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Sir Jethro Justinian Harris Teall

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan* reports on how one geological museum dodged the austerity measures and clubbed together to preserve an essential service.

Geoscientist 20.11 November 2010

With government spending cuts looming museum directors are faced with some difficult decisions about how to reduce spending while still maintaining essential services. This sort of situation is far from unique. In his book A Hand Through Time, Edward Greenly, a geologist who enjoyed a long career with the Geological Survey that included some memorable mapping experiences with the Scottish Survey in the late 19th century with Benjamin Peach and John Horne in the NW Highlands, describes how Sir Jethro Justinian Harris Teall, director of the Geological Survey from 1901 – 1914, handled just such a sensitive situation.

The victim threatened by the funding cuts was a valued member of staff – the Museum Cat. Described by Greenly as ‘black, silent and solemn’ and with ‘great green eyes’ the Museum Cat was employed to keep down the mouse and rat population in the now vanished Geological Survey Museum on Jermyn Street in London. The Cat’s office was, wrote Greenly, not a sinecure. “Lunch is taken in the building, crumbs are dropped, and stores are kept, mice and rats would soon invade. He [the cat] accordingly, is a Civil Servant: H.M.M.C. = His Majesty’s Museum Cat. Nor does he work without salary: among the regular pay-bills presented to the Chief is the pay-bill of the Cat.

As the result of an economy drive, Greenly reports with some regret, that the British Government ‘defaulted’ when it came to paying the bill. “I was told by Teall of a ‘minute’ from the Treasury: owing, it ran, to the heavy cost of the war in south Africa, the salary of the Cat could not be paid."

Sacking the Cat was unthinkable, he continues. But fortunately Teall came up with an alternative solution. Teall "appealed to the whole of the Staff" Greenly reveals, "and the [Cat’s] salary was subscribed for the remainder of the war, after which the Government discharged once more its obligations". Purrfect!

There must be a lesson for Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Clegg - or maybe the rest of us - here somewhere.


The story of the Museum Cat appears in A Hand through Time: Memories – Romantic and Geological; Studies in the Arts and Religion; and the grounds of Confidence in Immortality, by Edward Greenly, (in two volumes) Thomas Murby & Co. 1938
  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG). For more information and to read the latest HOGG Newsletter visit the HOGG website at: A HOGG conference on Geological Collectors and collecting is planned for 4-5 April 2011 at the Natural History Museum, London. To receive further information and announcements about the conference, E:
  • Geological museums and collections will be one of the discussion points at the HOGG conference on Geological Collectors and collecting to be held on 4-5 April 2011 at the Natural History Museum, London. To receive further information and announcements about the conference, E: