Bibliomania or Book Madness and the Gentlemen of Regency England

By Louisa Cornell

I will confess to a certain amount of obsessive behavior when it comes to books. Especially books written about or during the Regency era. My antique books are located in a bookcase next to a window. In case of fire, those precious volumes are coming out of the house quickly, one way or another. I have those stickers on my windows and doors that say “Firemen, please save my pets.” I have yet to find one that says “Firemen, please save my books.” However, I am still looking.

During the late 18th and at least the first half of the 19th century, book collecting became quite common among gentlemen, and some women, mostly in Britain and for the large part in the upper echelons of Society. As with all things, the lines between hobby, pursuit, and madness are easily crossed, more often than not blurred, and sometimes only separated by space and money. There are a number of reasons these people collected books. Allow me to introduce you to the most interesting ones. Bibliomania had many forms.

As powerful as my obsession is, it cannot hold a candle to the dark, at times frightening, pseudo-psychological madness that swept through the upper classes in Europe, and most especially England, in the nineteenth-century. At its height this strange madness was such that a number of satires were written on the subject – none of them flattering to the victims of this affliction, to be sure.

Gustave Flaubert’s Bibliomanie dramatized the legendary Spanish monk biblio-criminal who murdered a rival bookseller. Probably the most famous satire of this oddity was that of Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an English cleric, who in 1809 published his Bibliomania, or Book Madness : A Bibliographical Romance. In it, he goes so far as to ascribe actual symptoms to this disease.

Thomas Frognal Dibdin

He dramatizes a convincing pathology and uses medical language to describe the behaviors and idiosyncrasies of various sufferers of this malady. He presents as evidence rambling fictional dialogues based on conversations and real collectors he encountered. He categorizes those infected into classes based on the particular books they collected – First Editions, True Editions, Black Letter Editions, Large Paper Copies, Uncut Books (edges not sheared by binders’ tools,) Illustrated Copies, Unique Copies (those with specific bindings like morocco leather or specific linings like silk,) and Copies Printed on Vellum.

Dibdin’s work may have been fiction, but the characters in his book bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the better known book collectors of the time. In a particularly ironic twist, the book was very popular among book lovers and sparked reckless bidding wars over copies of it at auction. One particular copy started a 42-day auction at the 1817 Roxburghe sale. Most of the readers of Dibdin’s satire were from the upper class. To be certain they recognized many of their own in reading it. And why wouldn’t they? Dibdin was one of the founding members of the Roxburghe Club and a known bibliomaniac in his own right. Takes one to know one. Having read the book, I can say I recognize a few people I know today. Not mentioning any names for fear someone might mention mine. What happens at the Bibliomaniac Club or the House of Artie Collectors stays there.

As early as the 1730’s, there were those who purchased books as a symbol of wealth and power. Members of the socially elite and many who fancied themselves as scholars collected books, no matter the price, in order to build their own personal libraries. Where did you think all of those gorgeous libraries in stately homes came from? Once again, never underestimate the power of the mine-is-bigger-than-yours challenge, especially between men with ridiculous amounts of disposable income.

Beginning in 1804, English book collector Richard Heber (1773-1833) began to amass his collection of 146,000 rare books – books he stored in eight houses bursting at the seams. The cost of his impressive multi-house library? Over 100,000 pounds of his personal fortune.

Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) sacrificed most of his fortune (250,000 pounds,) his living conditions, and his wife’s company to his ambition to own “one copy of every book,” in vellum manuscripts, no less. One of his contemporaries declared the man’s house a “dilapidated swamp of books.” His country home, Middle Hill in Worcestershire, had twenty rooms. Sixteen of the rooms were given over completely to books.

“The state of things is really inconceivable. Lady P is absent, and were I in her place, I would never return to so wretched an abode. Every room is filled with heaps of papers, books, charters, packages, and other things lying in heaps under your feet, piled upon tables, beds, chairs, and ladders.”

Still not convinced it was about power? He made it a point to outbid his most powerful rival, the British Museum, for entire lots of books at auctions. He accused his own son-in-law of being a “book thief” and had it written in his will no Catholic could look upon his book collection after his death. “Book thief” the son-in-law was Catholic. So strong was his attachment to his books, he wrote his will in such a way it took over 100 years of legal maneuvering to disperse his collection.

