, as well as “actively seeking” to advance relations with Somerville. However, suspicions in Pembroke have apparently continued to grow regarding the role of Christ Church in the present events, who have been at war with the college since recent disputes concerning the moving of the college to Christ Church Meadow.

Oriel has also attempted to strengthen its position and establish alliances with other colleges, including St. Hugh’s and Corpus Christi, as well as asserting their close ties with Christ Church.

Oriel Secretary for Inter-Collegiate Relations stated, “Within hours of hearing Pembroke’s declaration of war, Oriel was mobilised and its shock-troops in action,” defining unlawful combatants as “any member of Pembroke College caught wearing anything other than proper uniform (that is, bright pink).”

Oriel Porters refused to comment on accusations of students from Pembroke being chased from Oriel, following an attempted attack. Since then, Pembroke have delivered threats of “aggressive action,” with intelligence pointing to a Thursday night darts match between the colleges as “potentially heated.”

Defences in Oriel have apparently been increased as a result, with appeals for students to stand for home guard duty, led by College Marshall, Darryl Brundle, with applicants apparently including Molly herself.

However Kern’s convictions about the whereabouts of Molly, described as “independent and often aloof” by the students and staff who adopted her in early 1998, are not shared by all. Explanations range from claims by Walker that she sought “political asylum from the evil Josh Kern” to the suggestion from a first-year Pembroke student, Daniel Lowe, who claimed “Sid’s Kebab Van had Molly and the Oriel accusations are just a silly power trip on the part of the JCR Committee.”

Kern has commented on the relative seriousness of the two conflicts that “war is war.” However he concedes that the wars are “light-hearted initiatives” and their discussion has succeeded in upping student interest in the “predominantly serious issues” discussed at JCR meetings.

Peaceful relations between Pembroke and Oriel look unlikely in the near future, as the “cat continues to wander in and out of colleges” and onlookers are pointing to the increasingly fervent atmosphere between colleges as the main indicator of how events will unfold.

(Roberto Montanari and Tamara Cohen, “Colleges Declare War after Pembroke Accuses Oriel of Stealing its Cat,” The Oxford Student, 7 February 2002.)

…and the way of all flesh…

Dotty, the College Cat, died in October of this year. She was very dear to us all. Although wild, and although none of us had been able to touch her, she had been very much a part of Wadham life for a number of years. We all clubbed together to buy her food, which she used to supplement with scraps from the kitchen. I think she actually dined rather well. She arrived very early in the morning to be fed by Diana, the Bursary scout, and then came back at 4 to be fed again, usually by Maureen, the Estates Secretary, or Pam in the Tutorial Office. In the holidays, Mrs. Flemming used to feed her for us.…

Dotty continued to thrive until about two weeks ago, when it was noticed that she had not been eating. We thought she had been run over so we attempted to catch her, and had even made an appointment with a vet. It was not to be; she went into the basement of staircase 9, where it was warm, and died. She was buried in Love Lane.

I remember James Lunt telling me that at one time the College was overrun with feral cats. So much so that they had to call in the Cat Catcher! He arrived with numerous traps which he baited with food. Much to his dismay, the food was gone in the morning and no cats were found in the traps. Determined not be defeated by what seemed to be highly intelligent animals, he arrived very early in the morning to be confronted by the then Warden’s wife in her dressing gown releasing them from the traps!

We will miss Dotty very much.

(Anne Gonzalez, Wadham College Gazette, March 1998.)

…and the way even of dynasties.

It is with great sadness that we bring you the news that the college cat Simpkins has passed away. A kidney problem and painful growths on his abdomen had caused considerable pain.

Simpkins was of course the third cat to bear that name at Hertford College and was around for thirteen and a half years.

Simpkins will be sorely missed from the college.

(Hertford College News, 20 December 1999.)

Indeed, there may be very little you can not learn from a college cat.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021