A thumbnail history of the Cat Shows of 1871 and beyond.

© John G Smithson 2012


Portrait of Harrison Weir, engraved by R.Taylor, from a photograph by G.Glanville of Tunbridge Wells. Frontispiece from his book “Our Cats”, published by R Clements and Co, 1889.

Signature of Harrison Weir

The First Cat Shows               

 1871 – The Year of The Cat

July 13th, 1871 – The First Crystal Palace Cat Show


It was Harrison Weir who formulated the idea to establish a set of Standards by which domestic and fancy cats could be judged, and who set in motion the chain of events that led to the first organised Cat Show of any signficant size and reputation, coming to fruition.

This hallmark event stands as the birth of the Cat Fancy as we know it. The Show itself was held at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London, on Jluy 13th, 1871 and was singularly significant on several levels. Although organised at relatively short notice, the Show Manager, Mr.F.Wilson of the Crystal Palace Natural History Department, managed to pull together a commendable list of approximately 170 exhibits, from a mix of upper middle class and aristocratic cat fanciers of the day. They included the first Siamese cats ever recorded at a Show, and Manx, African, French and Persian (Angora) Longhaired cats, English Shorthair cats, and even a Scottish Wild Cat, owned by the Duke of Sutherland.

The Judges selected for this auspicious first show were Harrison weir, his brother, John Jenner Weir (himself a well-known Entomologist, Ornithologist and respected Cage-Bird judge) and The Rev.J.Cumming Macdona ( a well-respected Dog Judge and foundation breeder of Saint Bernards).

No-one however predicted the enormity of the public response to the forthcoming show. Over the short period it was open, more than 20,000 spectators visited the Show, causing havoc with crowd control on the first day. It also forced the administrators of the Crystal Palace to put on more trains to cope with transporting the public on the afternoon of the first day and for an equally demanding second day. No-One except perhaps Harrison Weir, had gauged that such an enormous public interest in “cats” was even possible.

Exhibits at the First Crystal Palace Cat Show, as drawn by Percy Macquoid. Clockwise from top left: The Manx, The Persian, The Siamese, The French-African, The English Cat, and a British Wildcat.

A crowd of enthusiastic spectators, admiring the exhibits entered into the First Crystal Palace Cat Show.

Prize-winning Cats at the First Crystal Palace Cat Show, as drawn by Harrison Weir and published in the July 1871 edition of the Illustrated London News.

The First Cat Shows               

 1871 – The Year of The Cat

July 13th, 1871 – The First Crystal Palace Cat Show (continued)

The first Crystal Palace Cat Show was well publicized in the popular press of the day, both before and immediately following the grand event.  Some of the more interesting references to specific exhibits include the following:

On Persian-style and Longhaired Cats: “In cage 50, was a Black Persian, a huge black animal, originally belonging to the late Lord Palmerston, and now shown by Mr Tanner of Hanwell, was an object of much remark.

“In cage 63, was The Hon.Mrs Grey’s Persian of ancient pedigree. It was stated that it was brought into this country on the shoulders of an Arab”.

“Mrs Louisa Macguire’s French-African specimen, aged 10 years and valued at 500 pounds! But most probably Mrs Maguire’s magnificent creature is never permitted to condescend to such ignoble pursuits as the decstruction of vermin.

On the first Siamese to be shown: “Among the rarer specimens were two Siamese cats, which are said to be the first of the kind, ever brought to this country. The pair, shown by Mr Maxwell, are singular and elegant, in their smooth skins and ears tipped in ebony, and blue eyes with red pupils.”

On the British Wild Cat: “Caught recently of the Duke of Sutherland’s estates, a savage varmint it is even still, and frets against its bars, or moves uneasily about like the lion Androcles physicked, holding up its wounded paw, a joint of which has been snapped off in the trap.”

On other unusual exhibits: (a Polydactyl): “Mr S.Carleigh, well known in the Music Hall world, exhibited a cat with 26 claws, and this ‘lusus naturae’ excited not a little curiosity”. And (on a Tortie Tom Cat):  “rather too largely admixed with white”.

Whatever the report, the success of the first Crystal Palace Cat Show was tangible. And work now began on planning for a second and even more spectacular event, for the later in the same year.

Cats and Cat Shows..Front page illustration from “The Graphic” featuring members of the public viewing the exhibits at the Second Crystal Palace Cat Show, published Saturday Dec 2nd, 1871.