My Precious

The difference between eccentric and crazy? Money,my dear. Money!

After the French Revolution in 1799, French aristocrats emptied their library shelves and flooded British auction catalogues with French books before they fled France. Many of these collections arrived on the market as libraries were liquidated posthumously. However they arrived, the books brought staggering prices at auction. Prices of antiquarian texts preserved in the libraries of French nobles brought quadruple the price they had before the Revolution. Owning large sections of French books, especially rare and antique texts, added prestige and continental flair to an aristocrat’s library. Whether he read the books or not.

The 1812 auction of the library of John Ker, third Duke of Roxburghe, was an unforgettable moment in the history of book collecting. The flames of auction fever were fanned by both advertising and the wartime shortage of books. England’s wealthiest peers and even a representative of Napoleon attended the auction which lasted 47 days and included a large selection of books printed prior to 1500 – incunabula.

Dibdin wrote of the event as being full of “courage, slaughter, devastation, and phrensy.” Thomas de Quincy, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater and a man well-acquainted with the throes of addiction, described the “literary addicts” he saw at this event as irrational and governed by “caprice” and “feelings” rather than reason. He called the method by which prices were determined pretium affectionus or “fancy price.” In his mind the book collector was nothing more than a dandy ruled by his emotions.

Michael Robinson in his upcoming book Ornamental Gentlemen : Literary Antiquarianism and Queerness in British Literature and Culture 1760-1890 speaks to an interesting side-note to the aristocratic book collecting phenomenon. Whilst Robinson concedes 1812 is too early to speak of a “gay” subculture, he does agree there was an “uncanny queerness of the stereotypical representation of the 19th century bibliophile.”


Men who collected books were often seen as effeminate. Heaven forbid a young English lord be more interested in collecting and reading books than he was in riding to hounds, drinking, and wenching. As late as 1834, the British literary magazine the Athenaeum published an anonymous attack implying one of the prominent members of the Roxburghe Club was homosexual. Dibdin’s language, both in Bibliomania or Book Madness and in his epic Bibliographical Decameron, was replete with sexual double entendre and some phrases that can be seen as almost raunchy. Apparently men who wrote or enjoyed such language had to be homosexual. Who knew? Some of these people really would have done well to read the books in these libraries. Sexual innuendo was not unique to any portion of the population. Where do you think all of those heirs, spares, vicars, fourth, and fifth sons came from?

There were those aristocrats who collected books and built their libraries out of a serious love of the written word and a desire to preserve books not only for their own use, but for the use of scholars, their tenants, their neighbors, their children, and ultimately posterity.

Men such as Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, who commissioned the creation of ballad collections like The Bagford Ballads and amassed large collections of Renaissance literature, Middle English literature, and Anglo-Saxon literature. His library and that of his son, Edward, was sold to the British museum in 1753 by the Countess of Oxford and her daughter, the Duchess of Portland.

Mark Masterman-Sykes of Sledmere House amassed one of the finest libraries in England and was considered both well-read and extremely knowledgeable in the areas of literature and art.

I’ll be discussing some of the more important stately home libraries of this era in a later post.

Until around 1814, when the mass printing of books became more practical and affordable, many saw the book collecting of aristocrats as denying their fellow countrymen a part of their literary heritage. The rich dilettante as conspicuous consumer of books he might never read was seen as having an antisocial disease that kept him from sharing his riches with the intellectual commoner. Perhaps.

However, whether they needed a serious intervention from the Hoarders crew, or were just too greedy for their pantaloons, or were in search of power and prestige – the Bibliomaniacs of the Georgian era saw to it many pieces of our literary heritage survived, stored up as the treasures they truly are. New ones are being discovered every day in the libraries and collections of National Trust houses and aristocratic stately homes all over the UK. But that is a story for another post.

A bibliophile caring for his extensive collection. Carl Spitzweg, 1850


by Kristine Hughes Patrone

Recently, I was Googling portraits of the Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence (as one does) and the search returned images that were decidedly not Wellington. And I must say, some of the sitters were exceedingly handsome, and some of them were portraits I hadn’t seen before. So I Googled some more and you’ll find the results of my search below. Enjoy!

