Street sellers in London included watercress sellers, costermongers, and baked potato sellers, but one of the most popular street sellers of the 1800s was the cat’s meat man or cats’ meat woman (sometimes spelled cats-meat). If you think they sold cat meat, you are entirely wrong. What a cats’ meat seller sold was meat to cats. To be specific, it was horse meat that the seller acquired from horse slaughterers, known as knackers. In the 1860s, it was estimated there were 300,000 cats in London alone. To feed this multitude of cats, it was “stated that 26,000 horses, maimed, or past work, [were] slaughtered and cut up each year to feed … household pets,” and because it was a highly profitable business, it also involved some 1,000 cats’ meat sellers.
When the cats’ meat seller made their rounds, it involved “a dozen men … [navigating] the same street with the tempting morsels, crying ‘Meat, meat!'” One observer of this event noted that “only at those houses which they are accustomed to serve will the cats be roused by the call. No sooner does the proper man arrive in the street than every cat he is accustomed to serve rushes frantically to the door, or, if allowed, into the street, running mewing toward him rubbing against his legs, or sometimes sitting in a begging attitude before him, but never as far as I have observed, attempting to steal from the open basket.” Thus, in a matter of moments, the cats’ meat seller was surrounded by hundreds of hungry, unmelodious mewing cats hoping and wanting to sample his tasty treats.
One cat owner, an A.W. Buckland, described how his cat could distinguish between his cats’ meat seller from the other sellers that walked the streets.
“Tom would sit quietly dozing while man after man went by with the familiar cry of ‘Meat, meat!’ but presently he would jump up, rush to the window, and remain in a state of great excitement, and soon after a distant cry of ‘Meat!’ might be heard, [and] we knew that Tom had recognized his own man long before we…heard him. As the cry drew nearer, Tom’s excitement increased, and he would almost fly to the door.”
The owner concluded that this demonstrated “the fact … cats [can distinguish] … between one meat man and another [and] seems to me to disprove the oft-repeated assertion that cats attach themselves only to places, and not to persons.”
Similar to knocker-ups, sewer hunters, or bill stickers, it did not cost much for cats’ meat sellers to establish their enterprises: It cost little more than “half a pound of horse-flesh, for the moderate sum of twopence.” The only other requirement for a cats’ meat seller was a piece of wood with pegs attached to it or a basket to hold the horseflesh. When pegged boards were used, the boards acted as a tempting display and meat skewers or “neatly-cut bits of horseflesh” were pinned on them. However, the more profitable vendors, dispensed with pegged boards and baskets and instead pushed a small wheelbarrow filled with meat. These wheelbarrows had a ledge at the front, on which meat could be custom cut to fulfill the needs of any demanding customers.
When the cats’ meat seller appeared, feline owners were encouraged by their cat’s mewing to bestow upon their favored pet a delectable treat for a mere halfpenny. However, if a person was a regular customer that purchased large quantities, he or she paid by the week. One person recorded his observations of the mewing cats stating: “As many hungry tabbies, sables, and tortoise-shells as can get out of doors, are trooping together with arched backs upon the pavement, following the little ponycart … and each one, anxious for his daily allowance, contributing most mewsically his quota to the general concert.” One writer declared that “in large warehouses or breweries … where numerous cats are kept, ‘feeding-time’ is a scene almost worthy of the Zoological Gardens.'”
Although the cats’ meat seller were popular with cats, they were not popular with everyone. Hungry, homeless, and indigent curs that haunted London streets followed cats’ meat sellers and stared with longing, wistful gazes hoping for a tasty bite, sometimes even growling and scaring off customers. While the odors emanating from the cats’ meat seller’s cart might have enticed cats and curs alike, those same smells resulted in complaints from unhappy neighbors who described the smells as “odorous” or “disagreeable.” In fact, one cats’ meat seller declared “he had been driven from one place to another … owning to the objection of the neighbours [as] to the stench arising from horse-flesh being kept on … [his] premises. The cats, however … [did not share] this prejudice.”
Cats’ meat sellers were easy to spot on the street as shown by the following description:
“If we take a walk in the morning in some quiet neighbourhood, we shall very likely meet with an elderly gentleman in a shiny hat, and black plush waistcoat, with his shirt-sleeves tucked up above the arm, his body tightly girt with a coarse blue apron, and a multitude of neckerchiefs, encircling his bull-like neck. He wheels in front of him, a small barrow very much like an ordinary gardener’s wheelbarrow. This is filled with meat, part of which is cut up into fragments and spitted upon wooden skewers, and part left uncut in a rough mass of coarse offal, which certainly does not look very inviting, at least to the human appetite.”
Although the cats’ meat sellers goods may have not looked appetizing to humans, some people looked for the cats’ meat seller “with the same regularity as they would … the coming of the milk-man.” Of the all the street sellers, vendors, or peddlers, it seems the cats’ meat seller was deemed the most reliable, at least that is what one source claimed:
“We do not know how it is, but the cats-meat man is the most unerring and punctual of all those peripatetic functionaries who undertake to cater for the consumption of the public. The baker, the butcher, the grocer, the butterman, the fishmonger, and the coster, occasionally forget your necessities, or omit to call for your orders — the cats-meat man never.”
There was apparently a wide degree of success and failure among the cats’ meat sellers. Some people did extremely well and others earned fair livings. However, some sellers did so poorly, their “sole worldly possession [was] the miserable basket, in which they … [carried] their merchandise.” Henry Mayhew, English social researcher and writer of the multi-volume London Labour and the London Poor, calculated £100,000 was spent in London annually to purchase meat for cats. That prompted one critic to point out:
“Human beings are sometimes left in this great Christian city to die of starvation, this care of dumb friends first seems very like reviving the old order, and casting ‘the children’s bread to the dogs.’ We would not have one cat or dog less well fed, but we should be thankful if the thought that these dumb animals are thus supplied, should stir men up to a more tender care of the bodily wants of many a brother and sister in Christ who is less carefully fed than many a cat, less tenderly housed than … a dog!”
-  Simpson, Frances, The Book of the Cat, 1903, p. 24.
-  Grant, Allen, etal., Nature Studies, 1883, p. 156.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid, p. 157.
-  Leslie, Frank, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. 10, 1880. p. 534.
-  Smith, Charles Manby, Curiosities of London Life, 1853, p. 339.
-  Baird, W., Chatterbox, 1867, p 119.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Chambers Journal, Vol. 18, 1853, p. 67.
-  Baird, p. 120.
-  Ibid.