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Saga of Britain's official cats revealed under new Freedom of Information Act

January 13th, 2005, 09:41 PM
Saga of Britain's official cats revealed under new Freedom of Information Act

Robert Barr
Canadian Press

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

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LONDON (AP) - Now it can be told: Britain's Home Office had not one official cat, but a whole dynasty of mouse catchers, one of which nearly insulted the Queen.

The saga which began with Peter in 1929 was disclosed to the nation Tuesday among the first 50,000 government files released under the new Freedom of Information Act, which took effect on New Year's Day. The files reveal a meticulous attention to detail, a sly sense of humour and a fear of the press within the British civil service.

A document from 1929 records the Treasury's approval for the expenditure of one pence per day "towards the maintenance of an efficient office cat" at the Home Office, which is responsible for policing and immigration, among other things.

The Treasury's oversight came back to haunt Peter the cat in 1946, when he was 17.

One official noted: "Our Treasury approval is for 'an efficient cat.' Are you able to certify that he is still efficient? If not, you will no doubt make him subject of an adverse report!"

Peter was retired with prejudice - put to sleep in September 1946.

The kitten Peter II took office on June 21, 1947, but was soon hit by a car while wandering outside the office. The driver paid two shillings - or two bob - to pay for having the cat put down. An unknown Home Office official penned a memorial note:

"I note a cruel coup d'etat

"Deprived us of the office cat,

"Two bob well spent without a doubt,

"To help poor Peter 'peter' out."

Peter III succeeded in 1948, achieving fame by appearing on TV in 1958.

The previously secret files noted that this provoked "a spate of somewhat embarrassing letters" from cat lovers and "cranks."

One correspondent who offered to buy the cat a new collar was briskly rejected. "Since Peter is an established civil servant, he cannot be allowed to receive gifts," the Home Office responded.

Peter III eventually disgraced himself, as an official noted in 1962.

"I am informed that a couple of years ago, on the occasion of the Armistice ceremony, official humiliation was only averted in the nick of time by a HEO (higher executive officer) of Establishment Division, who threw a soiled doormat out a window a few seconds before the appearance of H.M. (Her Majesty) the Queen," the note stated. "The offender was Peter."

Peter died in 1964 and was buried without tears, according to one civil servant's note.

"My colleague, in his capacity of chief sycophant, prostrated himself with due decorum six times towards the north," he wrote.

"The ceremony concluded with the popping of 12 champagne bottles, the scheduled detachment of the Queen's Bongville Rifles being unavoidably delayed."

Peter was succeeded by a female pedigree Manx cat, dubbed Peta, who was later denounced by an official as "inordinately fat," "lazy in her habits" and "a source of embarrassment." Staff complained that Peta used their offices as latrines.

A Home Office official blamed the bad behaviour on breeding.

"Previous Home Office cats have been of the plain alley-cat variety, well able through their murky genealogy to fend for themselves and anonymous enough to be able to roam freely outside the building and exercise themselves in the park. An untimely demise held no terrors either for them or the department," he wrote.

"The present cat, with the history and publicity of her appointment, cannot be released from the confines of the building. Loss, death or injury would release a flood of press copy, resulting in accusations from private individuals of inattention to its welfare on our part."

In 1976, the Home Office informed a correspondent that Peta had retired at an undisclosed date.

The Canadian Press 2005