The wanderer near Ilford in Essex may be pardoned if, on looking over the hedge of a suburban lane, he should imagine for a moment that be has strayed into the land of the Lilliputians. The field he sees before him is obviously a cemetery, but the graves, with one or two exceptions, are abnormally small. On further examination he will discover that they are the graves of animals; and this the pets' cemetery maintained by the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, wherein are buried upwards of a thousand animals, from a budgerigar to a racehorse. In his first surprise, he may wonder if he has not stumbled upon the English counter part of the Happier Hunting Ground. Is there here, perhaps, the same background that engaged Mr. Evelyn Waugh's satirical pen? The white dove, symbolizing the animal's soul, liberated at the moment of committal? The anniversary card of remembrance which announces: "Your little Arthur is thinking of you in heaven to-day and wagging his tail"? The ordered surroundings, the air of serenity, and a closer inspection should dispel such extravagant notions. This is an English field; Essex is remote from California.
The Times 09 May 1955
I first came across the PDSA cemetery in Ilford after my dog, a cocker spaniel, had impaled himself on a tree branch in the park. Cocker spaniels were originally working dogs used by hunters to raise game, usually birds. They are now so inbred that they are little more than jet propelled olfactory organs; in the park mine glues his nose to the ground and sets off at full pelt as soon as he picks up an interesting scent trail. Squirrels produce one of his favourite spoors. When squirrel meets tree the spoor abruptly changes direction by 90 degrees, switching instantly from horizontal to vertical. This sudden shift of spoor direction happens too quickly for a short-sighted cocker spaniel, travelling at velocity, to apply the brakes. Therefore spaniel skull and tree trunk often come into violent contact, with, I have to say, no discernible ill effects on the dog that I have noticed. Just once has he caused himself any real damage, when pelting helter skelter through the undergrowth he managed to find a broken branch sharp enough to skewer himself on. He emerged from the scrub with a couple of inches of wood protruding from the front of his chest. When I pulled it gently five more inches of sharp and bloody stake emerged. The vet suggested he was admitted to hospital for checks (after discovering we had insurance) and sent us off to the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals hospital on Woodford Bridge Road in Ilford. The pet cemetery is behind the hospital car park, you can’t miss it as you unload your wounded or sick animal out of your vehicle. At least there isn’t far to go if the treatment doesn’t work.
|Ilford Pet Cemetery featured in the Illustrated London News of August 6, 1955|
The best known pet cemetery in London is, of course, the one in Hyde Park which contains the bodies of about 300 animals, mainly cats and dogs. More interesting is the one in Ilford on the London/Essex borders set up by the PDSA in the 1920’s on the floodplain of the River Roding, surrounded by playing fields and huddled beneath towering electricity pylons a stones throw away from the roaring traffic of the A406. At least 3000 animals are buried here, mostly canine and feline but also pigeons, budgies, horses, rabbits and a monkey called Ginner who, according to the correspondent from the Times quoted above, “distinguished himself during the war by warning his deaf master of the approach of flying bombs.” There are Dinky’s and Binkies, Dustys and Rustys, Gingers, Trixies and Scruffys, at least two Niggers (more of this later), a Timoshenko, a Joffre, and a cat called Hitler whose headstone I searched for in vain (but which does exist because I’ve seen a photo). There are 12 winners of the Dickin Medal for animal gallantry buried here including an apparently fearless carrier pigeon called Mary of Exeter.
