Pets and Family Life in England and Wales, 1837-1939

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: History


In Britain today, pets are often at the heart of family life, but we know relatively little about the roles they played in families in the past. This project will be the first systematic study of the relationships between families and their cats, dogs and other companion animals in British history. Our aim is to track the changing position of animals in the home, in relation to broader shifts in family life, including transformations in size, relationships, intimacy, housing and living conditions that took place between the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Pets played a powerful emotional role in the everyday lives of individuals and families and their presence constituted an important part of domestic life. Often considered peripheral, these creatures have a great deal to tell us about the changing behaviours of families, new emotional configurations and everyday practices. Our project aims to investigate the position of pets in the family, in relation to shifting authority structures, hierarchies and relationships, and changing built environments and domestic routines.

So far, pets have attracted the attention of scholars who point to their increasing presence in Victorian society, and the broader social and ethical significance of the treatment of animals. But we know much less about their role in family life. The research for the project comprises a major new archival survey, focusing on the cultural representation of pets and families, consumption and the growing market for pet-related products, and their everyday presence. The archival research will be divided into three sections. Firstly, we will consider how pets figured in the contemporary imagination, by tracking their changing cultural representation by looking at artwork and illustrations, novels, and popular print culture. Secondly, we will survey how pets were bought and sold and the new things that were created for them, looking at advice literature and surviving material objects, examining the expansion in specialist products such as food, collars and toys. Finally, we will look at how they figured in the everyday lives of families, carrying out a large-scale survey of personal documents including diaries, letters and photographs. Our sources will also include oral histories and court records, allowing us to build up a picture of pet keeping in families from a range of social backgrounds. To gain an overview of differences in pet-keeping practices across the nation, our research focuses on key locations in England and Wales, the urban centres of Cardiff, Liverpool and London, as well as the rural north west.

The project will generate new historical research and interpretation, substantially advancing knowledge in this area and transforming interpretations of the family and domesticity in social and cultural history. A significant part of the project will be concerned with engaging with audiences beyond academia and taking forward a public history agenda. Working together with The Bishopsgate Institute and the National Trust Hardman House, institutions that hold signifcant but underdeveloped collections of pet photography, we will create physical and digital exhibitions and a series of events allowing us to interact closely with members of the public. We will also collaborate with Pets as Therapy, contemporary practioners with a significant stake in the emotional role played by pets.

Planned Impact

This project intersects with key trends in British society and culture today. Recent years have seen an upsurge in admissions to animal shelters, suggesting pets are often casualties in an economic recession. Yet the establishment of animal food banks indicates that the plight of animals readily imagined as 'pets' continues to sway public sympathies. There is a significant cultural interest in animals, evidenced by a wealth of popular publications including John Bradshaw's critically acclaimed books on cats and dogs. Human-pet relationships are a staple of TV documentaries (e.g. Louis Theroux's City of Dogs (2014); The Wonder of Dogs (2013); The Secret Life of Cats (2014)). There has also been an expansion in pet consumer culture in the last twenty years, with large stores such as Pets at Home springing up on the edges of British towns and cities. All this demonstrates a marked public interest in pets, making it an excellent area in which to pursue greater public engagement with the study of the past in an academic context, and opening up opportunities for interaction between the two.

We intend to pursue this by working with individuals and institutions with a stake in the field. We will work closely with institutions that hold significant collections of archival material relating to pets -- The London-based Bishopsgate Institute (which preserves the Libby Hall Archive of dog and cat photography) and the National Trust (the Hardman House in Liverpool holds a large collection of pet photographs) have both agreed to collaborate with us on a programme of public engagement activities, exhibitions and displays. We will work with these institutions to develop a broader understanding of the significance of their collections, and help them convey these to users. Our collaboration with the Hardman House will consist of the development of an exhibition of pet photographs (both on site at the House and in a digital version), a lecture and workshop for National Trust visitors, and a pack that NT volunteers can use to help them interpret the pet images. Our work with the Bishopsgate will include a pop-exhibition, a guide to the Libby Hall collection, a session with school children, and an interactive knowledge exchange event for adults using the Hall archive, engaging current interest in family history and contextualising current pet practices. From the start of the project we will build up a strong internet profile, aimed at both academic and public users. We will establish a twitter account and blog for the project, which will be used as a platform for direct interaction with public users during and after the knowledge exchange event. We will use our research as a means of collaborating with institutions and transferring knowledge to interested members of the public, but we would also use the interactive activities to gain a stronger understanding of what our research means to audiences beyond academia. This would feed into the development of funding bids for engagement and mpact projects beyond the life span of this research grant.

We would also work directly with Pets as Therapy - a charity who make use of the emotional role of pets in British society today. PAT is a community based charity providing therapeutic visits to hospitals, hospices, nursing and care homes, special needs schools and a variety of other establishments from volunteers with their pet dogs and cats. We would work in conjunction with Lisa Coles (Chief Executive of PAT) to produce a one-day workshop in Manchester on the affective qualities of human-animal relationships. This event will be open to academic and non-academic audiences. Working with the Media Officer at Manchester, we would draw on contacts with the BBC at Media City to generate local and national media interest in the event and themes addressed.


10 25 50
Description Pet Histories Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact At the beginning of the project we set up a blog and twitter feed to share some of our early research finds with other researchers, students, interested third party organisations and the general public. As of March 6th 2017 the blog had had 1,405 views and 568 visitors and the project twitter feed @pethistories had 260 followers. At the moment the main impact of this has been increased contact with other researchers and interested members of the public, and we intend to use our social media platforms as a basis for further engagement activities over the course of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
Description Pets and Family Life in England and Wales, 1837-1939 Project Launch 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A launch event was held for the project which was aimed at academics in the field, the general public, third sector organisations and postgraduate and undergraduate students. The launch featured a talk from dog history expert Philip Howell on the history of pets and was followed by a reception. 70 people signed up on Eventbrite to attend the event and links were established with third sector organisations including the Royal Veterinary College, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and Palgrave Macmillan.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017