Portrait of Frederic Lock of Norbury Park, Surrey. Youngest child of William Lock, a London art critic. 

William Lock the Younger, elder brother to Frederic, above. 

From Yale Center for British ArtIt has been suggested that Lawrence’s sensitive portrait of the younger William Lock may be a study for an untraced portrait of the sitter exhibited as the royal Academy in 1791. Lock’s attire and hairstyle indicate a later dating however, and Lawrence did not usually make preliminary drawings for his paintings, preferring to prepare them by drawing directly on the canvas with chalk. . . . The sitter was the son of the connoisseur William Lock (1732-1810), was one of Lawrence’s first sitter and a close friend of the artist. The younger Lock (1767-1847) was a keen patron of the arts and an aspiring artist, but after viewing Rome he lost faith in his talent and gave up painting, though he continued to draw. 

Arthur Atherley MP 1772 – 1844

This portrait was painted by Lawrence when Atherley was an Eatonian. Afterwards, he went to Trinity College and went on to stand as MP for Southampton for four terms. He was a founding member of the Fox Club. He also served as a justice of the peace in Sussex and died at Tower House, Brighton. 

The finished portrait now hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but an unfinished sketch of the same subject, above, was recently purchased from a private owner by the Holburne Museum, Bath. You can read more about that here

John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield, 2nd Baron Bloomfield 1802 – 1879

Astonishingly, Wikipedia tells me that Bloomfield was privately educated and became an attache to Vienna at the age of sixteen. This may have been due, at least in part, to the position of his father, the 1st Baron Bloomfield, about whom Wikipedia says: “He was an Aide-de-Camp, then Chief Equerry and Clerk Marshal to the Prince of Wales and finally was Private Secretary to the King, Keeper of the Privy Purse, and Receiver of the Duchy of Cornwall from 1817 to 1822. One of issues that Bloomfield had to contend with a Private Secretary was King’s extravagant spending.” However, things did not end well for the elder Baron Bloomfield. You’ll find the story here.  

Richard Hart Davis Jr. 1791 – 1854

Charles William Bell

French video on Lawrence’s painting technique

Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux 1778 – 1868

Anti-slavery campaigner, attorney to Queen Caroline and one of the first Englishmen to fall in love with Cannes and make it into a popular resort. Like Wellington, Brougham was named by Harriet Wilson in her Memoirs. Unlike Wellington, he caved and paid the hush money her publisher demanded to keep his name out of the book. Brougham’s name is still familiar to us, as a style of coach was named for a vehicle he designed, which was carried on until recent memory as a style of automobile. Find his full biographical story here.

And finally . . . . .

Sir Thomas Lawrence, unfinished self portrait, circa 1825


Brighton Pier

The Royal Pavilion

Theatre Royal

The Lanes

Marlborough House, Old Steine

Above, Mrs. Fitzherbert’s House, Olde Steine

Lady Conyngham’s House

The Regency Assembly Rooms, Old Ship Hotel, Brighton seafront

The old Cellars beneath The Old Ship Hotel

The dining room in the cellars at the Old Ship Hotel, reputed to have once been used by smuggler’s along the Brighton coast. We will be staying at the Old Ship and dining in the cellars during Number One London’s Regency Tour and Queen Victoria Tour. 


‘Haute Couture is like an orchestra whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the direction he gives.’ 
Christian Dior
This May, the V&A will open the first ever UK exhibition exploring the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga and his continuing influence on modern fashion. It will be the first of its kind to look at his unique approach to making and will showcase pieces by his protégés and contemporary designers working in the same innovative way today. The exhibition marks the centenary of the opening of Balenciaga’s first fashion house in San Sebastian and the 80th anniversary of the opening of his famous fashion house in Paris.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion will focus on the latter part of Balenciaga’s long career in the 1950s and 1960s, arguably one of his most creative periods. It was during these years that he not only dressed some of the most renowned women of the time, but also introduced revolutionary shapes including the tunic, the sack, ‘baby doll’ and shift dress – all of which remain style staples today. Highlights will include ensembles made by Balenciaga for Hollywood actress Ava Gardner, dresses and hats belonging to socialite and 1960s fashion icon Gloria Guinness, and pieces worn by one of the world’s wealthiest women, Mona von Bismarck, who commissioned everything from ball-gowns to gardening shorts from the couturier. 