|Trixie the Scotch terrier with Mr Tibb the cat in the background|
In 1928 the People Dispensary for Sick Animals (formed in 1917 in Whitechapel by Maria Dickin) acquired land on St Swithin’s farm on the outskirts of Ilford to build an animal hospital and create paddocks for ailing horses saved from the East End. It was also decided to set aside a smallish plot at the top end of the field behind the newly built hospital to serve as a pet cemetery. In the 1930’s the charity also effectively set up a crematorium when it acquired an incinerator which it used to dispose of unwanted animal carcases. Much loved pets on the other hand were laid to rest in the cemetery for a relatively modest fee which included a standard wooden headboard. The cemetery gradually grew in size and many owners put up marble headstones or other memorials to replace the plain wooden boards. At he outbreak of the Second World War the charity found itself unexpectedly faced with a crisis when many panicked pet owners could not let their animals face an uncertain future of bombing raids, rationing or possible invasion by the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands took the difficult decision that it was better for their pets to die than to fall into the hands of the Hun (luckily the government’s hastily created evacuation plans saved anyone having to make the same tough decision about their children). In what became known as the September Holocaust orderly queues formed outside veterinary surgeries and animal charities as pet owners waited patiently to have their animals humanely destroyed. When vets ran out of chloroform and other lethal agents, some pet owners resorted to finishing off their animals themselves with spade and mattock and everywhere the corpses were piled high and no on knew what to do with them. It was estimated that in London alone between 400,000 and 750,000 animals were destroyed in the first week of the war. Many pet owners that had resisted their first impulses to have their animals killed found themselves succumbing to a second wave of hysteria which swept the country a few weeks later. Some charities resisted, Battersea dogs home saved 140,000 cats and dogs from the holocaust but others felt they had no choice but to collaborate. In 1945 a PDSA looked back at those weeks of unprecedented collective madness and explained the part the charity had played;
The day before war was declared, we received information that all destructors in London were working to full capacity. Several corporations, animal societies and veterinary surgeons were therefore unable to cope with the burial of these poor animals, and the offer by the P.D.S.A. of the use of a meadow in the grounds of our sanatorium was accepted. Then our real difficulties began, for, as far as can be estimated, we buried half a million animals. This necessitated finding transport, procuring 40 tons of lime, and extra labour. Again people rushed to have their animals destroyed and again we had to open our grounds for the receipt of their bodies, this time receiving a further quarter of a million animals. Our Technical Officers, called upon to perform the unhappy duty of destroying such a vast number of animals will never forget the tragedy of those days.
Whilst the PDSA cemetery contains the remains of 3000 much loved pets the numerous hummocks and humps in an otherwise empty field on the northern boundary of the cemetery, fenced off with wire netting and half hidden by scraggy trees and shrubs, hide the mass graves of almost three quarter of a million animals. It is quite astonishing; so much for keeping calm and carrying on. Perhaps the English aren’t as stoical as we like to imagine ourselves. Having your dog put down just because German tanks had rolled into Poland seems a slight overreaction but then so does packing off your small children to be housed and cared for by complete strangers. People were obviously steeling themselves for what they expected to be a horrific war.
A plain marble slab inscribed ‘Peter the Home Office Cat’ marks the grave of Peter, the Home Office cat. Resident cats have been used to control the rodent population of Government Offices since time immemorial, all in an unofficial capacity. In 1929 officialdom finally acknowledged the key role these felines played in government by awarding an allowance of 1d per day for the upkeep of a black tom cat called Peter who prowled the corridors of the Home Office on Whitehall. Peter’s mousing performance had been under par for some time because civil servants had been spoiling him by feeding him titbits. The crown employers were prohibited from treating him and he was put on a rigorous penny a day diet to get him back in trim for mouse catching. Peters performance obviously improved as he stayed in tenure until 1946. At that year’s performance appraisal it was noted that he was no longer efficient, probably as a result of his advancing years. Rather ruthlessly the department had him put down on 14 November 1946 (what’s wrong with retirement!) and replaced him with a two month old kitten, also called Peter. Peter the second’s tenure was brief. On the night of 27 June 1947 the adolescent Peter II abandoned his duties in the office and slunk off for a night on the tiles. At 3.15am he was strolling across Whitehall towards the cenotaph when he was struck by a car. He was also out down. Peter III, also known as Peter the Great, was appointed Home Office cat on 27 August 1947. He became something of a national celebrity and made regular appearances in newspaper and magazine features. Peter III’s performance was generally beyond reproach, as well as controlling mice he also took on additional duties killing pigeons if any were foolish enough to stray onto Government premises. In the great Home Office tradition he was put down on 09 March 1964 and buried in the Ilford pet cemetery at a well attended funeral. A well known photo shows Moggie, the PDSA cat, paying his last respects to Peter’s coffin before the funeral.
