A true short story of the rescue of a tiny kitten from a storm drain by the RSPCA and a resourceful council worker named Bert.
I was on my hands and knees at a kerb side with my ear to the opening of a storm drain in a quiet side street in north London called Colebrooke Row. Two solemn nuns from a nearby convent were standing over me watching intensely at my antics and our little tableau was understandably attracting some quizzical looks from passing pedestrians. The nuns were the reason I was in this position as they thought they had heard the sound of a cat mewing echoing up from the drain. The drain in question was a large storm drain built into the kerb and two of the metal bars that should have been protecting the opening were missing. Being called out to such unusual situations was part and parcel of my job as an RSPCA emergency service officer in the early 1970’s working for a small specialist unit tasked with coming to the aid of trapped and distressed animals all over Greater London at night and weekends.
I made some silly noises to try and evoke a response, as one does in these situations and I was immediately answered by the pathetic, unmistakably muffled cries of a cat. I put my arm into the drain and found that the pipe went for about a foot or so in a horizontal direction and then disappeared down a vertical pipe and I could only presume that the cat must have slid down this part of the pipe. I got up and looked around for inspiration. The two nuns looked at me expectantly and I gave them a nonchalant confident smile, as though I was confronted with such a situation every day and knew exactly what to do.
‘How on earth are you going to get the poor thing out?’ asked one of the nuns.
‘That is a very good question to which I do not have an answer at this very moment’.
‘But you will be able to save it, won’t you?’
‘I will certainly do everything I can. There is a metal cover here in the pavement and lifting this might help us so I’ll try and find out who is responsible for it’. I said.
I informed them that I was popping round to Islington Town Hall to see who was responsible for the drain. The Town Hall was only round the corner and I was there in a few minutes. I was greeted by a good looking, smiling receptionist who was both surprised and concerned to hear of the plight of the cat. She got on the telephone immediately and within minutes she had arranged for someone from the sewerage and drainage department to come along as soon as possible. I thanked her profusely and went back to the two Nuns giving them the good news. The receptionist was as good as her word and only twenty minutes later a huge Drainage Department van pulled up. Four men jumped out, led by a portly gentleman who introduced himself as Bert the foreman. Now Bert was the quintessential salt of the earth, rough and ready, no nonsense East End worker and union man to boot. He was probably not the type of man to get on the wrong side of, but he was jolly, resourceful and sincere and took over the situation straight away, once he was convinced that there was a “situation”.
‘Right lads, let’s have a bit o’ hush so I can see if this ‘ere cat is really ‘ere.’ He had some difficulty getting on his hands and knees and after a few bizarre cat imitations he too heard the mewing.
‘He’s in there lads,’ he beamed, proud that his cat imitation had elicited a response, but then realising the seriousness of the situation his face turned to concern. He stood contemplating for a while obviously assessing the situation. To his credit he was soon to move heaven and half of Colebrooke Row in his quest to rescue the poor bleedin’ cat. He was quick to point out that he wasn’t a great fan of cats but he couldn’t leave the “poor beggar” to die. In fact, the cat soon became an obsession with him.
I stood there while his three mates all took turns to make equally bizarre cat noises and in an effort to hurry things up I asked Bert what we could do to rescue the cat.
‘It won’t take long mate. See the pipe runs horizontal like for a foot or so before dropping straight down and the cat is probably in the horizontal bit. Easy it is’.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had already checked that part of the pipe with my arm and the cat was further down. Bert got onto his hands and knees with some difficulty and thrust his arm in as I had done.
‘E’s not in there – must have slid down the vertical pipe,’ he announced.
‘What now?’ I asked.
‘We’ll just have ta lift the top plate orf and we’ll be able to see right down the pipe. Get us the key, Jack mate,’ he said full of confidence.
The iron cover was duly removed and everyone cracked their heads as they leaned forward at the same time to gaze down into the pipe. I was imagining it would be wide, but it was only some six inches in diameter. Bert borrowed my torch and soon discovered there was no sign of the cat.
‘Poor beggar must have slipped right into the blinking sewer,’ he exclaimed.