On display will be over 100 garments and 20 hats, many of which have never been on public display before. These will be accompanied by archive sketches, patterns, photographs, fabric samples and catwalk footage revealing Balenciaga’s uncompromising creativity. In addition x-rays, animated patterns and short films on couture-making processes will uncover the hidden details that made his work so exceptional. The exhibition will draw mostly on the V&A’s fashion holdings – the largest collection of Balenciaga in the UK. The collection was initiated for the Museum by Cecil Beaton in the 1970s.

Cassie Davies-Strodder, V&A exhibition curator, said: “Cristóbal Balenciaga was one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. Revered by his contemporaries, including Coco Chanel and Hubert de Givenchy, his exquisite craftsmanship, pioneering use of fabric and innovative cutting set the tone for the modernity of the late 20th century fashion. The exhibition will show his lasting impact on fashion through the work of those who trained with him and through recent garments by designers including Molly Goddard, Demna Gvasalia and J.W. Anderson who reflect the legacy of his vision today.”

For the first time the V&A has used x-ray technology to take a forensic look at the hidden details inside Cristóbal Balenciaga’s garments. These images, made with x-ray artist Nick Veasey, show structures invisible to the naked eye, including dress weights strategically placed to determine the exact hang of the skirt in one of Balenciaga’s most minimal designs, and boning in dress bodices, dispelling the myth that he did not use such structures. In partnership with the London College of Fashion, pattern cutting students have taken patterns from some of the most iconic Balenciaga garments in the V&A’s collection. These have been digitised and animated to show how these building blocks come together to form the finished piece. In a number of cases, the patterns reveal that the main body of the garment has been crafted from one single piece of fabric, demonstrating Balenciaga’s mastery of materials. Three of these animations will be displayed alongside Balenciaga’s original garments to give a deeper understanding of each. 

The exhibition will be organised around three main sections: ‘Front of House’, including Balenciaga’s salons, behind the scenes in Balenciaga’s ‘Workrooms’ and the lasting impact of ‘Balenciaga’s Legacy’. The Balenciaga brand still references its founder today, yet his influence spreads far wider. The ‘Legacy’ section will feature the work of over 30 designers of the last 50 years tracing the influence of this most revered figure in fashion right up to the present day. Themes include an exploration of his minimalist aesthetic reflected in the work of his former apprentices André Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro, and more recently revived by designers such as Phoebe Philo for Celine and in the strong lines of J.W. Anderson. Balenciaga’s perfectionism and attention to detail are reflected in the work of Hubert de Givenchy and Erdem. His pattern cutting and explorations of volume can be seen in the work of Molly Goddard and Demna Gvasalia, while his creative use of new materials is referenced in the work of former Balenciaga creative director Nicolas Ghesquière.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion 

27 May 2017 – 18 February 2018

To be accompanied by a new V&A publication and a series 
of related events, courses and creative workshops. 


Regency England, a time like no other. The madness of King George led to his son, the Prince Regent, assuming the throne and ushering in a period of artistic achievement, social upheaval, architectural genius and reckless excess such as the world has rarely seen. On this tour, we will enjoy talks by expert lecturers, walk in the footsteps of Beau Brummell and Jane Austen, stroll the promenade of the ton’s seaside playground – Brighton, tour stately homes and pleasure palaces and see how the Regent changed the world around him even as he drained his country’s treasury. Join with us as we relive the glamour and greed, sin and secrets, fashion and faux pas that shaped Regency England.
  • Afternoon Tea with etiquette expert Emma Dupont
  • Lectures and Regency Walk with author Louise Allen
  • Walking Tour of Brighton with expert guide Jackie Marsh Hobbs
  • Tours of Petworth House, the Royal Pavilion and Polesden Lacey
  • Evening Soiree at Brighton’s Regency Townhouse
  • Tour of Buckingham Palace and Gardens

