Learning the history of the British Shorthair - The UK’s most popular pedigree cat

Rens Hageman
Rens Hageman

The British shorthair cat breed has long held the distinction of being the UK’s favourite pedigree, and they have a very long recorded history that is as fascinating as it is varied.

British shorthair cats have a fully documented history going back to the very beginnings of breed registrations in the UK - and cats of the breed were exhibited at Britain’s very first formal cat show, back in 1871.

Whether you own a British shorthair already or are considering buying one, you might well be interested in learning more about their background, origins, and the other breeds that are related to this most popular of British cats.

In this article, we will examine the history of the British shorthair cat in more detail to help you to find out more.

Early origins

The British shorthair cat breed is one of today’s few extant breeds that has a long and very well-documented modern history, but their actual origins go back even further still.

Wild native British cats have been recorded virtually as far back as records keeping began, but it was the Roman invasion of Britain that first saw the introduction of domesticated cats from outside, which subsequently interbred with our native wild cat population. This gives the British shorthair a traceable history that potentially goes back as far as the first century AD!

Today’s British shorthairs are very similar in appearance to their early ancestors, unlike many other pedigree cat breeds that have changed significantly over time, even over the course of the last few decades.

The breed’s formal beginnings

Deliberately and selectively breeding cats to produce or reinforce certain desirable traits really took off in the UK in the late 19th century, and the breed that we today call the British shorthair was produced from deliberate breeding programs to enhance and replicate the steel grey or blue coat colour that is now one of the most popular colours across the breed as a whole.

There is a lot of debate as to whether the formal beginnings of the breed occurred due to the combined efforts of several cat breeders, or just one; and British artist and cat enthusiast Harrison Weir is often, if controversially, considered to be the founding father of the modern breed.

As interest in the breed spread, the breed standard and uniformity that serves as the signature of any pedigree cat breed became established, which as mentioned, remains very much the same today.

Cat show recognition

Whilst there is some debate over how influential Harrison Weir was in founding the breed as we know it today, one thing that we do know for sure is that Britain’s very first formal cat show was organised and hosted by Weir, in 1871 at London’s Crystal Palace.

The British shorthair breed featured heavily within the show, which was hugely popular in society at the time, and led to a widespread interest in cat breeds and breeding as a whole.

However, the British shorthair almost became a victim of its own success at this point, as public demand for distinctive and deliberately bred pedigree cats resulted in the import or a variety of other breeds that are now hugely popular today too, including the fluffy, longhaired Persian.

This meant that demand for the British shorthair itself fell in the face of the competition, and by the last decade of the 19th century, the breed’s peak in popularity had already passed.

The effects of World War I and II

Whilst the public’s attention moved on from the British shorthair to some extent in the 1890’s and the first decade of the 20th century, the effect of World War I on the UK as a whole had a very acute effect on the breed, and almost led to its demise.

Many pedigree cat and dog breeds suffered during the war years when resources were scarce and hobbyist breeding fell out of fashion, and in the years following the First World War, numbers of British shorthair cats in the UK reached an all-time low.

The efforts of individual breeders and breeding programs helped to maintain the breed’s presence and replenish their numbers and it is widely accepted that cats of the Persian breed were integrated into breeding programs during this time to ensure the British shorthair’s survival.

In the years between the two World Wars, the breed’s numbers rose – only to suffer the same fate of an uncertain future again during and immediately after World War II, once more placing the breed’s entire survival at risk. Once more, concerted efforts by committed breeders and the integration of Persian, Burmese, Russian blue and other breeds into British shorthair bloodlines helped to ensure the breed’s continued presence in the UK.

The British shorthair today

In the time that has passed since the UKs’ recovery from World War II, British shorthair cats have become ever-more common and popular, to the point that they are now the UK’s most popular cat breed overall, and have been for many years.

Their tendency to good health and long life reflects the size of the breed’s gene pool and diversity, as well as the benefits of their earlier outcrossing in terms of producing hybrid vigour and helping to ensure that cats of the breed are genetically diverse.

Their modern appearance is very much in line with that of the breed’s first formal origins, being that of a cobby, rounded cat with a kind face and temperament. All of these traits help to ensure the breed’s continued popularity, and its continued survival too.

(Article source: Pets 4 Homes)

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