Each great civilization is plagued by its own particular infestation—the point at which the balance between man and vermin shifts uncomfortably in the direction of the critters. Biblical Egypt had its plague of locusts, modern New York City is terrorized by bedbugs, and Victorian London had a serious rat problem. Rats scurried around the city chewing up food, clogging up drains, passing around diseases, and frightening ladies. The task of reining in the rodents fell to village farmers (desperate to save the gnawed legs of their livestock) and rat vigilantes who killed for commission or provided rats for popular dog and rat matches.
And then there was the rat’s most notorious enemy: Jack Black, Rat-Catcher to Her Majesty The Queen.
Black was an enterprising Dr. Doolittle meets the Pied Piper with an aptitude for animal breeding, catching, and killing, as well as an eye for business. He became a minor celebrity of Victorian London’s streets for his rat handling theatrics—he had a particular talent of sticking his hand in a cage of rats without getting bitten. His flamboyant costume of white leather pants, green coat and scarlet waistcoat with a rat belt-buckle (which he cast himself) caught the eye of Henry Mayhew, a journalist who profiled Black in his encyclopedic account of London street life, London Labour and the London Poor. Black appeared in the third volume of the series, published in 1861, by which time he had been appointed the official rat-catcher to Queen Victoria.
"Jack Black," from Henry Mayhew's London Labor and the London Poor, c. 1840
Mayhew’s portrait of Black depicts an experienced rat-catcher in his mid-40’s, with a black beard and eyebrows and a grey head of rough, uncombed hair. He chased down rats all over the city, in private homes and in public parks. He was fearless, and he bore the scars of his confidence across his body. Black nearly died three times from various bites, revealing to Mayhew: “I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir.” His hands were especially branded by his nemesis’s ferocity. “I once had the teeth of a rat break in my finger,” he told Mayhew. “[It] was dreadful bad, and swole, and putrified, so that I had to have the broken bits pulled out with tweezers.”
Black began rat-catching as a young boy in Regent’s Park, showing off his skills to genteel passers-by. “I wasn’t afraid to handle rats even then,” he told Mayhew. “It seemed to come nat’ral to me. I very soon had some in my pocket, and some in my hands, carrying them away as fast as I could, and putting them into my wire cage...I didn’t know the bites were so many, or I dare say I shouldn’t have been so venturesome as I was.” By the age of ten, Black was getting commissions to catch rats for cash, but his real money came from selling rats for gaming. Rat-baiting was a popular London tavern pastime in which dog owners would set their dogs in a pit and bet on their dog’s ability to catch a set number of rats, sometimes by the dozen, in a matter of minutes. Enthusiasts bet on the speed of a dog’s rat-killing abilities (one famous contender, Billy, tore apart a couple dozen rats in a minute and a half). The “sport” was so popular that the government wanted a cut, and put a tax on rat-killing dogs. Jimmy Shaw, the proprietor of a pub that held one of the most popular rat-matches in town, had hundreds of caged rats at the ready culled from suppliers across the country, including Jack Black.
A New Jersey rat pit, c. 1891. Published in the Police Gazette.
Black was an opportunist. He developed both a gentle touch and a killer instinct, talents which he honed by breeding a menagerie of animals including dogs, ferrets, birds and many breeds of “fancy rats.” He also caught wild birds and supplied them for sport. At Mayhew’s first meeting with Black, he had just returned from catching a dozen sparrows that were ordered for a shooting match at a nearby tea garden. Rats, though, were undoubtedly Black’s focus and fascination. He even informed Mayhew that he had “‘unbeknown to his wife,’ tasted the flesh of roasted rat, and asserted that they were as “moist as rabbits, and quite as nice.”
It is unclear exactly how many rats ran rampant in London in the mid-nineteenth century, but it was estimated that a single effective rat-killer of the time killed about 8,000 rats a year, and there was certainly no shortage of rats to keep them busy. In 1813, journalist and rat decrier Charles Fothergill, attempted to do the math on rats’ rapid reproduction noting disapprovingly that the beasts are “continually under the furor of animal love.” He calculated that if left to their own devices, a single pair of rats would produce three million young during their three-year lifespan. Fothergill envisioned that “the whole surface of the earth in a very few years would be rendered a barren and hideous waste, covered with myriads of famished grey rats, against which man himself would contend in vain.”
