Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

Black Tom, the Captain’s Imp: A 19th Century Seafaring Cat

A depiction of Mowler, a black cat, a pet and mascot of HMS Manica, standing on a flat surface amongst the rope attachments of the ship's balloon, 1915.(Image via The Imperial War Museum.)

A depiction of a black cat, pet and mascot of HMS Manica, 1915.
(Imperial War Museum.)

For a brief time at the end of the 19th century, Her Majesty’s gunboat “Tickler” was the home of a mysterious cat by the name of Black Tom.  According to the ship’s doctor, Gordon Stables, many on board suspected that Tom was a demon or an imp.  No one knew where he had come from, how he had managed to get on board, or who had brought him there.  He simply appeared one windy, treacherous evening when the sea was rough as the Tickler was crossing the Bay of Biscay.  At eleven at night, while smoking on the quarter-deck, Stables saw something as “black as Erebus” whisk past his legs.  When he inquired of the old sailor at the wheel what the dark shadow could possibly have been, the sailor replied with the utmost solemnity:

“That’s the devil, sir.”

The sailor went on to explain that the devil had come aboard accompanied by a flash of light when the ship had “close-reefed topsails durin’ a squall.”  Stables greeted this superstitious pronouncement with a laugh and, shortly after, retired for the night to his cabin.  The next morning dawned bright and clear.  The captain, a violently temperamental and often inebriated Scotsman (also known throughout this narrative as the skipper or the commander) summoned all hands on deck.  When everyone was present and accounted for, he addressed them as follows:

“Officers and men of Her Majesty’s gunboat Tickler, contrary to the customs and rules of the service, and without my knowledge, to say nothing of sanction, I find that a cat has been brought on board.  Will the officer or man who owns the animal kindly step forward?”

The captain’s speech was met with resounding silence.  At this point, the captain declared that he had only one course left to him.  He ordered the men to “Bring up the cat.”  It was then that all eyes “instantly turned towards the stern grating” and there beheld a large, black Tom cat sitting with his tail curled around him for warmth and “looking on the very best of terms with himself and all creation.”  The cat and the captain met each other’s eyes and, or so it seemed to Stables, the cat’s eyes “sparkled crimson and green.”  The captain commanded:

“Midshipman of the watch, see that cat overboard.”

Seaman on the 'Pommern' enticing the ship's cat up the shrouds, early 20th Century. (Image via The National Maritime Museum.)

Seaman on the SMS Pommern enticing the ship’s cat up on the shrouds.
(National Maritime Museum.)

The cat leapt up, his hair standing all on end, and commenced hissing and spitting in what Stables describes as a “highly mutinous and insubordinate” manner.  The cat then “cleared the deck in three bounds and dived below.”  The entire crew followed him.  After three minutes below, the cat shot out through the fore hatch and shinned up the rigging with the sailors close behind him.  Stables writes:

“The chase now became general and most exciting; and with a cheer all hands joined, — evidently more for the fun of the thing, than with any intention of harming the cat.  Up the rigging and down the stays, alow and aloft, out on the flying jib-boom and along the hammock nettings.  Sure never before were such feats of agility seen on board a British Man o’ War; the men seemed monkeys, the cat the devil incarnate.  With a strength seemingly supernatural, Tom at length scrambled up, and took refuge above the main truck.”

The crew gathered on the deck below “gasping and red” and awaited further orders from their now irate captain.  The captain, a volatile fellow at the best of times, shouted:

“Curses on the brute!  Am I to sail the seas with a black cat on my main-truck?  Steward, bring my revolver.” 

A crewman promptly fetched the revolver and delivered it to the captain, however, in his present state the captain’s aim was unsteady.  He fired all six chambers “without any further result than chipping the main-top-gallant yard.”  Though none of the shots injured the cat, it seemed to Stables that they impressed upon the mysterious feline the serious turn that matters had taken.  The cat responded to the attack by lifting up his forepaw and delivering a meowing harangue the likes of which none of the sailors had ever heard before.

The cat’s impassioned plea impressed the hard-hearted captain.

“I thought,” said he, “I was a better shot; however, give the devil his due.”

Black Kitten on HMS Aurora, 1914. (National Maritime Museum.)

Black Kitten on HMS Aurora, 1914.
(National Maritime Museum.)

He then ordered everyone on the ship to treat the cat with kindness.  The cat, who was now known as Black Tom, remained on his perch for two hours, finally falling asleep there.  When he woke, Stables reports that:

“…he stretched himself a leg at a time, for he hadn’t much room, yawned, did an attitude, and came slowly down on deck.  He walked at once to the quarter-deck; and, to show that he harboured no ill-feeling, he actually went and rubbed his big black head against the captain’s leg.”

