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Sepsis, incontinence, and murder mysteries: a history of Downing Street pets 

Carrie Symonds 
This 15-week-old rescue puppy is about to take up residence in one of the most famous addresses in the world 

It makes total sense that Boris Johnson should want a Downing Street dog. He and his predecessor in No 10, Theresa May, perfectly illustrate the dog person/cat person binary into which all human personalities fall. May – cold, aloof, mistrustful towards strangers – is a textbook case of cat. Johnson, meanwhile, is of course a dog: energetic, shaggy-haired, and liable to be found humping a table leg.

Johnson and his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, are adopting a 15-week-old Jack Russell puppy whose misaligned jaw had put him at risk of abandonment by the dog traders who bred him. Instead, he was rescued by Eileen Jones, who runs Friends of Animals Wales, and will now move into Downing Street.

Winston Churchill brought his poodle, Rufus, to Downing Street Credit:  Getty Images

In doing so, he will need to live peacefully with Larry, the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office. Larry (who, for the sake of clarity, is a cat), has been in office since 2011. He and the new puppy are the latest members of a long history of Downing Street pets.

Most studies of this strand of government history tend to begin in 1924, when a tomcat called Rufus of England was moved from the Treasury to Downing Street. Rufus, also known as Treasury Bill, is unlikely to have been the first cat in Downing Street, but he is the first for whom there are reliable records.

According to the reliable historiographical source of purr-n-fur.org.uk, Rufus often brought carcasses to his master, the then-prime minister Ramsay MacDonald. On learning that those carcasses were always thrown away, Rufus began bringing them straight to the bin. In lean times for the public purse, Rufus was also known for overturning a freeze of his food allowance. Philip Snowden, then chancellor, was so enamoured of the cat that he authorised a 50 per cent “pay rise”.

Under Ramsay MacDonal, the Downing Street cat was given a substantial pay rise Credit: Getty Images/ Topical Press Agency

In 1929, Rufus was joined by Peter, who was the first cat to officially hold the title of Chief Mouser. Peter served five prime ministers, from MacDonald to Clement Attlee via Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. Peter, who, like May, had been promoted from the Home Office, became an extremely diligent mouser once civil servants had been deterred from feeding him scraps.

Peter appears to have co-existed in Downing Street with several animals. A cat who was introduced to No 10 during Neville Chamberlain’s tenure was nicknamed the “Munich Mouser” by Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill. Churchill and his wife, Clementine, brought a dog to Downing Street; Rufus (no relation to the cat), a beloved poodle.

Rufus seems to have got on with Nelson, the Churchills’ cat. Nelson, a black stray, first attracted the attention of Churchill when he was spotted chasing a huge dog. “Nelson is the bravest cat I ever knew,” Churchill is said to have commented. “I decided to adopt him and name him after our great Admiral."

According to “Larry, the Chief Mouser and other official cats", a book by Christopher Day of the National Archives, Nelson forced the Munich Mouser out of Downing Street. Churchill, who at various points in his life owned animals including pigs, goats, and, briefly, a lion, “told a colleague that Nelson was doing more than he [the colleague] was for the war effort, since Nelson served as a prime ministerial hot water bottle”.

Peter’s successor as Chief Mouser, Peter II, lasted six months; he died after being struck by a car in Whitehall. Peter III, however, held the post for 18 years, serving Attlee, Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Alec Douglas-Home. Attlee, like Churchill, had a dog: an airedale terrier called Ting.

Peter III had to be put down in 1964 after succumbing to a liver infection, but within the year he had been replaced. Peta, a pedigree Manx cat sent by Sir Ronald Garvey, the Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man, was described by staff as “inordinately fat and lazy in her habits, and somewhat incontinent”, but he was so high-profile that officials feared her sacking would prompt adverse publicity. By 1976, though, she had been quietly retired to the country home of a civil servant.

Cherie Blair, right, was forced to deny that she did not love Humphrey Credit: PA/Fiona Hanson

Prime Ministers continued to bring animals of their own. Nemo, a Siamese owned by Harold Wilson, was one such pet. Nemo was a belligerent cat and was often found fighting his rivals. Harold Wilson’s wife, Mary, once contracted sepsis from a scratch she suffered while breaking up one of these scraps.

The office of Chief Mouser was subsequently filled by Wilberforce (in post 1973-1986) and Humphrey (1989-1997). Wilberforce, a black and white cat, was once bought a tin of sardines from a Moscow supermarket by Margaret Thatcher.

Humphrey, who was named after a character in Yes Minister, was falsely accused by this newspaper of being under suspicion of killing robin hatchlings, but limped on. Sick of media attention, he eloped in 1995 to the Royal Army Medical College, but was discovered and brought back to Downing Street. His travails continued; when New Labour arrived, rumours persisted that Humphrey was disliked by Cherie Blair. Humphrey was given to an elderly couple in suburban London in November 1997.

Larry was once spotted underneath the armoured cadillac of President Trump, who visited Downing Street in June Credit: AFP/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

There was no new Chief Mouser till 2007, when Alistair Darling, then Chancellor, brought Sybil, another black and white cat, to Downing Street. She died at Darling’s home in Edinburgh in 2009. With no cat, mice became endemic in Downing Street. David Cameron, infuriated, once threw a fork at a mouse during a Cabinet dinner. Seeking to allay the infestation, he had a brown and white tabby, Larry, installed. 

George Osborne, who, as Chancellor, lived with his family alongside the Camerons, brought his dog, Lola, to Downing Street in 2014. Lola and Larry reportedly got on well, but Larry has otherwise acquired a reputation for violence. Larry has fought not only with Freya, the Osborne family cat, but also with Palmerson, his counterpart at the Foreign Office.

Larry, now 12 years old, is now on his third prime minister. The Johnsons’ new dog ought to establish cordial relations at the earliest opportunity, and will also have to befriend Bailey, . It's an onerous to-do list for the new puppy – almost as onerous as his master's.