Click below to watch the Regency Tour video  
June 11 – June 18, 2017

Full Tour Itinerary and Details can be found here


 Originally posted here on July 22, 2010
What with everyone watching the PBS miniseries Victoria every Sunday night, I thought it would be a good idea to re-post this piece on Eos, Prince Albert’s favorite canine companion. Several years ago, Victoria and I were fortunate enough to see an exhibition titled, Victoria and Albert: Art and Love at the Queen’s Gallery in London. The show was comprised of all manner of gifts that the royal couple had given to each other through the years. Many iconic paintings, specially commissioned by either Queen Victoria or Prince Albert as gifts, were on display, including this portrait of Eos by Landseer. To this day, that show remains my favorite. I sat on a bench in front of this painting for quite some time, marveling at Landseer’s skill, the beauty of Eos and the love between Victoria and Albert. 
Eos, A Favourite Greyhound, Property of HRH Prince Albert

Few paintings in the Royal Collection evoke such sentiment as this portrait of Eos by Sir Edwin Landseer of Prince Albert’s favourite dog. Prince Albert brought Eos with him from Germany when he married Queen Victoria in 1840. He sent her ahead with his valet, Cart, from Canterbury and so Eos arrived before the Prince.  The Queen speaks in her journal of the pleasure which the sight of  “dear Eos” gave her the evening before the arrival of her betrothed.

The Beloved Prince: A Memoir of the Prince Consort gives another anecdote:

” In 1839, when I was serving in the Austrian Lancers, we met at Toplitz, and from thence drove together to Carlsbad, to see uncle Ernest. Eos ‘—a favourite black greyhound—’ was in the carriage. . . . We were at that moment approaching the station where we were to change horses. He asked me the name of the place, which I told him was Buchau, a village known all round as a sort of Krdhwinkel, famous for all sorts of ludicrous stories about the inhabitants. We drove into the place, the postilion blowing his horn and cracking his whip. Albert, seeing a large crowd assembled round the post-house, said to me, ‘Quick, stoop down in the carriage, and we will make Eos look out of the window, and all the people will wonder at the funny Prince.’ We did so, and the people had to satisfy their curiosity with Eos. The horses were soon changed, and we drove off, laughing heartily at our little joke.”

Described as ‘very friendly if there is plum-cake in the room … keen on hunting, sleepy after it, always proud and contemptuous of other dogs,’ Eos was a great favorite. So great was Prince Albert’s affection for the dog that, the following year, 1840, the Queen commissioned a portrait of her from Sir Edwin Landseer (above), the unofficial court painter, as a surprise Christmas present for Prince Albert. Poised and sleek against a rich red backdrop, the greyhound stands expectantly among some of the Prince’s personal effects – an opera hat, gloves and a cane.

On November 9th, 1841,the royal couple’s second child, Albert Edward was born and family members gathered for the christening. Among the guests was the Queen’s uncle, Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg, General of Cavalry in the Austrian Army. On January 27th 1842 during a shoot, Ferdinand, who obvdiously shouldn’t have been trusted with a gun, accidentally shot Eos to the great distress of Prince Albert. When the Queen’s Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians was told, he replied that it would have been better if Ferdinand had shot another member of the royal family.

Eos eventually recovered but she was nine years old and slowing down. She died two and a half years later. “Poor dear Albert,” the Queen wrote in her journal. “He feels it terribly, and I grieve so for him.” And also about Eos, “such a beautiful and sweet creature, and used to play with the children.” The day after her death, Prince Albert wrote to his grandmother of Eos, “You will share my sorrow at this loss. She was a singularly clever creature and had been for eleven years faithfully devoted to me. How many recollections are linked with her.” Eos was buried beneath a mound above the slopes at Windsor Castle. On hearing of her demise, Lord Melbourne declared himself “in despair at hearing of poor Eos.”

A sculpture based on the painting and partly worked on by the Prince, is on Queen Victoria’s tomb in the gardens at Windsor Castle. The cane pictured in the portrait at the top of the page is now part of a collection of walking sticks administered by the Duke of Edinburgh.

Eos was undoubtedly a part of the Royal Family, as the portraits below will testify.