After that, Tom was no longer considered a mere passenger on board.  His name was added to the ship’s books and he was “tolerated both by officers and men.”  Still, he was no one’s particular favorite.  Many were suspicious of the “questionable manner in which he had made his first appearance, and the latent devil that seemed to lurk in his eye.”  The natural suspicions of the sailors were aroused and more than one declared:

“That black— (alliterative term of endearment used by British seamen) will bring the ship no good luck.”

Winston Churchill pets Blackie, ship's cat of HMS PRINCE OF WALES, 1941. (Imperial War Museum.

Winston Churchill pets Blackie, ship’s cat of HMS PRINCE OF WALES, 1941.
(Imperial War Museum.)

Though he received no encouragement, Tom attached himself to the cantankerous captain.  Whenever the captain came on deck, Tom trotted at his heels “enlivening his walk by a song.”  And, whenever another officer was walking with the captain, Tom took up a station on the hammock nettings and followed the movements of the captain with his eyes.  At first, the captain resented Tom’s attentions and was known to have kicked him when he got underfoot.  However, Tom was not easily put off and eventually:

“…yielding to the force of circumstances, the skipper ceased to mind him, and the two became inseparable.”

When the Tickler landed on the shores of St. Helena, Tom disembarked just like any other officer.  It was hoped that he would decide to remain there.  Unfortunately, the sailors had no such luck.  After visiting the “principal places of interest” on the island and, according to Stables, nearly murdering a “poor little dog in James Town,” Tom came off the island again in the officer’s boat, happy to resume his residence on the Tickler.  Stables goes on to write:

“[Tom] might in time have come to be a general favourite in the ship; but he suffered no advances to be made by ‘any man Jack,’ as the saying is, and scowled so unmistakably when any one attempted to stroke him, that he was unanimously voted to Coventry, and allowed to do what he liked.”

Sailor with a ship's Cat aboard the cruiser Olympia, 1898.

Sailor with a ship’s Cat aboard the cruiser Olympia, 1898.
(Independence Seaport Museum.)

Despite the initial reaction to Tom’s presence on board, the crew treated their new cat with surprising generosity.  Tom had “a regular allowance of ship’s provisions” just like everyone else on board.  His greatest treat was preserved milk and “rum thickened with oatmeal.”  For the latter treat, he was known to come twice a day to the dispensary.  The remainder of his time was spent, primarily, seated on the weather bulwarks where:

“…he would often remain for hours, gazing thoughtfully down in the blue clear depths of the tropical ocean.”

Another favorite pastime of Tom – and one that did nothing to endear him to the crew – was to observe the punishments administered by the captain.  Tuesday was flogging day on board the Tickler and, Stables reports that:

“There on the bulwark he would sit, his eyes gleaming with satisfaction, his mouth squared, and his beard all a-bristle.  He seemed to count every dull thud of his nine-tailed namesake, and emitted short sharp mews of joy when, towards the middle of the third dozen, the blood began to trickle and get sprinkled about on sheet and shroud.  Though I never disliked Tom, still, at times such as these, I really believed he was the devil himself as reputed, and would have given two months’ pay for a chance to brain him.  When the flogging was over, Tom used to jump down and, purring loudly, rub his head against his master’s leg.

More than half of the crew believed that Tom was either the devil himself or possessed of an evil spirit.  For this reason, many tried to find favor with Tom and “many a dainty morsel did this cat of evil repute thus receive.”  As a result of all these bribes, Tom grew glossier and plumper every day.  Additional treats were supplemented by Tom himself.  He had a talent for fishing and, as Stables writes:

“On dark nights in the tropical seas, he used to perch himself on the bulwarks aft, and bend his glittering eyes downwards into the sea.  He never sat long thus without a flying-fish, sometimes two, jumping past him or over him, and alighting on deck.  Then Tom would descend, and have a delightful supper, and if not fully satisfied resume his seat and continue the sport.”

 Ship's cat on the Encounter‍  resting inside the muzzle of a 6-inch gun.

Ship’s cat on the HMAS Encounter‍  resting inside the muzzle of a 6-inch gun, 1916.