The danger posed by the scurries of rat feet was greater than that of ruined food or fainting gentlewomen: rats were chewing up crops all over England, especially corn, the price of which was tied to that the price of wheat. So when rats feasted on corn in the countryside, the price of wheat (and thus, bread) rose, leaving people all over the country hungry and broke.
Back in London, Black’s fight against the ratpocalypse wore on. His chosen weapons of destruction: dogs and ferrets. Black had trained his ferrets to sniff out the rats while his dogs would sniff out the ferrets. Ferrets, with their narrow snake-like body, could slither into rat tunnels and hiding places. When they got lost or trapped, as they often did, Black‘s trained dogs would find them. While the partnership of dogs and ferrets reigned supreme, Black did experiment in training other species at the art of rat-catching, including a monkey (“didn’t do much, and only give [the rats] a good shaking”), a badger named Polly (“difficult in training to get him to kill, though they’ll kill rabbits fast enough”) and two stowaway raccoons (“they weren’t no good at that”).
A rat catcher and his dog, c. 1900 (National Media Museum)
Nineteenth-century rats were equal-opportunist thieves, invading the townhomes of Belgravia as often as the slums of East London, and collecting whatever they could carry. Black recounts to Mayhew the various spoils he found while ratting: “I found under one floor in a gent’s house a great quantity of table napkins and silver spoons and forks, which the rats had carried away for the grease on ‘em—shoes and boots gnawed to pieces, shifts, aprons, gowns, pieces of silk, and I don’t know what not. Sarvants had been discharged accused of stealing them there things. Of course I had to give them up; but there they was.”
The rat’s reputation for having an insatiable sexual appetite, coupled with their supposed predilection for cannibalism, made them the perfect Victorian enemy of lawlessness and sexual deviance. James Rodwell wrote in 1850: “[Rats] have no laws, either civil or religious, to govern them, so to call them Socialists, Communists, or Rats, to me ‘tis equal; for, in my mind, Communism, Socialism, and Ratism are terms synonymous.” Rodwell’s passion for exposing rats as an apocalyptic force while obsessively chronicling their behavior puts him somewhere between early anthropologist and crank. Chapter headings of his second book “The rat: its history and destructive character”, include Thievish Propensity of Rats, How the Rats of Scotland Can Carry Eggs, Rats Standing on Their Heads, Three Cannibal Rats Swallowing Nine Others, The Unreasonable Fear of Rats, and A Rat and a Ferret Snuggling Together in the Author's Bosom.
Rodwell, like Black, was a strong proponent of well-trained dogs as man’s savior. Specifically, a well-bred terrier (not a “little, pygmy, dwarf terrier; they are tantamount to useless”), which Rodwell figured could tackle thousands of rats in one month. He called for an end to the tax on rat-killing dogs and for farmers and country folk to set up a rat recycling system by which individuals could redeem money for catching rats that would be then be added to the local rat compost heap. Some rats would be left for the rat-matches so that people could make a little side money and still get their kicks.
The fact that rats are ultimately fiercely intelligent mammals can complicate human relationships with them. While there is no American Fancy Cockroach Association, there have always been effete rat enthusiasts (Black used to breed fancy rats as pets for English ladies). The war on rats waged on as the vermin continued to infest London. But as the century progressed, and Victorians’ softened their attitudes towards domesticated dogs, dog-rat matches were eventually replaced by fancy dog shows.
The ensuing hundred years have seen both the declaration of Rat Week in 1921, a failed attempt to encourage the annihilation of rats, and the first World Rat Day in 2003 to celebrate them. Yet the legend of the rat-catcher endures; Rat-Catcher’s Day predates both holidays, commemorating the medieval myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Germany. On June 26, wish your local pest-controller a Happy Rat-Catcher’s Day.
Image at top: The Rat-Catcher and his Dogs, by Thomas Woodward, 1824 (Tate Britain)May 22, 2013