October this year sees the 150th anniversary of the death of Mary Tealby, the founder of what is now known as the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the first animal shelter of its kind and probably the most famous animal charity in the world.
Mary Bates was born in 1801 in Huntingdon, the eldest of three surviving children. Her father was a chemist or ‘druggist’, which usually meant a lower-class clientele, so her provincial life was probably not very privileged, though the family was able to invest in the fortunes of her younger brother, who was sent to Clare College, Cambridge, and could look forward to clerical livings. In her late twenties, and still unmarried, Mary must surely have thought that her choices were more limited. She was married, however, on her 28th birthday, to a timber merchant named Robert Chapman Tealby. This must have seemed a step up in society, and a measure of security, as the Tealbys appeared to be both prosperous as well as respectable, the family firm having a number of interests in Hull, where Robert and Mary settled down to married life.
This was an ill-fated union, however. The Tealbys were less secure in reputation and resources than they seemed. Mary’s father-in-law had divorced his first wife, marrying within weeks of the annulment a female acquaintance 30 years his junior, and in his haste to do so proving none too scrupulous about finding a legal basis for the divorce. The firm’s finances were precarious too, and Mary’s stepmother took an increasingly central role in the running of Tealby & Company. Whilst the firm survived, her own marriage did not. The couple had no children, or at least no living heirs, and at some point they must have decided to separate. Mary moved from Hull to London in the early 1850s, probably in order to nurse her ailing mother, but temporary necessity became permanent separation by 1860. Mary lived at her mother’s home, 20 Victoria Road, Holloway (the village suburb of London immortalised as the home of the Pooters). When her brother, the Reverend Edward Yates, came to join her there, all traces of her married life disappeared, save her surname (for convenience she now talked of herself as a widow).
Separation was unusual, of course, even if unhappy marriages were not, but Mary Tealby would be entirely obscure had she not been led to establish a shelter for starving dogs. We know that she had long been a supporter of the RSPCA in Hull, and continued to contribute to the work of the charity, itself only a handful of years older than her marriage. Mary took matters into her own hands, however, when confronted with a suffering dog that had been taken in by a neighbourhood friend. Mary took the dog to her own house, and tried to nurse it back to health with teaspoons of hot port wine (as recommended by a veterinary friend), though her constant care could not save the animal. The legend goes that Mary (along with her brother and her friend, Sarah Major) decided to set up a place of refuge for suffering street animals such as the one she was too late to save. As the first prospectus put it, ‘Persons walking through the streets of London or of its suburbs, can hardly fail frequently to have seen lost dogs in a most emaciated and even dying state from starvation’. The Home – we should give it its proper title, the ‘Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs’ – was established in 1860, at first in her own house and subsequently moving to some unoccupied stables in Hollingworth Street, before ending up south of the river at Battersea in 1871 (it became the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in 2002, albeit cats were admitted as far back as 1883).
This is a story of both sentimental attachment to animals who were deemed to deserve the kind of care that their lucky cousins received in the heart of the Victorian family, and at the same time of the kind of practical rescue work still sadly needed as much now as ever, and to which female philanthropists were very much to the fore. Mary Tealby and the Dogs Home were at first met with obtuse incomprehension and sarcastic derision – and indeed supporters of animal charities continue to be similarly targeted as sentimentally misguided or straightforwardly misanthropic. There is every reason to celebrate Mary Tealby’s contribution to the ripening moral conscience of Victorian Britain, and every shelter and the animals they care for owes her a debt of gratitude. She certainly deserves her successful recent nomination for an Islington People’s plaque.
Running the risk of being labelled a cynic, however, some caution is still in order about what we might think of as the authorised story of Mary Tealby’s famous legacy. Most importantly, we should note that whilst the name of a ‘Home’ was essential to the success of the venture, not everyone recognised it as a domestic haven: if it was analogous to human rescue homes, such as the various refuges and reformatories for ‘fallen’ women, or to the workhouses that cared for human ‘strays’, the domestic ethos was at best compromised. Neither prostitutes nor paupers met the fate of animals who could not be ‘restored’ to their owners (having gone astray in the city), or ‘rehomed’ to new owners. The remainder had to be put down – a decision that caused the Home’s committee (and especially its female members) much soul-searching. Of course, all open-access homes have to be ‘kill-shelters’, in the modern parlance, and Battersea was merely the pioneer or the paradox that rescue homes and shelters are the institutions that kill most dogs and cats.
The second point that needs to be clearly recognised is that the Home became an adjunct of the Metropolitan Police, and of the state, in efforts to rid the streets of dangerous, diseased, or simply unwelcome animals: ‘strays’. The Home in its early years was in a parlous situation financially, and only seems to have become truly viable when it started working with the police, receiving the dogs that they had been charged with disposing of since the passing of legislation in 1867 and 1871. The Metropolitan Police, having no love for the task, were only too happy to enter into arrangements with the Dogs’ Home, paying a subvention for the upkeep of the animals that were taken in, in the few days of grace during which they were available to be claimed or rehomed. By the late 19th century, particularly during the rabies scares, the Home was barely able to keep up with the many thousands of dogs that it needed to put down every year, even with the aid of the humane gas chambers invented by the eminent surgeon and sanitarian Benjamin Ward Richardson.
At this point, as I try to make clear in my book At Home and Astray, the Dogs’ Home fulfilled a vocation that was with hindsight inevitable: offering a domestic destiny to a happy few, whilst participating in the state-sanctioned scouring of the city’s strays – animals who could not be extended the protection that came with being property.
By then Mary Tealby was long dead. She had succumbed to cancer in 1865, and she is buried in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, in a grave shared with her beloved brother. She left very little – barely £100 probate – and her grave gives no indication of her claim upon the memory of future generations. But her history and that of the Dogs’ Home is an important part of the world we have inherited from the Victorians, on in which animals are pitied and petted, but also despised and disposed of in appalling numbers.
Gloria Costelloe, The Story of the Battersea Dogs’ Home (London: David & Charles, 1979)
Philip Howell, At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian Britain (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2015)
Garry Jenkins, A Home of Their Own: The Heart-warming 150-year History of the Battersea Dogs Home (London: Bantam, 2010)
Hilda Kean, Animal Rights: Political and Social Change in Britain Since 1800 (London: Reaktion, 1998)