For rest, Tom liked to sleep inside the large pivot gun.  It was quiet there, as well as being dark and cool.  One day, however, the Tickler was in pursuit of another ship which was edging closer and closer to the shore.  The order to fire was given.  Before doing so, the gunner peered into the gun to see that all was clear.  He found Tom napping there.  All attempts to coax Tom out proved futile and, when the gunner tickled him with “the end of the ramrod” it only made Tom “spit and sputter, and make use of bad language.”  The following dialogue during this incident is reported by Stables:

“What’s the delay?” cried the captain.

“Cat in possession of gun, sir,” was the reply.

“Dear me! dear me!” whined the captain, “Rouse him out, and be quick about it.”

After a pause.  

“He won’t rouse out no-how, sir,” said the gunner.

“I’m hanged,” roared the skipper, “if that rascally dhow isn’t landing her slaves in shore.  Rouse him out I say.  Fire a fuse — confound the cat.”

A fuse was inserted into the “touch-hole of the gun” and Tom raced out of his hiding place and shot up the rigging with all of his hair standing on end.

“Lower away the first and second cutters,” was now the order.  “It shan’t be said, that a cursed cat kept us from capturing a lawful prize.  D— the beast.”

The Tickler managed to capture the runaway ship and later that night, when the captain came back aboard, covered with smoke and gunpowder, Tom ran to meet him on the gangway.  To the crew’s amazement, the captain stooped down and tenderly caressed the cat.

Sailors surround the ship's cat

Sailors surround the ship’s cat “Convoy” asleep in a miniature hammock on board HMS HERMIONE, 1941.
(Imperial War Museum.)

The remainder of Tom’s time at sea was spent getting into one scrape after another.  He killed a pet mongoose brought on board and he repeatedly scrapped with a pet monkey.  One night, during a fierce storm, Tom even fell overboard.  Stables reports:

“The life-buoy was almost instantly fired and let go by the commander himself, who alone saw the accident.”

The crew in the life-buoy were nearly lost in the storm.  The captain was beside himself.  He paced the deck, drank heavily, “wept like a child, and tore his hair out in handfuls.”  Come the morning, the life-buoy miraculously appeared.  In it, rode Tom amongst the bedraggled sailors.  When the life-buoy came alongside the ship, Tom was the first back on board.

The ship's cat on board the CSS Acadia. (Image via Gregory MacKenzie, CC 3.0.

The ship’s cat on board the CSS Acadia.
(Image via Gregory MacKenzie, CC 3.0.)

Black Tom’s luck was destined to run out.  As the voyage of HMS Tickler drew to a close, the mysterious black cat simply vanished.  No one on the Tickler ever knew what became of Black Tom.  A bishop had lately been allowed on board for part of the journey and one old seaman, by the name of Davis, swore that he had seen the cat “fly overboard in a sheet of blue flame.”  Stables writes:

“The only thing known for certain is this: we were about three days’ sail from Symon’s Town, Cape of Good Hope.  The night was dark and the weather squally, and poor Tom was last seen sitting, very quiet and pensive-like, on the hammock nettings aft.  He was seen there, I say, in the middle watch; and he was never seen again alive or dead.”

The crewmen swore that Tom had been the devil and nothing more.  They said that he had not been able to tolerate the presence of a bishop on board and had, therefore, flown back to hell.  Stables offers a simpler – and less supernatural – explanation:

“The truth, I suppose is, that the ship gave a nasty lee lurch, and Tom, half asleep, missed his footing, and tumbled overboard.  I know the skipper was sorry.”

Sailors believe that if the ship’s cat is lost overboard a shipwreck, or other such disaster, is sure to follow.  No such misfortune befell HMS Tickler after the loss of Black Tom.  Instead, the Tickler continued to sail for many years.  In 1919, the Tickler became HMS Afrikander.  In 1937, her career at sea ended.  After being decommissioned, she was scuttled and sunk at Simon’s Town in South Africa.  The true fate of Black Tom is still unknown.

Dr. Gordon Stable with Ship's Cat and Dog, 1876.

Dr. Gordon Stables with Ship’s Cat and Dog, 1876.

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  Black cats are obviously not imps or devils.  Nevertheless, they still experience a degree of prejudice when it comes to finding a home.  Whether this is because of lingering superstition or simply due to the fact that their coat color is more common, I cannot say.  If you would like to help a cat like Black Tom, either by providing a home or by donating your time or money, the following links may useful as resources:

Alley Cat Rescue, Inc. (United States)

The Cats Protection League (United Kingdom)


Phillips, Lt. Commander Lawrie.  Pembroke Dockyard and the Old Navy: A Bicentennial History.  History Press, 2014.

Stables, Gordon.  Cats: Their Points and Characteristics.  London: Dean & Son, 1876.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, and Shelf Awareness, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

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