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Mark Olly is a Cheshire writer and archaeologist who runs the Celtic Warrington Project Archaeological Unit. You can read about Mark's work in the 'Celtic Warrington & Other Mysteries' volumes.




Mark Olly

  The Cheshire Cat
Grinning Cat

High on the front wall of Birkenhead Priory, towards the end by the
original entrance arch connecting cloisters to church (now completely destroyed), there is the face of a grinning cat, a small gargoyle with characteristically pointed ears that gazes down on all who have entered the site since it was first established in about 1150 AD.

Birkenhead Priory Cat

Birkenhead Priory was founded by Hamo De Mascy, the founder and builder of the estates and hall at Dunham Massey and one possible source postulated for the story of 'Gawaine And The Green Knight'.

Another carved Medieval cat can be found on the front of the buildng which covers the holy well of St. Winefrid at Holywell.

"To grin like a Cheshire polecat"

Who knows how many more of these representations may have existed on these and other ruined Medieval sites along the Wirral, Mersey Valley and into Cheshire and Staffordshire ? One thing is certain, this motif still appears often enough to suppose that all Cheshire sites once featured it along with other 'standards' such as the 'Green Man', 'Dragons', 'Kings and Queens' and 'Gargoyles'.

The Cheshire Cat in the Lewis Carroll windo, Daresbury Church

Over the last few centuries a view developed that the cats in Cheshire were so tickled by the thought that it was a County Palatine, (a County with some measure of independent ecclesiastical and civil government) that they couldn't help but grin when they thought of it. If this was the case then they stopped grinning in 1830 when the Palatine administration structures came to an end and positively cried when the designation 'Palatine' was finally dropped in 1974 !

This may also have been connected in some way to the local saying recorded last century in 'Stockport Notes And Queries': "To grin like a Cheshire polecat" (Cheshire polecats being quite large, wild and very independent in former times). In days gone by it is said that Cheshire cheese was sold to visitors in edible cat-shaped pieces with bristles introduced for whiskers - was this a symbol of Cheshire's former glorious independence.

Tatton Park

The large Cheshire family of Egerton, connected to Tatton Park and Arley Hall, have a rather feline looking Syrian lion on their coat of arms which used to be painted on the signs of Cheshire inns owned or identified with the family and their workers. The African lion has a mane but the Syrian does not, consequently it is thought that rather talentless sign painters depicted it as a cat with an inscrutable smile which developed into the 'Cheshire cat'.

This same process of evolution was also said to have taken place with regard to many inn signs and other heraldic carvings depicting lions, leopards and the arms of the City of Chester which contain the 'Lions of England', body side on but face turned towards the onlooker very much in attitude like the 'Cheshire cat'.

The first writer to enshrine the 'Cheshire cat' in a written comosition was not in fact Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) but Peter Pindar (John Walcot M.D.) who wrote the words: "Lo ! like a Cheshire cat our court will grin" between 1794 and 1801.

Lewis Carroll
And finally to Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat. "Cheshire Puss", she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. "Come, it's pleased so far," thought Alice, and she went on, "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to walk from here ?"

The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born at the Old Parsonage (now demolished) in Newton-by-Daresbury, Cheshire, on the 27th of January 1832, five years after his father (also the Rev. Charles Dodgson) had taken up his post there as vicar of Daresbury.

In 1843 the family moved to Croft near Darlington where Charles junior attended school at Rugby. He later obtained a First Class B.A. in Mathematics in 1854 followed by an M.A. in 1857 (his first book was on advanced mathematics) going on to be ordained a deacon in 1861. He never proceeded to priest's orders as he spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing at Oxford and wrote a substantial part of Alice's adventures while on holiday in Llandudno. He died at Guildford in Essex on January the 14th 1898, just before his sixty-sixth birthday.

Left: Lewis Carroll kneels with Alice behind him in Daresbury Church

In the 'Wonderland' series, under the pseudonym 'Lewis Carroll', he published 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland' in 1865, 'Songs From Alice's Adventures In Wonderland' in 1870 and 'Through The Looking Glass And What Alice Found There' in 1872.

The 'Cheshire cat' first appears in "Pig And Pepper", Chapter VI of 'Alice's Adventures In Wonderland', playing what today would be called in the movies a 'bit part' or a 'link'. It simply acts as a sort of 'sign post' from the kitchen of the Duchess to the madness of the Mad Hatter's tea party.

Today the 'Wonderland Cheshire cat' lives on in the bottom right hand panel of the 'Lewis Carroll Memorial Window' (installed in Daresbury All Saints Church in 1932 on the Centenary of his birth) peering happily out from oak tree foliage between the Knave and Queen of Hearts, over who's head can just be seen the tiny circular spider's web which became the trade mark of Lewis Carroll.

"All right," said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone."

43 Bath Street, Leek, Staffs. (01538) 399033.

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