The history of British families and their pets

It seems odd to think of pets as something other than a part of the family. Especially within the British culture, our smaller, furrier and feathery companions are considered sentient beings which humans do not only have the responsibility of looking after, but which in some cases are held in higher esteem than actual people in pet owners’ lives.

Pet keeping as we recognise it today has a long history which is thought to stretch back millennia. A discovery by a group of workers near Bonn, Germany in 1914 found that ‘man’s best friend’ has well and truly earned his moniker: humans have been taking care of dogs since around 14,000 years ago.

Leiden University PhD candidate and veterinarian, Luc Janssens, recently led research into the discovery 100 years ago of a grave containing the remains of a man, woman and two dogs. Janssens found that the younger dog, a puppy, was severely ill yet managed to survive eight weeks longer than it should have. It was concluded that the puppy only managed to survive longer because of its relationship with its human companions.

Today almost half of British households are home to at least one companion animal and a recent survey found that 89 percent of owners considered them to be ‘part of the family’. With research suggesting that many people prefer to spend time with their pets instead of loved ones, and findings which suggest that Brits spent £210m on their small companions this Valentine’s, it makes sense that this close bond people have with animals is something intriguing enough to explore.

Historians at both Royal Holloway and the University of Manchester have conducted the first large-scale research project on the history of pets in British family life. Looking at how relationships between society and their pets changed between the 19th and 20th Centuries, the team has been investigating how pets were bought and sold, how they were cared for, and why they came to play such a key role in British family life.

Dr Jane Hamlett, lecturer from the department of history at Royal Holloway, University of London, says: “In the 20th Century people started to see it more as a relationship rather than an animal to be disciplined. People to started to see pets as something to have a relationship with and work with.”


For their research, the team inspected diaries, photographs and other artefacts available in public records in Surrey, Wandsworth and Hampshire. Beginning with the Victorian era, they examined the documents gathered from the Hampshire Record Office, Surrey History Centre and Wandsworth Library which depicted how pets fitted into people’s lives and why they were so important to them, and attempted to determine exactly when, how and why the shift from ‘working animal’ to ‘family member’ was made.

The driving force behind the research came from a dearth of information on how we have lived and grown with pets over time. “One thing that hasn’t happened previously in people writing about the history of the family,” says Hamlett, “is that pets haven’t been included because animals and pets are seen as still somehow often peripheral.” She continues: “They’re not seen as serious subjects but when you talk to a lot of people, pets have a really important role in the emotional life of people’s families.”

Modern scholarly studies and anecdotal research have repeatedly found that pets have a profound effect on the happiness and mental health of those they come into contact with. The British Veterinary Association recently applauded a move by the Royal College of Nursing to introduce pets into healthcare settings to aid with the healing of patients. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week (14 – 20 May 2018), animal welfare charity Mayhew offered its Therapaws service to workers at London’s Huckletree West to give them a break from their 

working day.

In terms of what was uncovered from the archives from those in the 19th and 20th Centuries, people mainly wrote about relatively mundane daily information. Hamlett gives examples such as “when they take them for walks” or “when they get fed, what they are feeding them”. She adds: “Some of them do have a bit about how their pets make them feel”. The diarists would also explain their feelings towards their companions including “how it’s nice to come home to a pet or what it’s like to have to pay a big vet’s bill”. It was these seemingly uneventful writings that have so far helped the team to build a clearer picture on people’s attitudes towards pets through the ages.

The findings became part of an exhibition which was held between January and March this year at the establishments where the documents were recovered. “The exhibition [was] a small part of what we’re doing,” Hamlett explains. With the full findings expected to be shown at the Geffrye Museum in Hoxton, London in roughly two years’ time, the researchers have already gained a wide scope of knowledge about the history of the British family and pets from the three areas in the South East that they have looked at so far.

Pet Ownership

The kinds of pets that people owned at the beginning of the 19th Century are significantly different from the kinds of animals that people would consider as pets today. Victorians did not have the same ideas about preservation of the natural world as those of modern society, and they had notably less respect for their animal companions. Hamlett says the importation of non-native animals was also hugely popular in that era, so more people were in the possession of animals such as parrots and monkeys than they were in the start of the 20th Century.

