Something a little different on my blog this week – a break from my endless wittering, as I’ve given it over to a rather special boy called Guillermo. Guille is just eleven and lives in Santiago Compostela, in Galicia, Spain, and has been a fan of Able Seacat Simon for quite a while now – so much so that his parents brought him my book for Christmas.
Grille’s first language is Spanish, of course, but he’s pretty good at English as well; so much so that his teacher, Dominika, got in touch with me last month to ask is he could share his own Simon story with me, about which I was very touched.
I was also thrilled to learn things about Simon that I hadn’t previously known, and to see pictures of him that, in all my months of research, I hadn’t come across either. (I’ve popped them up now, on my Pinterest page.)
Anyway, whether Guille plans a career as a writer, or, perhaps, as an intrepid cat researcher, I thought I’d share his lovely story with you here. Gracias, Guille!
SIMON THE CAT
A HERO FOR GREAT BRITAIN
Able Seacat Simon was an orphan who grew up on the dockyards of Hong Kong before finding work aboard a British ship. There, he protected the crew and raised morale till his ship was attacked.
The injured were evacuated, but Simon stayed onboard even though he was badly hurt. Upon recovering, he returned to his duties for which he received awards and the gratitude of Britain.
Simon’s origin is a very intriguing mystery. Numerous scientific studies have tried to investigate his parentship. From recent genetic studies we are able to deduce that his progenitors were a Turkish Angora male, who had escaped from a house, and a street cat female, a vagabond. It’s believed that Simon was born on Stonecutter’s Island (now part of Kowloon), some time in 1947. That’s where Ordinary Seaman George Hickinbottom noticed him, near a small rice field from a private property, in March of the following year.
Hickinbottom was a 17-year-old who had joined the Navy the previous year and felt sorry for the homeless orphan, and brought him aboard the ship he served on. Unfortunately, the sailor’s rank didn’t entitle him to private quarters, but to bunk right beside the captain’s cabin.
Stationed aboard the British frigate HMS Amethyst, it was Hickinbottom’s job to make sure the ship was kept clean and that everything was in order. The sailor smuggled Simon aboard by hiding the poor waif in his shirt.
Fortunately, Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats. He also understood the value of keeping the ship’s rat population under control, but the Ordinary Seaman was not off the hook. Griffiths threatened to have the sailor up on charges if he saw any cat pooh onboard.
Thankfully, Simon was very likeable. The ship’s crew saw to it that whenever the new recruit made a mess, it didn’t stay visible for long, greatly easing Hickinbottom’s job and stress levels.
Besides catching rats on a daily basis, Simon developed a deep bond with Griffith. All the captain had to do was whistle, and Simon would come running. Then the two would make their rounds of the ship, making sure everything was in order.
Simon and his fellow crew members admiring a giant pie
The cat even gave his captain daily gifts – dumping dead and bloody rats at the man’s feet and even on his bed. And whenever the captain wasn’t wearing his cap, Simon would sleep in it.
But he never forgot his debt to George and the other men, spending time with the lower rank whenever possible. He even entertained them by fishing ice cubes from jugs of water with his paws on command.
In December, however, P/O Griffith was given a new command and felt it best to leave Simon behind. As luck would have it the new captain, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner was also a big fan of cats, even though Simon never responded to his whistles nor followed his new master around the ship.
Everything was idyllic till April 1949 when the Amethyst, that was docked in Shanghai under the protection of Colonel Jonathan Jones and his troops, was ordered to Nanking to relieve the HMS Consort. The Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communists had broken out, so the Consort had to protect the British Embassy and residents, bring the necessary supplies and be ready to evacuate the personnel if necessary.
At 8:31 AM on April 20, they were on the Yangtze River when they came under fire. Not sure who was doing the firing (probably one of the communist shore batteries at the north bank of the river), they hoisted the White Ensign and the Union Jack. Fundamental people for the ship’s company were killed during the incident: Doctor Alderton, the boat’s doctor, the First Lieutenant, and even Captain Skinner. Fortunately, the shooting stopped, and they sailed on.
