The history of the Siamese breed is one of the mystery and romance of the East, brought to the shores of mother England.
For many, it represents a living link between the magical temples of Siam and Cambodia and the priests and royalty of south-east Asiatic culture. So it should come as no surprise to find many of the cats named after ancient eastern deities, or rulers, but in some cases, names associated with romantic Western culture were thrown into the mix. In this case, the romantic notion that a pair of Siamese, a male and a female, should adopt the names of 'Romeo' and 'Juliette' associated with the Italian tragedy of that name.
The story of this particular 'Romeo' and 'Juliette' is however, set against a background where the English fanciers who bred Siamese, were themselves only beginning to come to grips with the fact that their definitions of what constituted a 'Siamese' were far from adequate.
Although it was universally accepted that all cats coming out of the Thai lands were 'Siamese' cats, regardless of colour, this still left question-marks over how to define between two different styles or types in conformation, and at least two different varieties in body colour saturation. In the minds of most breeders there was therefore two distinct colour varieties, the 'Royal' and the 'Chocolate', and two 'types', those notably attributed and categorised as being 'Palace Cats' and those which were alternatively categorised as 'Temple Cats' (aka Sacred Temple Cats).
Certainly in the minds of both Mrs. Vary-Campbell and Lady Marcus Beresford, 'Romeo' and 'Juliette' fell clearly into the latter grouping.
Unknown Unknown | Unknown Romeo, Jan-1909, Seal Point Royal Siamese, M | Unknown Unknown Unknown
There is only one registration record to be found for a Siamese male named 'Romeo' who is also listed as a 'Temple Cat', and that is the one listed in 'The Cat Club Register' (CCR), Volume 3, page 17. In this listing he is described as "Sacred Temple Siamese", with his date of birth recorded as 'January, 1898'. His breeder is listed simply as the 'King of Siam', with 'pedigree unknown' and his first owner of record is Mrs. Wylie. 'Juliette' is not to be found in any official Register.
In the only photos extant of both 'Romeo' and 'Juliette', the male certainly appears to be a more mature and larger cat, suggesting that he may have been moderately older than his dainty travelling companion. The date of birth recorded for 'Romeo' also aligns harmoniously with the dates for when both cats were later successfully exhibited at Westminster, in 1900.
However, this specific pair of Siamese cats were not the first pair to be named after the lovelorn couple in Shakespeare's great tragedy. In a considerably earlier importation, another 'Romeo' (NCC:1664) and 'Juliet' (NCC:1665), both born in August of 1893, are recorded as originally owned by a Mrs. Crompton. They were later sold to Mr. Sam Woodiwiss, when their names then amended to 'Sedgemere Romeo' and 'Sedgemere Juliet' respectively.
Photo: Harmsworth Magazine, 1900 2
Image courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection
Before dealing with the ownership of our 'Sacred Temple' Romeo and Juliette, we should first deal with the reality of the accreditation of their breeder.
H.M. THE KING OF SIAM:
A considerable number of registered Siamese cats are credited to 'H.M. the King of Siam' as the breeder. Historians appear to divide themselves into two camps with regard to whether the breed was the exclusive province of the royal family and whether the Kings of Siam were personally involved in their breeding, or whether this is simply a mere myth. Taking a very pragmatic view, the truth is most likely to sit somewhere in the middle, with clear royal patronage, but highly unlikely to have had much in the way of personal involvement. It is clear that in the high religious culture of Siam, cats were linked to the transmigration of souls, were known to be buried with their royal owners and were cared for and bred both within the palace and in temple compounds. The cats, in their various forms, were the responsibility of the priestly cast and were certainly reverenced and prized. There is also a distinct possibility that there were several types retained, some bred by priests or monks servicing the Royal household, and some by the priests in the Temple compounds.
Were they used in royal ceremonies? Yes. Were they personally bred by members of the Royal family, likely not. But it is always important to view this in context, i.e. Were the Royals aware that they were unique? 'Yes'. Did they recognise western amazement in the unique distribution of their pattern? 'Yes'. Were there instances of 'Siamese cats' gifted by the King, or his representatives, to western ambassadors or dignatories? Absolutely,'Yes'. Does this mean that the King of Siam bred them? A reserved 'Yes', but not strictly speaking, in the 'personal' context.
