An Irishman’s Diary about rats, cats and Sir John Ellerman

Norman Freeman: ‘On one of the ships on which I sailed we had a very large gingery specimen who wandered in and out of the chartroom’

‘His needs were looked after by the senior deck cadet. He was an indolent creature and was never known to have killed a rodent of any kind.’ Photograph: Getty file picture

‘His needs were looked after by the senior deck cadet. He was an indolent creature and was never known to have killed a rodent of any kind.’ Photograph: Getty file picture

 

‘Put up the rat-guards on the mooring lines and never mind Sir John.” The rat guards were – and still are – circular sheet-metal shields fixed to the mooring ropes that hold marine vessels to the bollards on the quayside.

They’re put in place to prevent rats and mice climbing up the lines to gain entry to the ship or yacht or trawler or whatever. “Sir John” was a jocular reference among deck officers of the Ellerman shipping line to the owner of the company, Sir John Ellerman, said to be the wealthiest man in Britain.

Ellerman had an abiding and absorbing interest in rats. He was regarded as a leading authority on the subject and published a landmark study called The families and genera of living rodents.

One of my colleagues was Second Officer on the most modern of the line’s cargo-passenger ships when Sir John travelled on board. He found Ellerman a very unassuming person who, if asked, was willing to talk about the habits and characteristics of rats.

Rats have been known to leap from the quayside through open portholes or onto exposed decks or to be carried on board on cargo

As it happened, the Ellerman ships on which I served had fumigation certificates on display in the purser’s office. This document stated that on a certain date and in a certain port toxic gases fatal to rodents had been pumped into the ships’ holds with the purpose of ridding the vessels of unwelcome vermin.

Rats and mice have been pests on seafaring vessels for centuries. This has been especially so when boats of all sizes transported cargoes of grain, rice or foodstuffs of many kinds. Rats have been known to leap from the quayside through open portholes or onto exposed decks or to be carried on board on cargo.

Ship’s company

It was essentially as a counter-measure to rodents that ships began to carry cats. They were expected to hunt rats down and at the very least discourage them from finding a way into the living quarters on board. A consequence of this was the introduction of domesticated cats into parts of Europe around 900BC by Phoenician traders, who carried cats on board their sailing ships.

The British navy banned cats on board its ships in 1975 on the grounds of hygiene

Over the following centuries it became common for ships to have at least one cat on board. They were often adopted as pets and mascots rather than rat catchers.

On one of the ships on which I sailed we had a very large gingery specimen who wandered in and out of the chartroom. His needs were looked after by the senior deck cadet. He was an indolent creature and was never known to have killed a rodent of any kind.

The British navy had a tradition of carrying cats on board as mascots on its major warships. During the second World War Winston Churchill encountered the cat on The Prince of Wales when he sailed across the North Atlantic on the battleship in 1941 to meet President Roosevelt.

Churchill stroked it

As Churchill was alighting, with the crew drawn up in ranks, the ship’s cat, called Blackie, came along the deck towards him. Churchill bent down and stroked it. A photograph of this proved a godsend to the British wartime publicity organisation. They distributed it worldwide. It contrasted with the harsh, manic face of Adolf Hitler sitting beside his fearsome-looking Alsatian.

However, the British navy banned cats on board its ships in 1975 on the grounds of hygiene and this was only one instance where the presence of cats on ships was becoming problematic.

The port authorities in many countries came to regard cats and as potential carriers of disease. In some cases they demanded that cats be quarantined for the duration on the ship’s stay in port. Another important factor in the decline of seaboard rats – and cats was the introduction of steel containers in the shipping industry. Prior to that, tempting cargo was stowed in the hold in sacks or wooden crates that could be accessed by determined rodents.

Now, with cargo in airtight containers there were few pickings to he had. The big British shipping companies that had dominated the trade routes for decades were slow to embrace the container era, with its need for specialised vessels. Many of them gradually ceased trading as more efficient, more competitive companies from other countries, including former colonies, took over.

By the time of his death in 1975 Sir John’s once-proud fleet of ships was going into a decline from which there was to be no recovery. However, I have been told that his exhaustive studies of rats are still well regarded and that his name remains respected in that specialised area of zoology.

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