Victoria, Princess Royal, with Eos 1841
Princess Victoria with Prince Albert and Eos by Winterhalter
If you’re a fan of Victoria and Albert (and who isn’t?), consider joining Number One London Tours for the Queen Victoria Tour. We’ll be exploring the life and times of Queen Victoria as we travel to London, Brighton, the Isle of Wight and Windsor on a truly regal adventure. 


National Portait Gallery

The Duchess of Hamilton, 1878-1951

Recently, I was researching my new favourite period of British history, England between the World Wars, when I came across a new aspect of wartime Britain – the question of what to do with family pets during wartime. I hadn’t give this problem much thought and found myself fascinated with the very real personal drama may pet owners had to face and the heartbreaking decisions that they faced.

Writer Alison Feeny-Hart provides an overview of what wartime pet owners faced in an article that appeared in the October 2013 issue of BBC News Magazine:
In the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of war, the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) was formed. It drafted a notice – Advice to Animal Owners.

The pamphlet said: “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency.” It concluded: “If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.”
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home opened its doors in 1860 and survived both wars. “Many people contacted us after the outbreak of war to ask us to euthanise their pets – either because they were going off to war, they were bombed, or they could no longer afford to keep them during rationing,” a spokesman says.
“Battersea actually advised against taking such drastic measures and our then manager Edward Healey-Tutt wrote to people asking them not to be too hasty.”
But many owners were able to make do. Pauline Caton was just five years old at the time and lived in Dagenham. She remembers “queuing up with the family at Blacks Market in Barking to buy horsemeat to feed the family cat.”
And even though there were just four staff at Battersea, the home managed to feed and care for 145,000 dogs during the course of the war.

RAF serviceman bringing a dog to the Battersea’s Dog Home

In the middle of the pet-culling mayhem, some people tried desperately to intervene. The Duchess of Hamilton – both wealthy and a cat lover – rushed from Scotland to London with her own statement to be broadcast on the BBC. “Homes in the country urgently required for those dogs and cats which must otherwise be left behind to starve to death or be shot.”
“Being a duchess she had a bit of money and established an animal sanctuary,” says historian Kean. The “sanctuary” was a heated aerodrome in Ferne. The Duchess sent her staff out to rescue pets from the East End of London. Hundreds and hundreds of animals were taken back initially to her home in St John’s Wood. She apologised to the neighbours who complained about the barking.

“People were worried about the threat of bombing and food shortages, and felt it inappropriate to have the ‘luxury’ of a pet during wartime,” explains Pip Dodd, senior curator at the National Army Museum.

“The Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the RSPCA tried to stop this, particularly as dogs were needed for the war effort.”

Authors Clare Campbell and Christy Campbell expanded upon
the wartime pet crisis in their book, Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939-1945, published by Constable & Robinson. The following is from an article written by Ms. Campbell that ran in the Daily Mail on 14 October, 2013:

During the late Thirties, my aunt Lena would walk her beloved wire-haired fox terrier Paddy across a common every evening to a suburban railway station to meet her husband Ernest off the train. Paddy would jump up to greet him joyfully, and the trio would amble home together.

But when war broke out in September 1939, Ernest coldly announced that Lena couldn’t keep Paddy. The very next day, he took the dog from her arms and left the house. She never saw Paddy again.

This might sound like an impossibly brutal response to the war, but Ernest was far from alone. For it was a scene repeated in thousands of family homes – weeping children, sobbing mothers, and stern fathers saying that it was the kindest thing to do. 

As the air-raid sirens sounded for the first time and families hastily covered up their windows with black-out curtains, countless cats and dogs were shooed out into the street, or tied up in sacks to be thrown in canals or dumped in back streets and alleyways.

It is estimated that as many as three quarters of a million adored pets were destroyed in the first week of the war.
You might wonder how the British, a nation of animal lovers, suddenly took it into their heads to kill so many animals. In fact, it was all based on a false assumption that putting down the family pet was a patriotic and humane thing to do.

I came across countless stories like that of Ernest, Lena and Paddy while researching a book about the ‘civilian’ animal experience in World War II. While much has been written about the animals drafted into the war effort – they even have their own national memorial in Hyde Park – little is known about the home-front pets who were killed by their owners in such vast numbers when war was declared.

And, as I discovered, the Government was instrumental in this massacre of beloved pets. 

