How to build a boarding cattery (Part 1)

With borrowed money, we built the largest private boarding cattery in the whole of England. It came about as the result of a single phone call from a person who wanted me to give his young son private music lessons.

At that time, in addition to playing in the bands at night and teaching music at schools in Stockport, I had accepted a few private pupils, and when I received the phone call I nearly turned this new pupil down. I had enough to do, and he lived miles away in Sale. However, it was difficult to refuse any extra income, and so in many ways I’m glad I accepted the offer, as it directly lead us to opening our own boarding cattery which is still operating after some fifty years, and has provided a good income for all of the family. But, of course, there were many difficulties along the way.

It was 1968 when I gave young Mitch his first lesson. His parents owned a large, popular boarding kennels and cattery in Sale, and one day I was talking to his father, and casually asked him how many dogs and cats he had in. “Well at the moment”, he said, “we have about thirty-five dogs and about twelve cats”.

On my way home it struck me that he was earning a lot more than me. I realised something was amiss. If we were to swap jobs for a day, I could easily feed and look after animals, but he would obviously be unable to do any of my work as a musician and tutor. And so the idea of our escape from poverty was born.

Driving home, I thought of the difficulties of dog boarding, and decided that, for a number of reasons, it would be better just to board cats, and so I put the idea to Mary. Imagine her Scottish accent when she replied “Och, noo! I’m no’ cleaning out after cats!”. However, after I had explained that I would do all the basic work and she could just prepare the food, deal with customers and take the money, it suddenly seemed more attractive to her. She agreed to think about it, but to consider that in our present circumstances it would be a huge challenge. But I had permission to go ahead with it and see what I could do.

And so, with Mary’s promise of support, I set about considering how it could all be achieved. ‘Probably with great difficulty’ was the answer: we had no money, lived in a small, mortgaged terraced house with only a back yard to work in, and no business experience at all.

It seemed a shame to leave the house where I had done so much work modernising it, even to the extent of making fitted wardrobes in the bedroom with a design that exactly matched the new bedroom door. One day when Mary had been ill, the doctor, having completed his examination, said “Cheerio” and walked straight into the wardrobe, which cheered Mary up more than any medicine as she couldn’t stop laughing.

Anyway, the first thing seemed to be to visit a few catteries and learn as much as possible. Secondly, a fact-finding tour of various vets’ seemed a good plan. So, a couple of weeks later, armed with fresh knowledge, I sat down and worked out the initial details.

Firstly, we would need to borrow enough money for a secluded house with a large garden and parking space, and then some extra money to build the cattery. This was to be my first challenge. I spent some time writing down my requirements and ideas, polished my shoes, put on a tie, sacrificed my long hair at the barbers, and went to Stockport to find the bank that looked the least hostile. Eventually, I chose The Midland, where the manager was a man called Mr. Kennedy.

He listened to my proposals, and surprised me by saying that the kennels where I taught Mitch actually banked at his branch — a happy coincidence, since they were some fifteen miles away. He quickly warmed to my enthusiasm (I even got a cup of tea) and, against his better judgement, agreed to the loan. I was over the moon, and I immediately phoned Mary with the great news that the first problem seemed to have been solved. But I was immediately brought back down to Earth when Mary said, “So how many thousands of pounds are we going to be in debt if we don’t make a success of it?”. I was stuck for an answer, but I did notice that she said “we“, and that was the only encouragement I needed to carry on.

Now that we had the promise of a loan, the next obvious thing to do was to find a suitable house. One of the benefits of boarding only cats is their relative quietness compared with barking dogs, so we could open in the centre of a community surrounded by people who own cats. And so the search started.

Of course, it proved to be rather difficult to find a property already for sale that fitted our needs for a small, secluded, detached house with a large, sheltered garden and a large space for parking, all in the centre of a community. Another problem was finding the time to go searching, due to the facts that our son, David, was only fourteen, Mary didn’t drive, and I was still doing three jobs. However, search we did, but despite unearthing some interesting places, we came up with nothing.

In my optimistic anticipation of eventual success I spent some spare moments working out lists of requirements, designing brochures and so on, and for a little relaxation, I also wrote a poem to advertise the cattery (which is still in our brochures today):

A cat can mean so very much,
A friend in every way.
Its little life depends on you,
For love and food each day.
But once a year, or even more,
You leave it on its own,
So bring it to our cattery,
Where it’s just like home from home

Several weeks passed, until one evening when David, who had been out on his bike with a friend, came rushing back to us excitedly, saying that he had found the ideal house in Cheadle Hulme. By now, it was getting late, but because of David’s insistence we all got into the car and David showed us the way. Arrigin at the ‘For Sale’ notice, we saw a house at the end of the avenue with an area at the front large enough for four cars to be parked — a good start! By now it was dusk, but David wanted to show us the garden and so, feeling like burglars, we opened the side gate and saw a secluded garden that stretched for a long way. It had high hedges, and was not overlooked by any neighbours. It seemed ideal! Well done, David.

Not much sleep that night, for I was far too excited. I planned to be at the estate agents the moment they opened the next morning. I was up early and left in plenty of time. “Good luck, do your best”, said Mary. And then it was nine o’clock, and I was standing outside the estate agents, reading on the door that they didn’t open until nine-thirty. An anxious half-hour pacing up and down the pavement followed, the the doors to our future opened, and I walked in.