Houses, Cats and Nightingales at the Crystal Palace

It is not generally well known that the first cat show in the world was held at the Crystal Palace by English gentleman and artist Harrison Weir in July 1871. What is well known however, that for many years following that famous first, cat shows (and many other pet shows) were held at the Crystal Palace. Indeed, a cat show was being prepared to be held during the week of 30th November 1936. This of course had to be cancelled.
Gay Nightingale, botanical author, lived as a child at 29a Crystal Palace Park Road (which became known as Silk Cottage) and was a great lover of cats and of Crystal Palace Park. Indeed, the house that she lived in backed on to the Park and it became her playground and that of her cats.
To combine her love of cats, Crystal Palace Park and plants, Gay wrote exclusively for us a record of her childhood memories centred around the Park.
No 1. Ginger, Snooky and Mitsy 
Ginger was definitely a Crystal Palace cat. He came walking slowly up our garden path from Cricket Field one day. He had a stately walk and great presence - as though he owned the place and the Park was his!
Silk Cottage garden gate - a narrow Victorian wrought iron original with spikes over an arched top - opened directly into Cricket Field. The cottage was situated directly opposite the Old Pavilion. It was a converted old Mews in Crystal Palace Park Road. Our house was 29a Crystal Palace Park Road which was a part of the house called The Hollies.
Read more about these houses here.
During the Second World War - and for many years afterwards - the Park was closed to the Public. We had the Park more or less to ourselves. It was our wilderness - just the four of us, my sister and two brothers and I. Although two or three neighbour's children, whose gardens also backed onto the Park, joined us in our games sometimes. We spent most of our days just beyond our garden gate. Cricket Field had returned to a semi-wild state with natural meadow flora and fauna at that time. Among tall grasses of many kinds were buttercups, daisies, dandelions, red and white clovers, thistles, plantain, and thistle-like, mauve-headed Knapweed (Centaurea).
Our cats used to wander about in the Park amusing themselves, by pouncing on grasshoppers - two front paws held close together - or sunning themselves near the cottage garden sundial. Ginger, our first cat, took to us and soon came everyday - eventually moving in. He became the king cat of the area, standing wider at the shoulder than any other local cat. He used to climb in through my brother's bedroom window and sleep curled up at the end of one of our beds.
Ginger was our first cat but he was still with us, during our early childhood, when Tom-Tom and Fluffy were introduced as kittens. They were both males, despite the feminine-sounding name of Fluffy.
Our next cats were Snooky and Mitsy, who had kittens - which we were not allowed to keep. Snooky was black and maybe came from a Siamese line. He was a clever cat, who could open windows.
No. 2. TomTom and Fluffy
TomTom and Fluffy were two little fluff balls of kittens - both ginger: one a soft ginger, the other a long-haired, marmalade Persian. They were carried to Silk Cottage, in Crystal Palace Park Road, and not put in a box as they were too young to leave their mother really - no more than six weeks old. TomTom was the short-haired one, and Fluffy the marmalade. They were both male cats.
I recall carrying them to a large tree in the middle of the road, in Sydenham Avenue. The tree - a handsome old oak - had a wooden seat all the way round the wide trunk. My sister and I took the kittens up the grass mound that formed a ring round the tree. We were each holding one of the kittens, which we placed down on the seat, so that we could watch them walk a few wobbly steps.
Later, still carrying the kittens, we proceeded down the avenue and across the main road to Silk Cottage, which stands slightly lower down Crystal Palace Park Road than Sydenham Avenue, on the opposite side. It seemed less dangerous for young children to go around on their own in those days than it does now.
Back in the 1940s
TomTom and Fluffy settled down with Ginger without much disturbance to their lives or ours. "Old Ginge" continued to hunt in cricket Field. (He was an excellent 'mouser' - we never had trouble with mice or small vermin). He returned to the cottage during the day to see if there was any food going, or to sleep, and was often to be found perched on the top of the old dog kennels building, which belonged to number 29 (The Hollies) next door. It existed during my childhood between 29, a tall house, and Silk Cottage. The latter was originally the stables, coach house and living quarters of the coachman, before it was brilliantly converted under the direction of my father, to become the artistic, beamed cottage that it was throughout my childhood.
The dog kennels block was a substantial building. People looked after their dogs and horses in those days. And, yes, they still do! Many horses lived in more comfortable, clean, surroundings than their young stable lads. Horses then and now are groomed regularly and fed carefully. Today they are often given protein, vitamin, and mineral rich, balanced diets.
Our cats, including "Old Ginge" used to sun themselves on the roof of the kennels, where they also sometimes slept during the day - when they weren't on one of the beds, because they had been shooed off! Of course, I climbed on to this roof and went from there on to the garage roof that also existed between the houses.
My mother grew a purple Jackmanii clematis which entwined with branches of a pink rambling rose on a trellis that provided privacy and mostly hid the long disused, old kennels. But the fence didn't stop me from going up after the cats, especially if I thought they were in danger from another cat, which they rarely were. Cats really do seem to have nine lives! They are extremely agile and have a strong survival instinct. I have never forgotten the desperate feeling of hanging on to the rafters, having fallen through the garage roof!