There followed what was to become the ritual of the whole rescue with each of the workmen taking turns to look into the pipe, exclaim and swear and then enter into a convoluted discussion.
‘What does this mean?’ I asked.
‘It means it’s time for a cuppa and a little conflab”, answered Bert,” Put the kettle on Harry.’
I stood incredulous as they all trooped into the back of their van, which was the size of a removal lorry. I was soon to realise that you could not hurry this lot and to keep on the right side of them it was wise not to try. At their insistence, I joined them in the back of the lorry and I was amazed to see that it was kitted out like a caravan, with bunks, table and chairs and a fully equipped kitchen. A home from home as Bert put it. I soon had a mug of tea in my hand. The nuns came out to enquire about the progress of the rescue and Bert became very reverent and toned his language down while he explained what was happening. He then turned to me.
‘Sorry about the delay mate, but this ‘ere needs some discussion like as it’s going to be difficult.’
‘Cat could be anywhere if it’s reached the sewer,’ commented one of the men.
‘Nah, it can’t be too far or we couldn’t hear it,’ said another
‘Good point, but how we going to get it without digging up ‘alf the road,’ pondered Bert.
‘How about approaching from the sewer?’ I asked hopefully, with visions of wading through huge dank tunnels filled with rats and God knows what.
‘Pipe’s only a couple of feet wide down there.’
There were a few minutes of silence while everyone gave the problem serious consideration. Bert broke the silence.
‘Nah, it’s no good. We’ll have to dig up the road where the pipe goes down,’ he said.
‘You are willing to do that?’ I asked.
‘No choice as far as I can see’.
‘Surely it will take ages to do that?’
‘No problem,’ he laughed. ‘We only unblock drains. We don’t do major digging. I’ll have to call in contractors for that with a digger, so it’s no skin off our nose.’
He said it would take time to arrange things with his boss, so I left them to another cup of tea and went off to do some other jobs, which were piling up. When I returned, I found two men setting up a pneumatic drill with Bert pacing up and down trying to estimate the precise spot to drill down. One of the contractors was none too happy and downright hostile about having to drill a hole to rescue a cat. This was not going down too well with Bert and when, at one point, the contractor commented about leaving the cat there to die, Bert rankled and had to be restrained from almost thumping the man. But he was soon placated with another cuppa, but from then on the atmosphere between the two sets of workmen was rather frosty to say the least.
Bert had judged the position of the pipe perfectly and the contractors soon broke through and he put down his umpteenth cup of tea, having earlier taken great pleasure in not offering the contractors a cup. Pieces of rubble and debris had fallen down the pipe as the drill broke through. The contractors climbed out for a smoke, while Bert and I peered down the pipe. Bert gave the contractors a murderous look and swore at them for not being more careful as the bottom of the pipe was full of rubble. He called for silence and repeated his cat imitations to which there was no reply. In fact none of us had heard the cat since that first encounter. Bert was obviously seriously concerned and looked at me gravely.
‘What next?’ I asked.
He explained that the vertical pipe dropped six foot before making a right-angled turn and running horizontally again to the sewer. He presumed the cat was at the bottom covered in rubble or had taken fright and entered the sewer. We were all very despondent, but we did our best to gently remove what rubble we could reach. At this point the boss of the contractors arrived and they announced they were off to lunch. Bert was livid at them “running out on us” and after some heated words he managed to talk one of them into staying to help. Soon after, the Borough Surveyor turned up to see what had been tying up one of his team all morning. Although he was very sorry to hear of the plight of the cat, he said he could not afford to have our efforts continue much longer. He told Bert that the drain had to be cleared and repaired regardless of whether the cat was alive or dead. He ordered that a bucket of water should be poured down the pipe to try and clear it and a very solemn Bert climbed into the hole and with a heavy heart he poured the water into the hole. Harry appeared with an industrial size plunger and proceeded to ram it up and down the hole a few times before removing it with a loud squelch.
Then everything seemed to happen at once. Harry literally vaulted out of the hole with a loud cry and landed at our feet almost giving Bert a seizure. It was several seconds before Harry could tell us the reason for his athletic feat. Apparently as he removed the plunger, the suction had drawn a tiny kitten half way up the pipe. The unexpected shock of seeing the bedraggled kitten had frightened him into his backward flip. We all made a mad scramble to look down the pipe before Bert shouted at us to get out of the hole as we were kicking more debris down. We could all definitely hear the faint pitiful cries and Bert carefully peered down.
