Thursday, July 11, 2013

Shugborough, Staffordshire

'Get a cat' again

In a post a couple of years ago I recalled the lovely story in Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese about a Greek ship's captain whose boat was troubled with rats. The captain called in a priest, who duly carried out the rituals for casting out vermin – chants, incense, holy water, the lot. As the clergyman prepared to take his fee and depart, he assured the seaman that he would have no trouble now: the rites always worked. 'One more thing,' the priest added. 'Get a cat.' And Paddy remarks: 'Since then the phrase "getting a cat" means, in maritime circles, making surety doubly sure.'

My original post on this theme was about a church in Gloucestershire that got a cat and memorialized the creature in the churchyard. Now here is another of the remarkable garden structures at Shugborough, a monument to what may have been a genuine maritime feline. According to one account of the monument, this is a memorial to a family pet. But another story says that it commemorates the cat that accompanied Admiral George Anson on his ship the Centurion in 1740–44, when Anson undertook an expedition to the Pacific with the aim of seizing a Spanish treasure ship.

Anson's expedition was so poorly planned that one wouldn't have given it a chance. There were eight ships and the motley crew of 1,000 included 259 Chelsea pensioners (average age just under 70) and 210 untrained recruits. Ill winds and navigational errors played havoc with the expedition. At one point they mistook a fleet of Spanish warships for cargo vessels and had to make a hasty retreat. Disease killed hundreds of the men, supplies ran low, and at least one ill-repaired vessel simply broke up. Anson and his remaining 200 men pushed on, finally found a (heavily armed) Spanish galleon, attacked it, and relieved it of its cargo of treasure. Limping into the Chinese port of Canton, for a rest presumably, they found the place on fire and had to lend a hand putting out the flames. They eventually sailed home and Anson's share of the treasure helped rebuild Shugborough.

By the time he got home, Anson had circumnavigated the globe. I like to think that the cat did too, and that it is remembered with this imposing monument of the late 1740s, in its tranquil glade, surrounded by shrubs and a sea of green grass.


E Berris said...

I am a big fan of Admiral Anson (he trained several famous Admirals on this voyage, including Byron's ancestor who I believe created the lakes at Newstead Abbey?) so your photos remind me of my mini-pilgrimage to Shugborough last summer. And of course ship's cats are equally revered!.
P.S. For Anson's voyage,read Glyn Williams' "The Prize of all the Oceans".

Philip Wilkinson said...

Fascinating - I didn't realise there was a Byron connection. This Byron was John, known as 'Foulweather Jack' because of his frequent encounters with bad weather at sea. Having trained under Anson, he did his own circumnavigation, making it around the globe in under two years.

Stephen Barker said...

How ever he Royal Navy and the British ever rule the waves with planning and equipment like that?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: The whole business was extraordinary. It is amazing that Anson got back to Britain, with the Spanish treasure too. Of course, given the hundreds of crew who died, it's hard to be too flippant about it, but still: one can only assume that the Spanish were even more chaotic.