The Kings of Siam were 'absolute' monarchs, so everything in the palace compounds, belonged to the King. So if someone were to ask an official for a cat, permission would still need to come from the King's secretariat, for it to be released. A similar procedure would have applied to the Royal household in England. Did Queen Victoria breed horses, cattle and poultry? 'Yes'. Was she personally involved? 'Not necessarily'. Did they belong to her? 'Yes'. Was permission needed to move the stock? 'Yes', but under the strict supervision and recommendation of a manager. So why would we expect anything different from the Royal house of Siam?
And it is equally ludicrous to think that examples of the breed were not being simultaneously bred and distributed outside of the Royal district, in at least small numbers. The cats had been in existence for centuries, and for centuries had very likely been gifted to members of the extended Royal Family over succeeding generations, and so too, to the surrounding lands, into what would today be Laos and Cambodia, not to mention the possibility that some may have been gifted to other officials and dignatories of eastern origin. So this meant that Siamese cats were very likely to have been available from other sources, but that does not mean that they were necessarily any less 'Siamese' than those obtained directly from the palace precincts in Bangkok, or that the Palace cats were not still a relatively 'protected enclave'.
Even as late as 1904,and still within the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V),we find confirmation in The Siamese Register of a male, 'Satan' and a female 'Princess', which were "bred at the Palace, Bangkok, and presented by the King of Siam to Admiral Sir H. Grenfell." These were the parents of 'Mom Pish Tush', bred by Admiral Grenfell and owned by Mrs. A de Vere Brooke. 'Mom Pish Tush' in her turn, became the dam of the famous 'Champion Sancho'.4
Even well after the reign of King Chulalongkorn we find further evidence of cats with connections to the royal house. Mrs. Allen-Maturin's 'Southampton Siam of Bangkok', born in April 1921, is duly advertised as 'imported' (from France). This winner in the Siamese Championship in the adult class at the Crystal Palace in 1923 was bred by the Princess de Bourbon, with the claim that "his parents" ('Lotus' and 'Mitsie') "were bred by H.M. The King of Siam".4
When we investigate the ownership of both 'Romeo' and Juliette', we find that after they left the land of their birth, they passed through several hands. The first information about their journey is to be found in an article published in the Rockingham Register, in March 1901; that ostensibly refers to the value of high-bred cats, particularly Siamese, produced by English ladies of rank. In that article is found the following statement:
The final owner of 'Romeo' and 'Juliette'
From a painting by Edward Hughes, The Book of The Cat (1903) by Frances Simpson1
Image courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection
"The only sacred temple cats that ever left the land of their birth, were given to Dr. Nightingale as a mark of special favour, by the King of Siam. They were named by their new owner, Romeo and Juliet, and are now the property of Lady Marcus Beresford."1
This statement conveniently connects both their first recipient, and their final owner. But in between, 'Romeo' and presumably 'Juliette' were owned by Mrs. Wylie, confirmed by his registration in The Cat Club Register, and then by Mrs. Vary Campbell, from whom Lady Marcus Beresford eventually obtained them. Presumably they acquired their new names upon being acquired by Mrs. Wylie. It remains unclear as to when they became the property of Mrs. Vary Campbell, who was the President of The Siamese Cat Club and who is described by Miss Frances Simpson as "a generous supporter of the breed". It was while they were under the stewardship of Mrs. Vary Campbell, that the lovely and historically significant photograph of the pair was taken by J. Clapperton, and subsequently published in Frances Simpson's The Book of The Cat (1903). In this same publication, Lady Marcus Beresford writes:
"A pair of Siamese imported from the temple at Bangkok I purchased from Mrs. Vary Campbell, and had the great misfortune to lose them. They differed from the royal Siamese, being darker and having a more pointed head and face, and their eyes were larger and fuller."1
No record exist of any siblings to either 'Romeo' or 'Juliette', and as their pedigrees are 'unknown' we have no method of assessing whether or not they were in any way related to each other.
Of show wins, we only have the record published in Harmsworth Magazine which, along with the only other photographic image of the pair, records a 2nd place win at Westminster, in 1900.2
Although no records exist for any progeny from either cat before they became the property of Lady Marcus Beresford, we should take this opportunity to look in more detail at their description as 'Sacred Temple Siamese'.
Mrs. Parker-Brough, gives her own account and a common-sense description of the differences between the 'Royal' and 'Sacred Temple' varieties:
"A peculiarity of the royal Siamese is that the kittens are born quite white, and at about fourteen days the points begin to look rather grey, turning at two months to a deep seal-brown, while the rest of the body usually remains white or cream for at least a couple of years (the whiskers and claws remain white). The colouring process resembles nothing so much as that of a meerschaum pipe.