Not only did the Government set MI5 agents to watch animal rights activists, it also considered the mass euthanasia of all ‘non-essential animals’, sponsored a clandestine anti-dog hate campaign and sanctioned the criminal prosecutions of cat owners for giving their pets saucers of milk.

The massacre of the nation’s pets in September 1939 was foreshadowed by events the previous year. During the Munich Crisis of 1938, when Germany had occupied parts of Czechoslovakia, animal charities had been besieged by pet-owners who were terrified that war could result in mass poison-gas attacks by air on British cities. 

Their fear was that their pets would become hysterical at the sound of sirens and explosions, and run wild through streets contaminated by mustard gas. 

The Home Office formed a special National Air Raid Precautions Animal Committee, with a retired vet as chairman. This ‘Dad’s Army for Pets’ would act swiftly in a crisis, offering refuge to lost or frightened animals, treating injuries or painlessly putting them out of their suffering. 

On the eve of war, a Home Office pamphlet was published which indicated that pets would not be allowed in public air-raid shelters, and featured a do-it-yourself guide to putting animals down. On page two was an advert for a captive bolt pistol. 

The day Hitler invaded Poland, a BBC broadcast confirmed it was official policy that pets would not be given shelter.
The result was panic. A counc
il vet in East London recorded the events of that first day: ‘The sirens sounded  . . .and almost immediately West Ham Town Hall became besieged by panic-stricken people bringing their animals for destruction,’ he wrote.

‘In spite of trying to reason with the hysterical mob, we were soon inundated with dogs and cats whose owners had abandoned them in offices and corridors.’

That night, distressed animals cast out by their owners roamed the blacked-out streets.

Five days of mass destruction followed. A local rendering firm was stacked several feet deep with dog and cat carcasses.
Not even London Zoo escaped the carnage. The black widow spiders and poisonous snakes were killed, as were a manatee (a large aquatic mammal also known as a sea cow), six Indian fruit bats, seven Nile crocodiles, a muntjac and two American alligators. Two lion cubs were put down, too. All were ‘destroyed owing to war conditions’.

After those first few days, the rate of killing slowed – but there was real shock at what had happened, and some animal lovers were appalled by the way the Government had created such a sense of panic.
Nina, Duchess of Hamilton, turned her Wiltshire estate, Ferne, into an animal sanctuary, while one Swedish aristocrat opened her Mayfair mansion as a sort of urban ark.

More menageries sprung up as kindly old ladies offered refuges. The pets from local schools, including guinea pigs and rabbits, were taken in by a farmer in West Moseley, Birmingham. The Canine Defence League dug its own air-raid shelters for dogs in Kensington Gardens. 

City meat man feeding cats at the beginning of 1939

Many thousands of cats were simply turned out to join feral colonies, such as that on Clapham Common in South London, which became home to a huge number of strays. 

But the worst was yet to come. 

When major Nazi bombing began in the autumn of 1940, once again there was a rush to abandon pets by the thousand. The West Ham vet recalled blitzed streets ‘inundated with cats’. 

Municipal parties set out on slaughtering campaigns using a mixture of electric shocks, cyanide and chloroform – 100 animals at a time was not unusual. There were so many animals that mass culling was the only option.

However, the vet refused to give up his own cat, Ginger, who proved staunch even in the midst of an air raid, ‘welcoming me home each night amid the injustice of man’s mad warfare’.

One news agency reported on a collie dog who had become adept at coping when the sirens sounded, ‘preceding the family into the private garden shelter before raids, and returning to the house just before the all-clear’. But the same writer noted: ‘Badly trained dogs however have proved a nuisance, barking loudly and rushing wildly about the place. 
‘If the feeding of dogs becomes a national grievance, such dogs should be the first to be destroyed.’ 

ial tranquilliser mixtures to calm distressed pets were advertised; and ear muffs for dogs. One lady asked the authorities if gas masks were available for bees.

For those without private shelters, the dilemma was dreadful. Some chose to stay at home with their pets rather than go to a public shelter without them. 

The Mass Observation project, which recorded the responses of ordinary people to the war, spoke to a man in Poplar, East London, who said: ‘I know the missus and kids are safe, but if I went to the shelter, too, I’d be thinking about how the animals were getting on.’

