Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

09 April 2012

Half cat, half rabbit: a zoo in Bloomsbury

Doctor Dolittle, in the novels by Hugh Lofting, had ‘rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar’.  It could almost be a description of Sir Hans Sloane.  In addition to his vast collections of books and manuscripts, natural history specimens, antiquities and curiosities of all kinds, Sloane owned a surprising number of live animals, which he kept in the garden of his house in Bloomsbury Place just down the street from the modern British Museum.

Many of the exotic creatures sent to Sloane failed to thrive in the colder climate of eighteenth-century London.  An iguana from Antigua only survived a few days, and a tortoise from Virginia died before Sloane could discover any food it would eat.  But he had more success with some of the other animals in his menagerie.  In the catalogue of his collections he mentions an Indian crane, which ‘lived in my garden severall years, and died by swallowing a brass linked sleeve button’, and an arctic fox, which also ‘lived many years with me in my garden’, shedding its fur every winter and changing from brown to white.  He also acquired a hawksbill turtle from the coast of Guinea, which lived for several months in a tub of salt water before succumbing to the cold weather.

Sloane’s younger relatives joined in the collecting game, and seem to have competed with each other in looking for rare and bizarre animals to add to the Bloomsbury menagerie.  In 1711 his stepson John Fuller sent him ‘a couple of Monstrous Piggs’, a gift which he followed up, a few years later, with a pair of young pine martens from Scotland.  ‘They won’t bite or strive to run away’, he assured Sloane, ‘unless the jolting of the Waggon has made them wilder.  Their Dung you’ll find a perfect Perfume.’

But Sloane’s grandson Rose Fuller capped this in 1731 with the gift of ‘an odd mixture of two different species’, a cat which he claimed had been crossed with a rabbit.  ‘The fore part is a perfect cat, and the hinder has as perfectly the make and motion of a Rabbit, which you will perceive immediately upon seeing it goe along, which it does by walking with its forelegs like the former and hopping after like the latter .. It was engender’d as we imagine between a sow cat, and a buck rabbit, which was kept tame not far distant from her.’  ‘PS’, he added helpfully, ‘The Cat will eat milk and catch mice like common cats, and therefore will be no manner of trouble.’

Envelope addressed to Sir Hans Sloane in Bloomsbury 'With a Cat in a Basket'
Envelope addressed to Sir Hans Sloane in Bloomsbury 'With a Cat in a Basket' Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A new research project, Reconnecting Sloane, aims to bring together the separate parts of Sloane’s collection in the British Library, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum.  By studying Sloane’s correspondence and papers in the BL alongside his drawings and specimens in the BM and NHM, it should be possible to get a much clearer sense of his collection as a whole – and perhaps, along the way, discover something more about the monstrous pigs, the pine martens, and the mysterious cat-rabbit, and how they fitted into Sloane’s encyclopaedic vision of the world.

Arnold Hunt

Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts



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