It was not only foreign animals which were preferred by the Victorians, as many had a pastime of catching creatures from the British environment. “It was fairly common to keep British birds, caged birds like Thrushes or Linetts. Things you might expect to see in the hedgerows.” She goes on to say that these animals were “sometimes quite brutally captured and brought in”. It was also common in society to catch dormice, squirrels and hedgehogs and keep them indoors. “They would attempt to keep them as pets.”

As for pets that we’d recognise as more commonplace today, dogs were always favoured in the Victorian family with a bias towards larger canines such as St Bernards, as they were considered loyal and trustworthy. Cats on the other hand weren’t extremely popular in the 19th Century. “We’ve looked at lots of advice manuals on the home and pet keeping and cats tend to be criticised for being deceitful and sly and it’s thought they might steal your food. There was quite a strong criticism of cats.”

Approaching the 20th Century, however, cats started to become more popular. The reasons for their popularity were not a sudden liking of the animal, instead, Hamlett believes developments in society meant attitudes towards cats began to change and there was a new appreciation for their nature. “On a practical level, it’s to do with people’s living arrangements. So more people are living in towns and cities and more people are living in flats, and it is just much easier to keep a cat indoors.” She goes on: “People start to find the individuality of cats a bit more appealing as British society generally becomes a bit more relaxed.” She continues, repeating a theory raised by another historian which assumes that as women’s’ rights became an increasingly prominent issue, the feminised temperament of the cat led to people no longer seeing them as problematic creatures.

Furthermore, due to the reduction of the size of the family in the 20th Century and people residing in smaller properties, the larger dog fell out of favour with the general society. Hamlett says those kinds of dogs were “seen as impractical” and instead “smaller dogs become popular, like Terriers”.

Attitudes towards animals

People seemingly had a collector’s attitude to animals, as it was more acceptable to capture specimens such as butterflies as a hobby for young boys and men. Dr Hamlett says: “In one book I’ve looked at there’s guidance for constructing a boy’s first snare – which sounds a bit unpleasant but they were very open about this.”

Outside of seeing animals as a sport or a necessary source of protection, how pets were treated also came down to worth and space. “In the 19th century a typical working class family might have seven or eight children – if everyone survived – packed into a tiny terraced house. It might be difficult to keep animals in that context,” Hamlett. Also, with the establishment of the RSPCA in the early 19th Century, it was not yet set into the minds of general society to treat animals in a certain way. She adds: “By the 20th Century there’s a well defined idea that it’s unacceptable to be cruel to animals.”


People’s general attitudes towards pets also had a great impact on the veterinary sector and the work that the professionals carried out. Hamlett points out that veterinary practice in the 19th Century was mainly geared towards working animals such as horses. While some dogs would have been taken to the vets, for the most part veterinary practices were geared towards non-domestic animals, and it was only in the 1920s that small animal practice started to become a bigger part of their business. “I assume today it would be the other way around – that’s an interesting transition. We’re looking at a time when pets were the minority of a veterinary practice.”

Pet shops

The researchers’ findings suggest that the term ‘pet’ was not commonly used in the early 19th Century and pet shops as are they are known today were not the same thing to those living in the Victorian era. “In the Victorian period there were large shops that might call themselves menageries or large scale sellers of exotic animals – and smaller working class bird shops and animal shops.” Despite the entrapment of wild animals being a hobby at the time, according to the documents the researchers came across, the middle class had a slight prejudice towards the working class animal dealers – especially those with bird shops and stalls.

“There was quite a lot of writing by middle class people who went off to look at these places to see how awful it was and how the birds were badly treated.” This disdain towards animal sellers was not reserved for those who kept birds however, as middle class buyers also preferred to buy dogs straight from breeders or dog shows as it was seen as a risk not to do so.

At the turn of the 20th Century, that began to change as not only did people’s attitudes towards animals start to shift but shop owners began to see animals as an important marketing tool. One of the most well-known retailers to take advantage of the intrigue of animals were major department stores such as Selfridges and Whiteleys which would have an animal section to get people through the doors. This ‘higher class’ method of displaying and keeping pets led to a change in how pet shops were perceived and slowly, the esteem of them were raised in people’s minds.

Further studies

Next on the research team’s agenda is to look at archived documents from Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool and compare them to their findings so far. This will all lead up to and be part of the preparation for the larger exhibition in Geffrye Museum as well as a smaller exhibition which has been planned for next spring or summer. Overall, Hamlett hopes, the outcome of the project will be that people will start to “think about pets as a more serious part of history”.

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