KEVIN GORDON - The mad, mad talking cats of Seaford

Tipoo's tiger in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Tipoo's tiger in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

As the chronicler for Seaford Museum, I am always on the look out for snippets of history relating to the area and I must admit, the more quirky the information the better.

One example dates from 1947 in a cutting from the Hull Daily Mail. The headline reads as follows: “TALKING CAT: Wendy, claimed to be Britain’s only talking cat, has died at Seaford in Sussex. She once made a recording for a programme on the Seaford sea defences and surprised everybody by saying in rhythmic tones “What, no sea wall, chum”.

Apparently the previous year, two BBC reporters, Stephen Grenfell and Bernard Lyons, were in Seaford reporting on the destruction of sea defences during bad weather. Unfortunately, they had been cut off between groins on an incoming tide and had to swim to safety.

Returning to their hotel, the Wellington in Steyne Road, cold, wet and in poor spirits, they were amazed when the pub cat spoke to them! The cat was the pet of the pub owners Major and Mrs Webber. The reporters were so amazed that they recorded the animal speaking. I have contacted the BBC to see if they have any recordings of Seaford’s speaking cat but unfortunately tapes from this period have been lost. What a shame!

Talking of extraordinary cats, in June 1823, it was reported that the pet cat of Seaford surgeon Mr Verral was suckling a baby hare (a leveret). The baby hare had been found in a field by a labourer and taken to the good doctor. To his amazement the hare settled among the kittens of his pet and suckled like a cat!

In October, 1891, some Seaford boys were summonsed for cruelty to a cat. They had been cruelly taunting the poor creature on the Beamlands off Steyne Road and one boy, Ethelbert Etherton, had struck a fatal blow to the poor moggy. They appeared at Seaford Magistrates’ and evidence was given by Mr A Fisher of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Salvation Army, who had investigated the matter (I had no idea the Salvation Army had a CID!). Mr Fisher suggested to the bench that they hand the boy over to him and he would ensure that the young Etherton would be placed into a children’s home. The magistrates disagreed but found the lad guilty and fined him 18 shillings. This early conviction did not deter young Ethelbert from making a name for himself. Many years later, he became the Chairman of Seaford Urban District Council. Etherton Road in the town is named after him.

Etherton killed a cat but in 1937 another Seaford resident, Mrs Johnston-Wilson killed a dog when she ran it over in her car. She failed to report the incident but was subsequently summonsed. When defending her in court, her solicitor Mr Hillman remarked that as the dog had no collar, it should be classified by the court as a cat and, as accidents with cats need not be reported, his client was innocent. Surprisingly the bench seemed to agree that a dog can be a cat and dismissed the case!

Of course some cats are bigger than others. In February, 2012, there was a sighting of a big cat in Seaford when a family living in Fairways Close claimed to have seen one of the elusive ‘panthers’. The Sussex Express reported that the creature was black with green eyes and more than three feet tall. Unfortunately, it escaped without saying a word.

When I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum recently I saw another large cat that may have a connection with Seaford, Tippoo’s Tiger. This is an extraordinary, large wooden barrel organ in the shape of an almost full sized tiger eating a European man. In the late 18th century the East India Company were struggling to increase the British Empire in Southern India.

The British were having problems with the eldest son of Sultan Ali Hyder, a man called Sultan Tippoo who was known as the Tiger of Mysore. Tippoo tried to form an alliance with the French against the British. To mock his enemy he had an organ made in the form of an Englishman being eaten by a tiger!

Tippoo died during the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799 but the mechanical tiger and the Sultan’s flag were captured and bought back to England. On August 6, 1803, the colours (flags) of the defeated Tippoo arrived on the ship Dover Castle which landed at Seaford. The flags were immediately taken to London but I wonder if the organ was with the flags and that Tippoo’s Tiger was another extraordinary cat once seen in Seaford?