Trawling through football history books over the weekend I came across a quite unusual photograph. This was in the excellent Football: The Golden Age by John Tennant.
The photo shows three men tying a mangey toy cat to a railing on a ship. One of the men is wearing a black and white rosette. They’re being watched by the ship’s captain and another crew member. The caption reads: “SS ‘Bernicia’ takes Newcastle United mascot ‘Felix’ to London for the FA Cup Final against Aston Villa, April 1924.”
The photo struck me as unusual for several reasons, the main one being that Felix is a black cat. The black cat is a mascot of Newcastle’s local rivals Sunderland. Newcastle’s traditional mascot is, of course, the magpie. So why would Newcastle fans choose a black cat as a mascot?
A bit of digging reveals a little more information about the photo. It was taken for the Topical Press picture agency, and is now held in the Getty Images archive. The Getty catalogue lists it as “Newcastle FC [sic] Mascot” and provides the description : “Newcastle United FC supporters arrive by sea for the FA Cup final against Aston Villa FC. Captain and pilot of the SS Bernicia watch the Newcastle FC Mascot ‘Felix’ being taken down.” You can see the full photo at Getty Images.
We can say exactly who ‘Felix’ is. Felix the Cat was the world’s first popular cartoon character, preceding the likes of Mickey Mouse. He appeared in a series of animated films and comic strips from 1919 onwards, and was hugely popular in the early 1920s. Felix was the first character to be licensed to appear on merchandise, and several manufacturers produced stuffed Felix toys like the one in the photograph. He became a popular mascot, for car dealers, high schools, US Navy squadrons, and even for the New York Yankees baseball team. You can read more about Felix The Cat, and watch one of his films, at Wikipedia.
So Felix was very popular, and ordinarily it would not be surprising to see that a football team had adopted him as their mascot in the 1920s. But why would the Magpies adopt a black cat, a creature associated with their greatest rivals? We know that Newcastle United were known as the Magpies from within a few years of their formation in 1892, but Sunderland’s connection with black cats is more recent.
Although Sunderland didn’t adopt the Black Cats nickname until 2000, the Wearside club does have an association to the black cat going back as far as 1909. In that year, Sunderland players adopted a stray black cat that they found in their dressing room. Portraits of the cat, adorned in red and white ribbons, became more popular among fans than portraits of the players. There’s more about this story on the Black Cats website. However, Sunderland’s initial connection to black cats seems to have been short-lived, eventually resurfacing in the 1930s.
It’s also worth pointing out that many clubs have adopted “lucky black cats” as mascots over the years, so neither Newcastle nor Sunderland could claim to be unique in this. And Felix was not the first non-magpie mascot belonging to Newcastle United. In the early 1900s, United’s popular mascot was a black and white Great Dane named Rex. There’s a picture of him in the excellent Newcastle United: The Ultimate Record. Apparently he would watch every match at St James’ Park, but once escaped from his chain and attacked the opposition team…
So why did Newcastle fans choose a black cat as a mascot? Most likely because black cats were considered lucky, Felix was incredibly popular, and black cats were not firmly associated with their local rivals at the time. (The fact that the photograph was taken on a ship is not unusual – it was a convenient way for Newcastle fans to travel to London at the time.) It’s still a fascinating photograph, though.
As a post-script it’s worth pointing out that Felix was, of course, a lucky mascot. Newcastle won the 1924 FA Cup Final, defeating favourites Aston Villa 2-0 courtesy of goals from Neil Harris and Stan Seymour, a star performance from stand-in goalkeeper Bill Bradley, and the famous offside trap perfected by Bill McCracken and captain Frank Hudspeth.
Felix the Cat has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years, but, despite his lucky charms, it seems highly unlikely that Newcastle fans will ever again adopt him as their mascot.
You can read more Newcastle United posts here, including Before St James’ Park: the origins of Newcastle United, Home ground: a wander around Newcastle’s St James’ Park and A short history of Newcastle United’s black and white stripes.
My book about the early history of Newcastle United is All With Smiling Faces.
Follow me on Twitter @paulbrownUK.