What happened to the kittens in the end? Sadly, I don't remember. Even in those days, Crystal Palace Park Road was fairly busy. The 227 bus eventually ran right up to the Crystal Palace Parade - past our house, but in the early days, I walked down the hill past Park Court Flats on the left, where my Aunty Molly lived, to catch a number 12 bus, which came round the corner from Laurie Park Road. A road which curved round from Cobbs and Williamsons - the latter being a grocers where my parents always had an account. Many a time, I had to walk round with cheques to pay the bill - and to pick up some much needed new shopping! But I walked down Sydenham Avenue because it was a shorter journey. Whereas, I used the 12 bus to go to school.
If TomTom and Fluffy escaped death on the busy Crystal Palace Park Road, it was because they remained mostly at the back of the cottage, in the garden and the Park - away from the danger of being run over. Maybe they died of old age - I like to think so; and I have no memory of tragedies concerning them.
During the whole of our childhood at Silk Cottage, Crystal Palace Park Road, we would go frequently to Beckenham Library to change our books. Our mother became friends with one of the librarians, while she was organising an exhibition of children's paintings in the library.
About this time, the now famous Robin Knox Johnson was coming to the cottage. Teaching was always a number one focus of conversation in our family, as my father was a mathematics master, who also gave lessons to children of parents who were anxious for them to pass the Common Entrance exam. He also gave tuition for the 11+ exam, which enabled candidates to go to a grammar school if they passed. Pupils who passed the 11+ usually obtained possibly their only chance to stay on at school. Many of the others left school. Children as young as eleven would be talking about getting a job. They looked forward to wearing grown up clothes and joining what they saw as the grown up world.
However, I recall that a neighbour who joined our games in the Park, just beyond the Victorian iron garden gate of the cottage, appeared to be a little wistful at leaving us still to enjoy the freedom of the school summer holidays.
We played in the neglected, semi-wild cricket field every day, occasionally walking into the Upper Park - which in those days was very overgrown with tall weeds everywhere - and on to the old racing course. We wandered around the dried up formal pools, where the stone babies were still in place. The edges were cracked and long grasses grew between the statues and the ornamental pools. We had the place to ourselves.
In our earlier childhood, we would walk up Crystal Palace Park Road. We usually took the route up the hill, along the Parade and into Upper Norward via the road to the left. We walked round the loop road, passing a sweet shop, where we purchased our 2oz weekly ration of sweets. After our visits to the sweet shop, we made our way home to Silk Cottage via the road on the right that passes Upper Norwood Library.
Recently, I was describing to two young children what 2oz of sweets looked like. Holding up flour in a small twist of paper, I told them we had to make this amount last all week. Fascinated, they did mathematical calculations to convert oz to grams and gasped at the few sweets that we had to make last for seven days. "Which sweets did you choose?" they wanted to know. "Small ones like dolly mixtures and Dew drops, to make them last longer", I told them.
Regular readers may recall that besides the Park, mathematics, painting, library books and World War 2, cats featured prominently at Silk Cottage, Crystal Palace Park Road.
I am indebted to my brother Charles for reminding me of some of the details about our cat stories. My mother used to pass the long winter evenings in the cottage by inventing stories for her four children. Paula later became a painter, Charles is a mathematician, who also enjoys painting, and Edward, the classicist, worked in the Civil Service until his retirement.
We huddled round the hall fire on the end wall below a heavy, black, horizontal beam, which served as a mantelpiece - carefully avoiding the iron dogs either side. Silk Cottage, the former coach house to 29 Crystal Palace Park Road, was mostly unheated during the immediate aftermath of the war - apart from an open coke fire place in the hall, that was lit with a gas flame. The wide fire-place, like the rest of the black-beamed cottage, had white walls inside and out.
There was no central heating and the other fireplaces were only used if someone was ill, apart from an electric fire in the lounge/living room and a similar fire, of an artificial coal design, in the study that sided directly on to Crystal Palace Park Road. We held toasting forks and made supper while we listened.
The cat called 'Ginger' always featured strongly. The stories started with our cats giving signs that they wished to be followed, and we would be led to some exotic party in the Park. We were allowed to choose presents. Sometimes, though, our mother would invent the presents we had herself. My brother, Charles, recalls getting a portable radio - a thing he had hardly heard of before.
According to a member of family, Ginger first came into the house after an air raid. Sadly, I report that he was put to sleep in old age. This was, however, after a long life spent hunting in the Crystal Palace Park, before it was opened to the Public, and later lazing in Silk Cottage. He had to be put to sleep, due to a facial wound which became infected. The wound was probably gained whilst he was defending his territory.
Tom-Tom and Fluffy were two ginger kittens that my sister and I used to carry to the Oak Tree wooden bench in Sydenham Avenue, in early childhood. Tom-Tom, the short-haired one, disappeared after a family holiday, according to a family memory. Fluffy, the long-haired ginger Persian, had to be put to sleep after becoming badly infected with ticks.

Mitsy was the only female cat. She had kittens in an unsuitable place - on one our beds if I remember correctly! - and when my mother removed them to a safer place, at the bottom of a kitchen cupboard (with the door open), the little tabby carried them all back again, one by one, to the place she had chosen.

Snooky, the intelligent black cat, was put to sleep after he became aggressive. Then came Whiskey, a ginger and white. Willie followed an unsuccessful ginger kitten, called 'Sinjer', that died after about two weeks.

Freckles and Polly were pale ginger kittens that remained pale in colour as adults. It is possible that poor Polly did eventually get run over. He may have drunk some contaminated milk and then, when still weak, he tried to cross Crystal Palace Park Rd and was knocked down.

Freckles was one of the last cats at Silk Cottage while the Nightingales were there. Crystal Palace Park Road had become impractical for cats by that time. To my surprise, I had not heard much of this tale before. It is possible some of the sad endings occurred when I wasn't at home and they were kept from me.
Lots of cats around the Crystal Palacebecame strays in the Second World War. Pets also died when houses were bombed and their owners were killed. Others were deliberately left behind, because they were considered to be an extra expense to feed.
Occasionally, a cat will stay by itself in a house or a flat, when a neighbour is feeding it by leaving a dish of food outside. But the problem for the cat, in these cases, is that other cats and animals in the vicinity often eat the food first. It can be a cruel thing to do - to go away and leave a domesticated cat to fend for itself. 
It is a widely held belief that cats like the home more than the person, whereas dogs prefer their owner/master more than their house. There may be some truth in this, but in life there is often the exception to the rule. I have known cats that have seemed to like one person more that others; and dogs that have remained in a house, when owners have left - even when they have been abandoned.
Happy cats are lucky cats! Does it surprise you that a black cat crossing your path is, according to superstition, a sign of bad luck? Whereas to other people, it is a sign of good luck! Silk Cottage cats and kittens were mostly ginger.
Another temporary problem for Silk Cottage cats was when my mother refused to keep a dog - she already had enough to do looking after her four children and teaching Art at a local school. I persuaded her to allow me to take a Red Setter dog for walks in the Crystal Palace Park. He lived in a house in a turning further up the hill towards Crystal Palace Parade. The cats stayed well out of his way when he was around! He could swoosh up their food in one suction - barely waiting to chew the meat. A beautiful dog but I wonder now if he was hungry all the time!
By Gay Nightingale © 2018