"There are distinct varieties of Siamese known to fanciers - the palace or royal cat, the temple cat, (chocolate) and there is likewise the common cat of the country, which is also found within the palace. The points of the chocolate cat are identical for shows with those of the royal except body colour, but the imported chocolate is often dark chocolate, with blue eyes, a stumpy tail with a marked kink, short legs, and heavy thick body. There are not many chocolates exhibited, owing to the preference given to the royal variety.
"It must be understood that there is no definite royal breed as such, but the palace breed seems to have originated by selection. The Siamese as a nation are lovers of anything quaint or uncommon, and the white-bodied cats in Bangkok, seem to have been given to, or bought by, the inhabitants of the palace, until they have established a breed of their own, and reproduced the cat that fanciers know to-day as the royal cat of Siam.
"This should explain a point that has given rise to much controversy, as travellers agree that other cats than royal Siamese are to be found inside the palace, yet the King and Prince Damurong have given from time to time royal Siamese to friends, naturally choosing for a present, the cat that has the most value in their eyes. That is to say, that the term 'royal Siamese' or 'royal cat of Siam' is a descriptive term applied to a particular variety of cat, and should imply no more than this.
"We have a parallel case in 'King Charles spaniels'.
"The temple cat is under the care of the Jan priests, who have the greatest reverence for animal life, and whose temple is a sanctuary for all animals."1
Photo: J.Clapperton, Galashiels. The Book of The Cat (1903) by Frances Simpson 1
Image courtesy of The Harrison Weir Collection
None currently available.
Mrs. Parker-Brough's explanation for the establishment and ascendency of the 'royal' variety is certainly both considered and insightful, and likely to be very close to the mark in historical terms, especially in her view of the method and mode of 'selection'. But her definitive description of both the 'Chocolate' and the 'royal' varieties is somewhat simplistic and is challenged by some of the descriptions given by her contemporaries, many of whom have clearly stated that there existed two definitive 'types', even within the 'royal' variety. One such description comes from Mrs. Robinson, the owner of the celebrated 'Wankee', the first Siamese to claim a Championship:
"Of the royals there seem to be two types in England: the one - rather a small, long-headed cat, with close lying coat, and deep blue eyes, and with a decided tendency to darken with age - is generally the imported cat or having imported parents; the other is a larger cat, with a rounder head, a much thicker, longer, and less close lying coat, and the eyes a paler blue (these cats do not darken as much or as soon as the other type, and have generally been bred for several generations in England)."1
And of the 'Chocolate' variety, the range in density of body tonings, and eye colours appears to have been much greater than implied by Mrs. Parker Brough, and greater than that shown in the images of 'Romeo' and 'Juliette' which although labelled as "sacred temple Siamese" do not in truth appear to be obvious 'chocolates'. It is therefore quite probable that the term 'Chocolate' was somewhat loosely applied to almost anything that was darker than the highly desired and defined colouration of the 'royal' and included, in some instances, darker seal-points of the 'royal' variety, all the way through to brown coloured cats with 'amber' eyes! Into this broad category was dumped all those patterns which today, we would consider to be the province of either dark body-colouring on a fully pointed coat, as well as truly Mink, and Sepia tonings.
Our feline 'Romeo' and Juliette', very sadly, and all too closely emulated the fate of their human name-sakes. From a far off land and mystical eastern temple, these star-crossed companions ended their destiny in England at Bishopsgate, without leaving issue. Lady Beresford's loss was no doubt heartfelt, as she had a genuine affection for all Siamese and would have been most desirous of preserving the distinctive traits of this unique strain of 'sacred temple Siamese'.
Registers associated with this article include The Incorporated Cat Fanciers Association of Great Britain (TICFAGB), National Cat Club (NCC), The Cat Club (CCR), Beresford Cat Club (BCC), Feline Federation Francaise (FFF), Siamese Cat Registry (SCR), US Register & Studbook for Cats (USR)including Supplement(USRS), The Studbook of the American Cat Association (ACA), and the Studbook & Register of the Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA).
©The CFA Foundation, Inc and The Harrison Weir Collection
This project is a collaboration between The CFA Foundation, Inc. and The Harrison Weir Collection.
All material on this site is copyrighted and may not be printed or reproduced, in any form, without the express written consent of the collaborators.