Sunday, 3 July 2011

Bisset's 'Cat Orchestra' and other performing cats.

A modern-day cat act (Image courtesy of
Bisset’s ‘Cat Orchestra’ and Other Performing Cats.

I haven’t posted about cats for a while, so to put that right here is some historical trivia about performing cats.

In the mid 18th century, Scotsman Samuel Bisset read about the success of an animal act, ‘The Thinking Horse’ and decided to have a go himself. His first foray into animal training involved a monkey who he taught to ride a pony, and dance with a dog. But Bisset astutely realised that novelty was the key to success and hit on the idea of training that least trainable of all animals – the cat!
A dulcimer (Image courtesy of

Bisset’s ‘Amazing Cat Orchestra’ soon became the talk of London; performances of cats strumming dulcimers and singing in high pitched meouws, were held at his house, and was seemingly very popular with the public.
As the ‘Eccentric Magazine’ wrote:
‘In such a city as London, these feats could not fail of making some noise, his house was every day crowded.’
In 1758 the master showman, Pinchbeck, suggested Bisset expand and hire an exhibition room in the Haymarket. ‘The Cats’ Opera’ opened with such entertainments as…. cats strumming dulcimers and mewing, a monkey dancing with a dog and a hare that walked on his back legs whilst beating a drum. This show was also a success and earnt Mr Bisset over a thousand pounds – testament to the eccentricity of the English.
image courtesy of

However not all cat acts did so well. In the following century a Danish conjurer, Pederson brought a feline act to London. The animal part of his show involved two docile cats that allowed pigeons to perch on their heads. However, the magic of the act was dispelled when Pederson naively admitted in a newspaper interview, that an important part of the act was a plentiful supply of pigeons, since his cats were no always as docile as they seemed!

Image courtesy of


  1. Bisset would be a good bit to include in a historical novel! Very amusing.

  2. Very true! I especially like the Pederson story...although not for the pigeons.
    Grace x

  3. That last picture looked just like my late Poncho! What a great post this is and love the pictures.

  4. Karen, I'm rather partial to B/W cats. My very first cat was B/W, he was called Skate (because he was a dockyard cat rescue cat = Skate is slang for a sailor.)
    Grace x

  5. Many thanks for this most interesting post! I have a close connection with Mr. Bissett and his cats -- he had quite the menagerie, including not only the cats but dancing dogs, monkeys, and a hare that beat upon a drum with its tail -- but his biggest star was Toby the original Learned Pig. I've brought Toby's story to modern readers in my novel PYG: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig, and it contains a lovely description of these felines:

    "Next came the ‘Cat opera’ in which a line of three Felines sat on silken cushions and struck at dulcimers, all the while seeming very earnestly to read the sheet-music set before them. At the same time, a series of Tom-cats would come a-caterwauling, yowling along with the music in a very tuneful manner—for Cats, at least. This opera then gave way to a brief Circus, in which cats rode a Barrel down a Rope, climbed a pole and sprang into a Net, and batted a great Wicker ball around a Ring. The Hare then beat upon the drum with his Tail ... "


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