FRANCES A. SIMPSON (1857-1926)


Frances was the third of six children born to the Reverend Robert James Simpson and his wife Mary Elizabeth, between 1853 and 1870. Census records show her as being born at Haughton le Skerne, in County Durham, England, in circa 1857, and named Elizabeth Frances Ann Simpson.

She was preceded by her brother Robert Arthur, in 1853 and brother Harry W, in 1857, and followed by John Percy in 1861 and younger sisters Grace Helen Mary and Edith born in 1868 and 1870 respectively. Her father was listed a 'curate' of Haughton le Skerne in the census of 1861.

By 1871, when she was 14 years old, she is most likely to have been already residing with her family in London, as her father is listed as the incumbent of Curzon St. Chapel, London, in the census of 1881, and we know from her own writings that she attended the first and most famous Crystal Palace Cat Show, held at Sydenham, London in July of 1871.

Excited and astonished visitors in attendance at the first Crystal Palace Cat Show
Illustration: 'The Naturalist', 22nd July 187111
Image courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection

One can only imagine the wide-eyed amazement and curiosity that the sight of this cat show would have aroused in a highly intelligent and impressionable young cat-lover! And no doubt, this may have been her first public exposure to the curious world of naturalist exhibitions, organized and judged by the then 47 year old Harrison Weir. As a young girl growing up in the Victorian 1860's she would have had ample exposure to a varied diet of animal art by Weir, both in educational and children's books, animal rights publications and the myriad of popular press editions that hit the stands daily and weekly. Now she could attend an actual cat show, and gauge for herself, the amazing public response to this new phenomenon!

As young and as alert and astute as she was, we can clearly imagine how she would picked up and shared in the surprise and excitement of the attending public and how intrigued she would have been by the amazing variety of cats, especially some of the very earliest Siamese, the Manx cats, the varied examples of Foreign longhairs and the first publicly exhibited Abyssinian. In addition to this, she would possibly have seen Harrison Weir, his brother John Jenner Weir, the Rev. J. Cumming Macdona and a host of other dignitaries, possibly including such as Lady Cust and Lady Nevill, all in attendance, both lauding and supporting Harrison Weir in his labour of love to bring attention to the world of cats.

Exhibits at the First Crystal Palace Cat Show, drawn by Percy Macquoid.
Clockwise from top left: The Manx, The Persian, The Siamese, The French-African, The English Cat, and a British Wildcat.12
Image courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection

The press of the day made the following observations about a number of specific exhibits:

On Persian-style and Longhaired cats: "In cage 50, was a Black Persian, a huge black animal, originally belonging to the late Lord Palmerston, and now shown by Mr. Tanner of Hanwell, was an object of much remark."

"In cage 63, was The Hon. Mrs. Grey's Persian of ancient pedigree. It was stated that it was brought to this country on the shoulders of an Arab."

"Mrs. Louisa Macguire's French-African specimen, aged 10 years and valued at 500 pounds! But most probably Mrs. Macguire's magnificent creature is never permitted to condescend to such ignoble pursuits as the destruction of vermin."

On the first Siamese to be shown: "Among the rarer specimens were two Siamese cats, which are said to be the first of the kind, ever brought to this country. The pair, shown by Mr. Maxwell, are singular and elegant, in their smooth skins and ears tipped in ebony, and blue eyes with red pupils."

On the British Wild Cat: "Caught recently of the Duke of Sutherland's estates, a savage varmint it is even still, and frets against its bars, or moves uneasily about like the lion Androcles physicked, holding up its wounded paw, a joint of which has been snapped off in the trap."

On other unusual exhibits: (a Polydactyl): "Mr. S Carleigh, well known in the Music Hall world, exhibited a cat with 26 claws, and this 'lusus naturae' excited not a little curiosity." And (on a Tortie Tom Cat): "rather too largely admixed with white".10

A little known fact and certainly one not generally touched upon by historians in explaining the establishment of Cat Shows, is that there were actually TWO cat shows run by the Crystal Palace Company in 1871, the second being secured on the basis of the overwhelming and phenomenal public response to the first. As the first Show had been arranged somewhat in haste and exhibits drawn from a resource of aristocratic and natural history connections, a second Show was planned, into which exhibits from the "working classes" could and would be encouraged. The show was duly scheduled for early December 1871.

Cats and Cat Shows
Cover Illustration: 'The Graphic' 2nd December 1871. 14
Image courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection

However, an even more obscure historical fact, that is seldom if ever reported, is that there were another FOUR public Cat Shows held between the two Crystal Palace Shows. Two of these were in London, run by entrepreneurial types, keen to cash in on the newly popular and much talked about craze of exhibiting cats competitively. These were similarly followed by another two shows were held in Scotland, one in Glasgow, and one in Edinburgh.

The first privately run London Show was held hot on the heels of the Crystal Palace Show on August 2nd and 3rd, at the North Woolwich Gardens, by Mr. Holland. Reports vary on the number of entries, but somewhere between 100 and 200 entrants competed for the prize money. Barely four weeks later, a second privately run London Show, billed as a "Grand Cosmopolitan Prize Cat Show" took place on August 29th and 30th, in the Bedford High St, Camden-Town, run by Mr. Albert Trotman.

In the heat of the new trend, it seems likely that Frances would have attended both of these privately and locally conducted shows and drawn her own conclusions on which were the most efficiently run. Upon the Crystal Palace Show being an obvious success, Mr. Holland put forth a statement that he had conceived the idea of having a cat show and that the Crystal Palace Company had indirectly got his notion.

Seeing this as direct slur on his friends at the Crystal Palace Company, which included Mr. Fred Wilson of the Natural History Department, Harrison Weir publicly addressed the accusation by writing a letter to the editor of the 'London Standard', (published on 19th September, 1871), in which he claimed the Crystal Palace Show to be the first cat show, and solely his idea and that of no-one else. He further drew comparisons and similarities between the prize list and entry fees into the Woolwich Garden show and his own previously drawn up prize list and entry fee, also pointing out that the Crystal Palace cat show had been advertised publicly in the advertising bills of the Crystal Palace Company for months in their book, by circular and also by bills at railway stations and other places.

In his own words he stated:

'Cats and their admirers'
By M. Fitzgerald: 'ThePictorial World', 10th Oct, 187415
Image courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection

"This and other matters that have been made known to me lead me to form an opinion of Mr. Holland in the matter which I shall keep to myself, but I leave others to draw their own conclusions. I apologise for troubling you, Sir, on so light a matter, and were it not for my friends I should not do so, though of course I know the unsoundness of Mr. Holland's statement. And yet, after all I am indeed glad to hear there are other cat shows and I shall be still more pleased to find them becoming general. I am very fond of the cat, both myself and family. At this time I have ten cats of varied colours, and all to me are beautiful and although I keep many birds, pigeons, and poultry, the cats in no way inconvenience them. There are poultry shows now almost everywhere, and why not cat shows? Take, for instance, the quantity of cats kept in London alone. Cat shows will hold out inducements for their improvement in size, form and colour, and the domestic cat will soon become a domestic pleasure. As I said before, I hope soon to hear of more, and trust they will prove as interesting as the first cat show held at the Crystal Palace."

None of these very public interactions would have gone unnoticed by the young Frances Simpson, who over the next few years would have observed the growth in the number of shows organised in main centres around the country, but especially so, in London.

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