‘Well I’ll be blowed, it’s a bleedin’ miracle. E’s still alive. I can see his little head!’
He was almost overcome with emotion as he climbed out to let me have a look and I half expected him to do a jig in celebration. I peered down and every few seconds the head of what must be a tiny kitten appeared at the bend of the pipe trying valiantly to climb up before sliding back and disappearing. There were smiles all round. Unfortunately, the kitten was still six feet underground at the bottom of a narrow pipe. For the first time Bert was getting anxious.
‘It will take hours to dig down that far even if we were allowed to,’ he moaned.
‘I have an idea,’ I said and everyone looked round expectantly.
I went to my van and returned with a dog grasper - a hollow pole with a rope through it forming a loop at the end. It looks a cruel implement, but if used correctly it was a godsend for handling unfriendly animals. It had been in use since the First World War, when an RSPCA Inspector came up with the simple idea in 1917 to rescue animals from beneath debris, following a Zeppelin bombing raid on Silvertown in the London Dock area and it has proved a very useful tool ever since.
‘It's not long enough, but if we could attach an extra bit of handle and rope I might reach down and hopefully we can get it round the kitten and pull it up,’ I suggested. This idea was greeted with enthusiasm.
‘Good idea!’ exclaimed Bert ‘Harry, get some tape and a broom handle from the van.’
Harry disappeared into the van and appeared a few seconds later carrying a broom and a roll of thick tape.
‘Like the boy scouts we are,’ smiled Bert.
Harry broke the broom-head off the handle and with the help of Bert managed to strap the handle to the pole. Jack appeared with a length of thin cord and attached it. We now had a pole long enough to poke down the pipe. Everyone was getting very excited, but we still had some problems. When I laid headfirst in the hole and gently put the pole down the pipe I couldn’t pull the rope at the same time. Harry volunteered to pull the rope from above me, but he couldn’t see when the kitten had its’ head through the loop.
‘I'll tell you what, I will shout when the kitten has its head through the loop and you can give the rope a tug,’ I told Harry.
But Harry was worried that if he pulled the rope too strongly he would strangle the kitten. It was by now though a do or die situation as the Borough Surveyor was keen to stop the operation and we were all getting affected by the plaintive cries of the kitten far below. The first few attempts were a failure, as the tentative reactions of Harry, who was now paranoid about strangling the kitten, were not quick enough. A very nervous Bert hovered above us giving us encouragement, but it was very tense. The kitten’s head kept appearing and disappearing, but finally the kitten grabbed the rope with its little paw and clung on. I shouted, Harry gave a tug and the rope closed round the kitten’s leg and neck. I screamed to Harry to pull up the pole as quickly as he could which he did. A hissing sodden kitten flew past my head and I scrambled out of the hole and pounced on it. I held the poor little thing to my chest. It was absolutely terrified and tried to scratch me and escape. I quickly put it in a basket that I had optimistically placed next to the hole in readiness. The poor creature was almost unrecognisable as a kitten. Its fur was plastered to its skinny body and large eyes, which appeared totally out of proportion to its body looking like an alien bug-eyed creature, peered round at us. Bert was in raptures and stood shaking his head and for the umpteenth time said “It’s a bleedin’ miracle, that’s wot it is”.
Everyone flopped to the ground around the basket overcome by the emotional exhaustion of the last few minutes. I sat there for a while so that everyone could watch and make comforting noises to the kitten they had just expended so much time and energy to rescue. I thought it was only right they should be able to revel in the moment. As I returned to my van with the kitten I looked over my shoulder to see Bert excitedly and profanely holding forth about the last few moments of our incredible rescue. Looking down at the poor disorientated and shaking kitten I could only wonder at the determination and endurance most animals have in wishing to survive. It was these little scenarios which made doing my job so satisfying and enjoyable. The kitten, once dried out and fed, did survive and went on to lead a long life thanks to the devoted efforts of Bert and his crew.