I got very excited when I started researching Nigger the RAF war dog. He was a male black Labrador, mascot of 617 Squadron who belonged to Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the famous leader of the Dam Busters raid on German dams using Barnes Wallace’s bouncing bomb. Nigger managed to get himself knocked over and killed on the night of the raid, unbeknown to his master who used his name as the code word to notify mission control of the breach of the Möhne Dam. Nigger was portrayed in the 1955 film about the raid and his name used freely in the dialogue. Of course in these PC attuned times where pejorative racial epithets dating from the miserable days of slavery and slave trading are no longer considered appropriate names for household pets, having a character named Nigger in a film creates all sorts of difficulties. Some broadcasters in the UK, Channel 4 for example, have reacted by putting out a warning before reruns of the film, letting viewers know that they may hear language more appropriate to ‘Love and Hip Hop in Atlanta’ than to a 1950’s British film about our glorious exploits during the war. ITV dealt with the matter by deleting all references to the animal’s name. In the states the film was dubbed to change the dog’s name to Trigger. Inability to decide what to do about Nigger’s unfortunate moniker finally scuppered a planned remake of the film to be scripted by Stephen Fry and directed by Peter Jackson. After all this I also discovered that PDSA Nigger is not the Dam Busters dog, who is actually buried at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. The Ilford war dog is likely to have been another black Labrador who served with the No. 1 Dog Platoon, 277th Field Park Company, of the Royal Engineers as a mine hunter in Normandy following the D Day invasion of France.
The most famous animal buried at Ilford is probably Able Seacat Simon of HMS Amethyst, the only cat to win the Dickin Medal for valour. According to the BBC Simon “suffered severe shrapnel wounds when HMS Amethyst came under fire in a 101-day siege known as the Yangtze Incident in which 17 marines were among the dead. He received a hero's welcome when the ship returned to dock in Plymouth on 1 November 1949. Simon died in quarantine three weeks later and was buried with full military honours at the PDSA Animal Cemetery in Ilford, Essex.” The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo of Thursday 01 December 1949 carries a short account of the funeral, which does not seem to have been carried out with ‘full military honours’;
Simon Of The Amethyst Is Buried. Simon the Amethyst Cat, was buried at the P.D.S.A, Cemetery, Ilford (Essex), to-day. The only people present were Mrs. Grace Macrow, superintendent of the cemetery and two grave-diggers. The coffin was covered with the Union Jack. Flowers sent by the public were placed on the grave and temporary headstone was erected. There will be ceremony in a few weeks time.
Mary of Exeter was a carrier pigeon belonging to Cecil ‘Charlie’ Brewer, a boot maker from West Street in Exeter who enrolled his prize bird in the National Pigeon Service at the start of the war. Mary was dropped several times behind enemy lines in France to collect top secret messages which she always delivered without fail back to Exeter despite being wounded three times and once going missing in action for 10 days. She was injured in an attack by a German war hawk stationed in the Pas-de-Calais, was shot and lost the tip of her wing as a result, and was finally put out of action by a piece of shrapnel. A blue plaque marks the site of her former roost in Exeter.
Another memorial marks the burial place of Bruce Forsyth’s dog Rusty. In his autobiography Sir Bruce recalls trusty Rusty who lived with him and his first wife in their touring caravan and became part of his stage act at the London Palladium. “Rusty was a truly lovely fellow who performed all sorts of fantastic tricks," says Sir Bruce, “his favourite was to flip a biscuit off his nose and catch it in his mouth." Sadly Rusty became ill and lost the ability to use his back legs “We had no idea what caused this sudden disability. We called the vet, who explained that Rusty was suffering from suppressed distemper. 'He will never again have the use of his back legs', we were told. It was awful to witness - almost overnight he had become this pathetic, helpless animal. The only way I could take him outside for at least some limited exercise was to grab hold of his tail and lift his back legs up, allowing him to walk on his front legs with his back end sort of gliding along. This didn't hurt him at all and he loved to be outside, but people in the street gave me filthy looks. This went on for some weeks, with pressure growing from various vets we visited to have him put down. Penny refused to give up hope. One day Rusty knocked over his bowl of water. 'Oh, Rusty, you bad dog!' I exclaimed. 'Look what you've done! Come here!' Then, very gradually, Rusty rose on all four legs and walked towards me. We could not believe it."
As for my cocker, he survived his impalement in the park, after spending a couple of days in the hospital and running up a medical bill of £1100, he was released home as good as new. There was no necessity for me to shell out for a plot in the cemetery. Maybe next time.