The Rats of London

12 March 2011

The rat who inhabited the sewers and basements of Victorian London was bigger, meaner, and generally better adapted to urban life than his predecessor. The brown rat, or Norway rat, arrived in England during the 18th century and quickly supplanted the native black rat; a smaller, arboreal species that was ill-equipped to stand up for itself. “The large grey rats,” wrote naturalist Charles Fothergill in 1813, “having superior bodily powers…would easily conquer and destroy their black opponents wherever they could be found, and whenever they met to dispute the title of possession or of sovereignty.”

Not only did the brown rat usurp his English counterpart, Fothergill writes, but he was also a bloodthirsty tyrant in his conduct toward his own species, and an all-around bad family man:

The male rat has an insatiable thirst for the blood of his own offspring; the female, being aware of this passion, hides her young in such secret places as she supposes likely to escape notice or discovery, till her progeny are old enough to venture forth and stand upon their own energies; but, notwithstanding this precaution, the male rat frequently discovers them, and destroys as many as he can; nor is the defence of the mother any very effectual protection, since she herself sometimes falls a victim to her temerity and her maternal tenderness.

Besides this propensity to the destruction of their own offspring, when other food fails them, rats hunt down and prey upon each other with the most ferocious and desperate avidity, inasmuch as it not unfrequently happens, in a colony of these destructive animals, that a single male of more than ordinary powers, after having overcome and devoured all competitors with the exception of a few females, reigns the sole bloody and much-dreaded tyrant over a considerable territory, dwelling by himself in some solitary hole, and never appearing abroad without spreading terror and dismay even amongst the females whose embraces he seeks.

Fothergill supposed that it was only an innate propensity for cannibalism and infanticide that prevented the brown rat population from exploding out of control and rendering “the whole surface of the earth…a barren and hideous waste…against which man himself would contend in vain.”

Clearly, this is something of an exaggeration, drawn from accounts of rats living under distressed conditions; as the inhabitants of London, rodent and otherwise, often did. Under ordinary circumstances the brown rat prefers cereals and grains to the viscera of his offspring, though he is also an accomplished predator, known to feed upon frogs and salamanders, spiders and insects, fish, mollusks, and even poultry. Under extraordinary circumstances, however, he is known to go too far:

One night in August—the night of a very heavy storm, which, maybe, you may remember, sir—I was sent for by a medical gent as lived opposite the Load of Hay, Hampstead, whose two children had been attacked by rats while they was sleeping in their little cots. I traced the blood, which had left lines from their tails, through the openings in the lath and plaster, which I follered to where my ferruts come out of, and they must have come up from the bottom of the house to the attics. The rats gnawed the hands and feet of the little children. The lady heard them crying, and got out of her bed and called to the servant to know what the child was making such a noise for, when they struck a light, and then they see the rats running away to the holes; their little night-gownds was kivered with blood, as if their throats had been cut. I asked the lady to give me one of the night-gownds to keep as a cur’osity, for I considered it a phee-nomenon, and she give it to me, but I never was so vexed in all my life as when I was told the next day that a maid had washed it. I went down the next morning and sterminated them rats. I found they was of the specie of rat which we term the blood-rat, which is a dreadful spiteful feller—a snake-headed rat, and infests the dwellings. There may have been some dozens of ’em altogether, but it’s so long ago I a’most forget how many I took in that house. The gent behaved uncommon handsome, and said, ‘Mr. Black, I can never pay you for this;’ and ever arterwards, when I used to pass by that there house, the little dears when they see me used to call out to their mamma, ‘O, here’s Mr. Ratty, ma!’ They were very pretty little fine children—uncommon handsome, to be sure.

Jack Black, Rat-catcher and Mole-destroyer to Queen Victoria, 1851

Jack Black, Rat-catcher and Mole-destroyer to Queen Victoria, 1851

The heroic Mr. Black was none other than Jack Black, rat-catcher and mole destroyer to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. If you were a rat in mid-century London, this was your nemesis. “Moist as rabbits, and quite as nice,” was how he described the rats he cooked for his own consumption. Sewer rats, he insisted, were just as good as barn rats, if you gave them a few days’ chase before killing them.

Rat-catching was a regular profession among London’s poor, allowing one to leverage a childhood spent peeking under floorboards and playing with filthy animals into a full and rewarding career. Armed with quick dogs and well-trained ferrets, Black and his colleagues ’sterminated rats by the hundred, collecting their fees on a cash-only basis. It was  a “peculiar and exciting” line of work, according to Ike Matthews, who wrote the book on rat-catching; one where you could be own boss and turn long sojourns into the country with your hunting animals into a remunerative business.