The First Cat Shows               

 1871 – The Year of The Cat

Subsequent Shows of 1871 and the Second Crystal Palace Cat Show

A little known fact and certainly one not generally touched upon by historians in explaining the establishment of Cat Shows, is that there were actually TWO cat shows run by the Crystal Palace Company in 1871, the second being secured on the basis of the overwhelming and phenomenal public response to the first. As the first Show had been arranged somewhat in haste and exhibits drawn from a resource of aristocratic and natural history connections, a second Show was planned, into which exhibits from the “working classes” could and would be encouraged. The show was duly scheduled for early December 1871. The illustration shown opposite, depicts public interest at the Second Show as reported in “The Graphic” on December 2nd, 1871

However, an even more obscure historical fact, that is seldom if ever reported, is that there were another FOUR public Cat Shows held between the two Crystal Palace Shows. Two of these were in London, run by entrepreneurial types, keen to cash in on the newly popular and much talked about craze of exhibiting cats competitively. These were similarly followed by another two shows were held in Scotland, one in Glasgow, and one in Edinburgh.

The first privately run London Show was held hot on the heels of the Crystal Palace Show on August 2nd and 3rd, at the North Woolwich Gardens, by Mr Holland. Reports vary on the number of entries, but somewhere between 100 and 200 entrants competed for the prize money.  Barely four weeks later, a second privately run London Show, billed as a “Grand Cosmopolitan Prize Cat Show” took place on August 29th and 30th, in the Bedford High St, Camden-Town, run by Mr Albert Trotman.

The Glasgow Show was held at the Burbank Drill Hall on October 3rd and 4th, followed only two days later on October 6th and 7th, by the Edinburgh Show, which was billed as the “Scottish Metropolitan Cat Show”, and held in the Royal Gymnasium. This event was organised by a Mr J M D Brown and attracted a whopping 256 entries! Evidence would suggest that one of the Judges at both Shows would have been Rev J. Cumming Macdona, who had officiated at the first Crystal Palace Cat Show.

This beautifully hand-coloured full page illustration by Percy Macquoid, appeared originally as a Black and White illustration with article, published in “The Graphic” on Dec 16th, 1871. It depicts actual exhibits that competed at the Show on December 2nd 1871, including the first Abyssinian cat on record to be shown. This hand-coloured version then also appeared in the  January 27th, 1872 supplement to “Harpers Weekly” across the Atlantic.

The First Cat Shows               

 1871 – The Year of The Cat

December 2nd 1871 – the Second Crystal Palace Cat Show

Considerably more attention to detail was paid to the organisation and running of the Second Crystal Palace Cat Show, which was variously billed as the 2nd National Cat Show, in lieu of the privately run and regional cat shows that had taken place in the intervening period.

Due to allowances made to include entries from the “working class”, plans were made to accommodate a much larger entry and to ensure that adequate public transport was provided, with better crowd control.  With more time to prepare, Mr F Wilson, with the support of Harrison Weir was able to secure the services of a bevy of new and capable  judges. These included Lady Cust, already well-known as an author of a book on cat health and remedies, Lady Mildred Beresford-Hope, Lady Dorothy Nevill, (one of the earliest importers of Siamese), the Hon. Mrs Henry Walpole, (a relative of Lady Dorothy), and both the Rev. J. Cumming Macdona and Mr Harrison Weir.

Acutely aware of the large entry in the “Scottish Cosmopolitan Cat Show” organisers were naturally delighted with an even larger entry for the Crystal Palace Show, and although reports vary from paper to paper, the entry was at least double that of the original Show, at a minimum of 349 and a reported maximum of 459. A discrepancy in the numbers may be accounted for by a separation of the classes between cats which were competing and those which were attending on an exhibition only basis.

Many Special Awards and prizes were sponsored, including an array of prizes offered specifically for Working-men’s cats by the RSPCA. In the press report attached to the illustration on this page, attention was brought to the singular success of the First Prize winner, “ a Persian she-cat of rare violet colour” (top left of page).”The third prize was taken by the Abyssinian cat, shown in the lower right hand corner of the illustration. She was captured in the late Abyssinian war”. ”The cat that attracted the most attention was Tortoise-shell Tom, he stood alone in his glory, the admired of all beholders.

Prize Winning Cats – drawn by Harrison Weir in 1873 – Very likely to be specimens from the 1873 Crystal Palace Show.

Spectators admiring exhibits, at the Crystal Palace Cat Show of 1874.

Prize winning cats, exhibited at the Crystal Palace Cat Show of October 1875.