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How drunk mutt on its Canonbury death bed inspired Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

PUBLISHED: 15:18 24 July 2019 | UPDATED: 15:47 24 July 2019

Battersea Dogs Home history spread. Picture: Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

Battersea Dogs Home history spread. Picture: Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

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Battersea Dogs and Cats Home was born from a sickly mutt being spoon fed warm port in a Canonbury Square Kitchen, so the story goes.

Battersea Dogs Home history spread. Picture: Battersea Dogs & Cats HomeBattersea Dogs Home history spread. Picture: Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

Animal rights campaigner Mary Tealby founded the Home for Lost and Starving Dogs in Victoria Road (now Chillingworth Road) in 1860, and she died five years later so never saw it relocate to south west London.

But sight of a divorcee scooping dirty animals from the street was seen as "immoral" and unscrupulous by the well-to-do Victorian circles she inhabited, even provoking an editorial attack from The Times. But She proved more popular with Charles Dickens.

"For Mary it wouldn't have been Battersea Dogs Home," the charity's head of legacies Spencer Wisdom told the Gazette. "It would have been: Home for Starving Dogs in Islington.

"Basically it was a trip to one of her friends, a woman called Sarah Major, in Canonbury Square. Two upper-middle class middle-aged ladies, one visiting the other for tea in the normal way.

Battersea Dogs Home history spread. Picture: Battersea Dogs & Cats HomeBattersea Dogs Home history spread. Picture: Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

"The story goes Mary arrived at her friends house but instead of being shown into the drawing room she was shown into the kitchen, and there was a tiny emaciated dog her friend had taken out of the gutter.

"They had no idea about dogs or veterinary training, so, apparently, what they did was give it a tablespoon of warm port on the hour."

Legend has it she sat up with the dog all night, only for it do die in the morning.

"That morning she said she would never pass by another dog again," said Spencer. "She started taking stray dogs into her home in Holloway. We still have, to this day, something called Mary's promise: we will never turn away a dog or cat that needs our help."

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home history spread:  Battersea Dogs & Cats HomeBattersea Dogs & Cats Home history spread: Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

The home takes in all animals, including those recovered by police.

Reflecting on Mary's early days caring for dogs in Holloway, Spencer mused it must have been an "unusual site".

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He added: "At that period, stray dogs would have been like rubbish - refuse to be stepped over. There was no animal rights at all and if animals weren't being used as tools no thought would have been paid to them at all. You would have seen animals dying in the street. What Mary did was highly unusual and highly controversial."

Battersea Dogs Home history spread. Picture: Battersea Dogs & Cats HomeBattersea Dogs Home history spread. Picture: Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

In the early days, Mary relied on the support of her friends to keep the dogs home afloat, and they threw regular fundraisers.

When her Holloway dog home first opened 157 years ago, Mary told the Gazette: "The aggregate amount of suffering amongst those faithful creatures throughout London must be very dreadful indeed."

She explained the home wasn't a permanent pad for "old worn out favourites" or a hospital but a "temporary refuge to which humane persons may send only lost dogs so constantly seen in the streets."

But The Times ridiculed Mary's doghouse the same year, stating: "When we hear of a 'Home for Dogs' we venture to doubt if the originators and supporters of such an institution have taken leave of their sober senses."

Mary had moved into her parents Victoria Road house after her divorce, where she helped to care for them and started taking dogs back.

As more dogs arrived, she rented a stable in the adjacent former Hollingsworth Street to keep them in.

Charles Dickens championed her work by publishing an article titled Two Dog Shows in 1862, which made Mary's venture more palatable to the public.

"There was a lot of hostility from the establishment," Spencer said. "But when she was really struggling he wrote an article he had seen in Chelsea, where dogs were pampered and inbred and what he had seen in Islington. And he wrote favourably about the type of dog he picked up there versus dogs in the city. A Tale of Two Dog Shows!"

Dickens said the Islington dogs home was "The kind of institution which a very sensitive person who has suffered acutely from witnessing the misery of a starving animal would wish for, without imagining for a moment that it would ever seriously exist. "It does seriously exist, though."

Dickens also said the home represented an "extraordinary monument of the remarkable affection with which the English people regard the race of dogs."

Mary was honoured with a green Islington People's Plaque at Freightliners Farm, in Sheringham Road - close to where the Home for Lost and Starving Dogs stood, in 2015.

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