Like many a successful 19th-century entrepreneur, Black was one-part showman. Henry Mayhew wrote:

The first time I ever saw Mr. Black was in the streets of London, at the corner of Hartstreet, where he was exhibiting the rapid effects of his rat poison, by placing some of it in the mouth of a living animal. He had a cart then with rats painted on the panels, and at the tailboard, where he stood lecturing, he had a kind of stage rigged up, on which were cages filled with rats, and pills, and poison packages.

Here I saw him dip his hand into this cage of rats and take out as many as he could hold, a feat which generally caused an ‘oh!’ of wonder to escape from the crowd, especially when they observed that his hands were unbitten. Women more particularly shuddered when they beheld him place some half-dozen of the dusty-looking brutes within his shirt next his skin; and men swore the animals had been tamed, as he let them run up his arms like squirrels, and the people gathered round beheld them sitting on his shoulders cleaning their faces with their front-paws, or rising up on their hind legs like little kangaroos, and sniffing about his ears and cheeks.

But those who knew Mr. Black better, were well aware that the animals he took up in his hand were as wild as any of the rats in the sewers of London, and that the only mystery in the exhibition was that of a man having courage enough to undertake the work.

Rat bites, however, were par for the course in this line of work. Even Jack Black suffered through many hideous infections during the course of his career. He accounted for these by supposing that the rat itself was poisonous. There was, as of yet, no germ theory of disease. As such, medical attention was something of a crap shoot. In one particularly severe case, Black bet against his doctor and sought treatment elsewhere:

I was bit bad, too, in Edwards-street, Hampstead-road; and that time I was sick near three months, and close upon dying. Whether it was the poison of the bite, or the medicine the doctor give me, I can’t say; but the flesh seemed to swell up like a bladder— regular blowed like. After all, I think I cured myself by cheating the doctor, as they calls it; for instead of taking the medicine, I used to go to Mr.——’s house in Albany street (the publican), and he’d say, ‘What’ll yer have, a Jack?’ and I used to take a glass of stout, and that seemed to give me strength to overcome the pison of the bite, for I began to pick up as soon as I left off doctor’s stuff.

Jimmy Shaw was particularly blasé when his kids’ rat-bitten fingers turned “all black and putrid like:”

People have said to me, ‘You ought to send the lad to the hospital, and have his finger took off;’ but I’ve always left it to the lads, and they’ve said, ‘Oh, don’t mind it, father; it’ll get all right by and by.’ And so it has.

Rat-baiting Pit

Rat-baiting Pit

Shaw was the proprietor of a popular public house where rat-baiting matches were held. We say that men like Black were “rat-catchers” and not “killers” because they made a good portion of their money by selling their prisoners to men like Shaw, who compelled them to participate in bloody ratting matches, held in large, enclosed pits. This was not a good prospect for you if you were a rat, for the object was not for you to defeat one of your own kind in an evenly-match contest of arms, but for the betting audience to find out whose dog could destroy the largest number of rats in the shortest period of time. Dogs with names like “Billie” and “Jacko” (owned by Shaw) gained celebrity status by killing rats at rates of one every 2.7-6.0 seconds for several minutes at a time. The contest was not limited to dogs. Mayhew interviewed a Buckinghamshire man who out-paced his canine opponents on three separate occasions, scrambling about on all fours and gnashing at the rats with his teeth; an accomplishment of which he was not entirely proud.

Prospects for rats improved later in Victoria’s reign, when rat-baiting was suppressed for its cruelty—to dogs—though terriers and other fast-moving canines continue to be employed for pest control purposes today (video). While all of this ’sterminating was going on, however, Black and Shaw were doing something else. They were setting aside some of the more peculiar specimens they found; white rats with pink eyes, and other color varieties now common today. They bred these and sold them for shillings a piece to sophisticated ladies who kept them in gilded cages. It started a trend. In 1901 Miss Mary Douglas made waves when her black and white hooded rat won “Best in Show” at an exhibition of the National Mouse Club—and so began the history of modern rat fancy.


Fothergill, Charles. Essay on the philosophy, study, and use of natural history. (1813) (as quoted in Mayhew)

Matthews, Ike. Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-catcher, After 25 Years’ Experience. (1898)

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. (1851) Volume 3, pp. 1-20.

Royer, Nichole. The History of Fancy Rats.

Wikipedia: Rat-baiting, Fancy Rat, Brown Rat.

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