Family History and our Pets

It started with a Tweet. Academics from Royal Holloway and the University of Manchester were investigating how we interacted with our pets between 1837 and 1939. As part of the project they were asking for pre-second world war photographs of family pets. I am fortunate to have a large number of photographs from my mother’s family and yes there were pets. Some of these animals I remember, although these were too recent for the purposes of the project but others lived on in family stories. Apart from the labels on the photographs, had I actually recorded the pet stories in any way? In some respects, pets are a little like those on our family tree who left no descendants, the maiden great-aunts whose stories will not be preserved unless we, the family historians, ensure that they are.

It occurred to me that we have a very special relationship with our animals but rarely do they feature in our family histories. We may have no idea about the animals that featured in the lives of our more distant family members but perhaps we should be acknowledging the existence of our own pets and those that belonged to our immediate ancestors.

Clara (Dawson) Woolgar with Mephistopholes

Gwen and Dep circa 1933















My great uncle was a serial pet owner. I have photographs of his dog Mephistopheles, so called because my uncle was performing in a choral piece of the same name at the time the dog was acquired. Like family stories that relate to people, things had become garbled in my memory. I was convinced that ‘Mef’ (imagine shouting ‘Mephistopheles’ across a park) was an Irish Setter but pictures show that he was anything but. Sadly Mef died of a heart attack when the coalman’s horse reared up suddenly and broke the front windows of the house with his hooves. Mef was replaced by a Red Setter, Dep, so called because he deputised for Mef. As a late teenager my mother had Judy the Cairn and Squibs the West Highland White Terrier. Throughout my own childhood my constant companion was Sparky the mongrel. So many memories but here is just one, we would hide under the bed together when Christmas balloons were being blown up.

There were occasions when we had to transport budgerigars from granny’s to home. We may only have actually done this once but it seems as if it was several times. Nor can I be sure why we were doing this, as we holidayed together. Initially granny had two budgies, Comfy and Cosy, one blue and one green, although I cannot remember which was which. To these was added the plain yellow Romeo, so called I think, because he had been found ‘roaming’. We seemed to make a habit of catching lost budgies, sneaking up behind them and rescuing them from the dangers of the wild with judicious use of a net curtain. The bird cage was put on my, by then outgrown, pushchair and covered with a blanket. I stood on the push chair step and leant forward holding the handle to stop the cage sliding off in the event of any emergency stops.

I could go on with stories of how Nora the hamster escaped and lived in the back of the sofa for three days before recapture, or how we had to take the side panel off the bath when my daughter’s hamster made a similar bid for freedom some thirty years later. By now you have the idea, add your pet stories to other family reminiscences; man’s best friends deserve to be remembered. If you do have any pre 1939 pet photographs then get in touch with Pet Histories.

About Janet Few

Janet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who writes and lectures regularly on these subjects throughout the English speaking world. She is well known for her appearances as her alter ego ‘Mistress Agnes’ who aids Janet’s work as an historical interpreter. Janet is the manager of Swords and Spindles, a company providing living history presentations for history groups and schools. For further information see

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