As the war continued, the question of what to feed pets became more critical. In August 1940, the Waste Of Food Order was passed, making it an offence, punishable by two years’ imprisonment, to feed animals with food fit for human consumption. 

Dog biscuits disappeared from shops. ‘Chappies’ pet-food factory in Slough, Berkshire, was shut and pets had to be fed on scraps.

One woman, Mrs Winifred Airlie, of Colchester, was fined £5 for giving bread to her pet white mice. But mice were the least of it. Dogs were considered the real enemy within. One official at the Ministry Of Food recorded in the minutes of a meeting: ‘The only solution is that a reduction of the dog population should be secured.’ 

A policy limiting each family to one dog if rationing became worse was discussed in secret, but was never acted on.  
Anti-dog sentiment was to be encouraged: ‘Tell the public they eat 280,000 tons of meat per year!’

The campaign was effective. A ‘mongrel owner’ interviewed in August 1941 said: ‘Those who feed their dogs off the fat of the land should be imprisoned for sabotage. Some of the rich society dames feed their dogs stuff which would be feast to a poor man . . .’

Cats were also a target for the Ministry, and an anti-cat briefing was leaked to journalists: ‘Too many of this country’s 7 million cats are overfed, given portions of meat and fish which, to a man, would be the equivalent of a 3lb joint every lunchtime.’

It was also widely reported that cats consumed 40 million gallons of milk a year. The Chancellor considered a cat tax.
Nothing would deter the most devoted cat rescuers, however. The Animal Defence Society reported ‘a poor old woman who lived in a tiny room . . . swarming with cats who she had rescued and befriended. Most of these people would give their last crust to their cat or dog’.

The Government relented in part, making allowances for cat owners who relied on the animals to keep down mice and rats, such as the owners of large warehouses. 

‘Although no liquid milk could be spared for cats, some damaged dried milk powder might be made available to cats engaged on “work of national importance”’ — in other words, catching rats in industrial production plants.

No such concessions were made for dogs, although from 1942, if a family was struggling to feed a beloved dog, they could lend them to the Army as a war dog on full rations — but many owners feared their dogs might not recognise them when they returned.

In 1949, Brutus, a demobilised German Shepherd from Syston in Leicestershire, was reunited with his master at the railway station after three years in the Army. 

To the dismay of his master, Brutus seemed barely to recognise him. They walked home as strangers. Then, as they walked through the door, Brutus heard the voice of his mistress and at once bounded up to her in transports of joy. It was as if he had never left, and he was soon a friend and playmate to the couple’s two children, the youngest born while Brutus had been away. 

Brutus was one of the lucky dogs who survived. But we should never forget the hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats who were senselessly killed by panicking families and officials in those dark days of World War II.


A recent Google images search for examples of Mrs. Delany’s shell work brought me to a blog called Plays With Needles by the exceedingly talented Susan Elliott. Her blog is a wonder and a delight, with gorgeous photos and interesting posts on where she finds her inspiration and what goes into the creation of her art. Reading about her shell work, above, I was interested to learn that Susan had found many of the shell components herself on the beach in Naples, Florida, which is only about forty minutes south of where I currently live. I know it well. It was fascinating to see what Susan’s keen eye and abundant talent could do with the same shells others walk by daily without noticing. You can read the story behind the piece above here.

Like Mrs. Delany, Susan is a multi-medium artist and her blog posts are about so much more than her own amazing artwork. In her post about the Breakfast at Tiffany’s inspired piece above, Susan discusses the cult of Holly Golightly and the gulf between the film and Truman Capote’s novel. I love the way Susan has incorporated so many elements in this piece, resulting in a three dimensional creation with enough sparkle and bling to make even Holly take notice. Susan’s use of meticulous beadwork is gorgeous. 
In this piece, Susan uses both shell and bead work elements. You can read more about it here
Susan has titled the piece above Your Majesty and has written a fabulous, photo laden post about her research into historic royal wedding gowns, their decoration, design and embroidery. Susan found  inspiration for this piece from several different gowns and time periods. You can read the entire post here. 
Has your historic research taken you to unexpected places? If so, we’d love to hear about it!