Just after that, Simon disappeared from the main cabin, and was thought to be dead, to have succumbed below the Communist guns. He was found the following month lying totally unconscious in the petty officer’s quarters. His scars were very deep, his palatine bone was broken, along with his tarsus and femur, and he had a bad eye. The ship’s veterinary, sir Edmund Roberts, cured most of his injuries, ending his terrible ordeal.
After his incredible recovery, he was back on duty at the ship. During his tribulation, the ship had been infested by rats again.
The most voracious, monstrous, hideous, filthy, and atrocious rat of all, referred to as Mao-Tse Tung by the frigate’s crew members, was the head of all the rodents. During his abominable reign, he caused the most unimaginable damages in the ship’s few provisions, obtained from nationalist merchant ships, until one day he and his vassals met face to face with the rat’s worst nightmare- Simon the cat. He killed the horrible rodent and all his companions in a single strike, in a question of seconds.
After his memorable deed, he was awarded with the honourable title of sergeant and Able Sea cat, which is the feline equivalent for Able Seaman.
For relief and stabilization, the Amethyst was given a new man in charge: Lieutenant Commander John Kerans, who was considered as one of the biggest and most representative naval heroes of the British Empire. On April 1949, they were detained by Commander Kang’s men, and were anchored on the river, with the complete vigilance of a nearby sea stronghold. The days dragged on, more than two months after the original incident, with fierce heat and humidity, no relief in sight, and dwindling supplies of everything, including fuel. At times the boilers had to be shut down to conserve fuel, so there was no ventilation and no refrigeration. Even Simon started to wilt, although he continued with his duties and his rounds, helping, with the ship’s terrier dog Peggy, to keep up the crew’s flagging spirits. The ship’s telegraphist, Jack French, along with Lieutenant Rein, was trying to send messages to the citadel that had control of the river, residence of Lieutenant General Simon Bell; but there was no response. Then there was a typhoon; Simon was kept shut to avoid the possibility of losing him, and slept through it all in the captain’s cabin. Amethyst survived again, but rations and fuel were becoming desperately scarce. Kerans decided he had to make a dash for it while it was still possible.
So, on the night of 30 July 1949, Amethyst left under cover of darkness and after a further series of adventures and more damage from Communist guns on shore, made it to the open sea, to be met by HMS Concord. The ordeal was over, after 101 days.
Upon arrival at Hong Kong, Simon was out of sight, yet again. Lt Cdr Kerans sent Able Seaman John Persephone and Lt Sgt Richard Herbert Scott to find the precious cat, but with no luck. Subsequently, Simon strolled back on board.
The cat was withered in his left paw and back. A few days later, he had an awfully elevated temperature and severe gastroenteritis. He was stationed in an undersized and scruffy cabin, belonging previously to the old ship’s captain ,P/O Skinner and rested there until their return to England, where he was going to be presented with the Dickn’ medal.
The medal presentation was set for 11 December, but regrettably it did not occur.
Simon was immediately sheltered in the PDSA’S veterinary clinic, where he was examined by professional veterinary Bernard Timothy Johnson, who qualified him as sick kitten.
Cards, letters and flowers began to arrive at the quarantine shelter by the truckload. In November 1950, he was visited by Admiral Sir Robert Buxton in the Animal Clinic. He was awarded with the Royal Navy’s Medal of Honour, and given a special uniform, with an officer’s cap and frills. The following day he was found by Timothy lying lifeless on his canopy. Soon, his death was announced in all England, and letters from the duke of Wellington, the count of Baltimore, the duke of Clarence and even from His Majesty King George VII were sent to the poor Timothy and captain Kerans.
As his biographer Lord Ronald Duncan wrote:
. . . the spirit of Simon slipped quietly away to sea.
Lt Cdr Kerans and the crew were devastated; and Father Henry Ross, rector of St.Augustine’s church, held a long and elaborate ceremony and procession, after which Simon was buried with naval honours, Following the burial, a marble marker was placed, with the inscription: