Episode 108: Victorian Rat Catchers

Embark on a riveting journey with London tour guide Hazel Baker as she unveils the intriguing profession of rat catching in the heart of Victorian London. Over the course of two enthralling episodes, we will immerse ourselves in the enigmatic world of rat catchers, the brave and resourceful individuals who faced danger and societal disdain in their pursuit of a vital yet often overlooked occupation.

Throughout these episodes, Hazel will unravel the captivating stories and ingenious techniques of notable rat catchers, such as the illustrious Jack Black, the Royal Rat Catcher who proudly served under Queen Victoria’s reign. By diving into the annals of history, we will discover the remarkable skills and determination that defined these unsung heroes of the Victorian era.

Furthermore, Hazel will examine the broader historical context surrounding rat catching in 19th-century London. As we traverse the murky streets of the city, we will delve into the devastating impact of rat-borne diseases, the emergence of public sanitation initiatives, and the evolving societal attitudes that shaped the perception and development of this essential profession.

Join us for these captivating and eye-opening episodes as Hazel Baker transports us back in time to explore the remarkable world of Victorian London’s rat catchers. Don’t miss this opportunity to gain a unique perspective on a fascinating and underappreciated aspect of the city’s history.

In episode 107: Rats, a Victorian Problem we heard how rats were depicted by writer Henry Mayhew, Naturalist Charles Waterton, how Ellen Terry remembered how they dominated the dominated the courtyard of the Lyseum Theatre and how the Rat Catcher’s daughter song was a London-based Romeo and Juliet. 

Now its time to meet the rat catchers.

London’s Rat Catchers

In 1896, a fascinating book titled “Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching” by Henry C. Barclay debuted in the bustling streets of London. While it claimed to be an educational resource, the book also served as a delightful and meandering amusement for its readers. The author concluded his work with a rather cheerful sentiment that captured the attention of many:

“I have been informed by numerous headmasters of prestigious schools that they find the art of rat-catching to be so repugnant to their students, and so intellectually demanding, as well as an exhausting pursuit for the young and impressionable minds, that they have no choice but to abandon the study altogether. As a result, they have opted to revert to the more enjoyable and less challenging subjects of Latin and Greek.”

This statement reveals a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the perceived difficulty of rat-catching as an art form, highlighting the complexities and challenges of mastering such a unique and often underappreciated skill. The author’s whimsical tone underscores the contrast between rat-catching’s practical, hands-on nature and traditional academic subjects, often viewed as more refined and less laborious pursuits.

Two years after Henry C Barclay’s book was published, Manchester rat catcher Ike Matthews from Manchester published: “Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher, after 25 Years’ Experience”, in which he shares his extensive knowledge and experience as a rat catcher during the Victorian era. 


Techniques and tools: Matthews describes various rat-catching methods, including using ferrets to flush rats out of their hiding places, well-trained terrier dogs to catch and kill rats, and different traps.

Rat-catchers devised ingenious methods to restrain, but not entirely tame, ferrets. These techniques allowed the handlers to manage the ferrets relatively easily without compromising their innate ferocity, a crucial aspect of effective rat control. The rat catcher would carefully regulate the ferret’s food intake in preparation for a hunt. Ferrets were known to become lethargic and unresponsive when well-fed, while starvation could make them self-destructive.

Jack Black, Queen Victoria’s Rat Catcher, emphasised the potential risk that the ferret, driven by hunger, might not know when to stop feasting on rats. In such instances, warrens could quickly become inundated with rodent carcasses, trapping the ferrets underground. This could lead to suffocation and the ferret’s untimely demise in extreme cases. As a result, the rat-catcher had to remain vigilant to the events unfolding beneath the surface, attuned to any changes in the underground activity.

By carefully monitoring the sounds from below, the rat catcher could assess the situation and determine when to intervene. At the appropriate moment, the handler would dig into the ground, rescuing the ferret from potential danger and ensuring the success of the rat-catching endeavour. This delicate balance of control and ferocity showcased the rat-catcher’s skill and expertise, highlighting the complex nature of this specialised profession.

Terriers, small to medium-sized dog breeds, were particularly well-suited for rat catching in Victorian London due to their size, agility, and innate hunting instincts. Their name is derived from the Latin word “terra,” meaning earth, reflecting their initial purpose as earth-dwelling vermin hunters. Terriers’ natural aptitude for catching rats and other small pests made them indispensable allies for rat catchers.


Physical Attributes and Instincts:

Terriers possess several physical attributes that make them suitable for rat catching. Their small size and compact body enable them to navigate narrow spaces and access the confined areas where rats often hide. Terriers are also agile, allowing them to easily chase and catch rats.


Their keen senses allowed them to locate and exterminate rats with remarkable precision. In addition to their physical traits, terriers are tenacious and fearless, willing to confront and engage rats despite the risks involved. The ideal combination for rat catchers.


Rat catchers often invest time and effort in training their terriers to become even more adept at their tasks, honing their skills and strengthening the bond between dog and handler. 


Training Terriers for Rat Catching:

While terriers were naturally inclined to hunt and catch rats, proper training was essential to ensure their efficiency and safety. Rat catchers in Victorian London employed various techniques to train their terrier dogs for this specific task.


Early exposure: Terriers were introduced to rat-catching at a young age, typically as puppies. This early exposure allowed them to become accustomed to the smell and appearance of rats and develop their hunting instincts.


Socialisation: Puppies were socialised with older, experienced rat-catching terriers to learn from them and observe their behaviour during rat hunts. This mentorship played a vital role in developing the puppies’ confidence and skills.


Controlled environments: Initial training sessions took place in controlled environments, such as enclosed yards, where rat catchers would release a small number of rats for the terrier to practise on. This allowed the dog to become more proficient at catching rats without becoming overwhelmed.


Positive reinforcement: Terriers were rewarded with praise, affection, and treats for successful rat-catching. This positive reinforcement helped to motivate the dogs and reinforced their association between catching rats and receiving rewards.


Gradual exposure to more challenging scenarios: As terriers became more skilled at catching rats in controlled environments, they were gradually introduced to more difficult and realistic scenarios, such as hunting in buildings or on the streets. 

Black emphasised the vital role played by dogs’ exceptional senses and the rat-catcher’s capacity to interpret and act upon the dog’s cues. With their keen sense of smell, dogs could track the ferret’s movements underground while remaining above ground. Through rigorous training, a strong bond, and effective communication between the rat-catcher and his dog, they could work in tandem to monitor the ferret’s activities during the hunt.

Black elaborated on this process: “If the ferret goes missing – which I can tell by the dog’s uneasiness – I say to the dog, ‘Hi, lost,’ and then he instantly springs into action, using his nose to search in every direction. I follow the dog closely until he comes to a halt directly above the location where the ferret might be.”

This description highlights the importance of the relationship between the rat-catcher, the dog, and the ferret in executing a successful rat-catching operation. The rat-catcher’s ability to understand and respond to the dog’s signals and innate talent for tracking the ferret showcased the expertise and skill required in this unique profession.

Several observers, amazed by the remarkable skills of rat-catchers, alluded to the extensive training involved in their craft. A proficient rat-catcher would not want his dogs to harm valuable ferrets, nor would he desire a terrier to become fixated on its first kill, consequently allowing other rats to flee unscathed. While the ferret was left in its wild state to engage effectively with rats in close combat, the dog underwent a degree of “humanisation” through training.

The finest rat-hunting dogs were portrayed as agile and “humane” exterminators. They did not inflict unnecessary pain or torment their prey while still alive. Likewise, these trained canines refrained from “worrying” or mutilating the rat’s corpse after it had been killed. This balance of ferocity and restraint demonstrated the rat-catcher’s expertise in managing and training his animal companions.

The rat-catcher’s ability to train his dogs, combining their natural hunting instincts with a certain discipline and control, highlights the skill and dedication required in this specialised profession. This fine-tuning of the dog’s behaviour ensured both the ferrets’ safety and the rat-catching operation’s effectiveness, showcasing the intricate interplay between the rat-catcher, his dogs, and the ferrets in achieving their shared goal.


Discouragement of poison: In his book, Ike Matthews strongly advises against using poison in enclosed spaces, as poisoned rats often die in inaccessible locations, leading to unpleasant and what was believed to be harmful odours from decomposing carcasses.


Understanding rat behaviour: The book emphasises the importance of understanding rat behaviour and habits to locate and eliminate them effectively.

In another example of crossing species boundaries, the rat-catcher ingeniously outsmarted rats by concealing his human scent with the “powerful aromatic odour” of thyme and aniseed oil. This dual-purpose strategy camouflaged the rat-catcher’s smell and enticed rats, luring the “vermin out of their holes, crawling to the master of the potent enchantment” when applied effectively.

By understanding the cravings and desires of rats and skilfully manipulating these, the rat-catcher used cunning against the creature he sought to eliminate. The unique blend of human ingenuity and animal-like instincts demonstrated the complex nature of the rat-catcher’s role and expertise.


Rat catchers’ image: Matthews describes the distinctive attire and eccentric appearance of rat catchers, who often wore top hats adorned with rat tails and carried bags filled with captured rats.


Public health and safety: The book underscores the significance of rat catchers in maintaining public health and safety during rapid urbanisation and inadequate sanitation.

According to Matthews, courage was the one non-negotiable quality to be a successful rate catcher: “I maintain that it is a profession, and one that requires much learning and courage. I have found this out when I have been under a warehouse floor, where a lot of rats were in the traps, and I could not get one man out of 50 to come under the floor and hold the candle for me, not to mention helping me to take the live rats out of the traps.”

Having a sense of humour makes the work more fun. As Matthews recalled, “I have often entered an empty third-class carriage, sent my dog under the seat, and put the rat cage there as well. The carriage would fill with passengers, and upon reaching my destination I would take from under the seat my cage full of live rats, to the amusement of some and the disgust of others. I had also entered a railway carriage with my cage of rats when there were passengers in, one or two of whom would generally object to live rats being in the same compartment.”

As someone self-employed, a rat catcher also needed to be able to generate work by displaying his talents. Jack Black was a skilled rat catcher and a seller of rat poison. Like many street-sellers featured in Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, Black’s story portrayed a unique identity while adhering to the expected narratives of street-selling. Mayhew first encountered Black performing on a makeshift stage surrounded by cages filled with rats, pills, and packages.

During the performance, Black would grab as many rats as he could hold, astonishing the crowd as he seemed to handle the rodents without being bitten. Black appeared to have a magical touch, effortlessly bewitching and taming the rats, further solidifying his mastery of their nature. However, sceptics among the audience accused him of deception and trickery – traits that were, perhaps, not entirely unexpected from a rat-catching virtuoso practising his craft.

Mayhew’s account of rat-catching, with its selective focus on Black’s captivating Act, emphasised the rodent-like cunningness of Black’s public persona. By incorporating the various aspects of Black’s trade – from his skills as a rat-catcher to his role as a peddler of rat poison – Mayhew’s portrayal of Black provided a multidimensional view of this intriguing figure, showcasing his unique talents and the complexities of his craft.

Jack Black was known for his exceptional skills in catching rats and his daring stunts and theatrical performances that captivated audiences. One such stunt occurred at the King’s Arms pub. I say stunt but you may think it happened by accident. I’ll let you be the judge: One particular day at the King’s Arms, Jack Black found himself at the centre of an extraordinary event. The pub was filled with patrons enjoying their pints and socializing, but Black’s arrival with a cage full of rats captured everyone’s attention. He had been hired to clear out a nearby property and decided to take a break at the King’s Arms to showcase his captives.

As Black regaled the patrons with stories of his rat-catching exploits, a curious bystander decided to open the cage housing the captured rats. In an instant, chaos ensued as the rats scattered throughout the pub. The patrons, caught off guard, began to panic, and the pub transformed into a frenzied scene.

With his reputation on the line, Black sprang into action. Demonstrating his incredible skill and composure, he systematically recaptured each escaped rat, much to the amazement of the onlookers. As he returned the last rat to its cage, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause, cementing Jack Black’s status as a true rat-catching legend. 

There was a prevalent belief that some rat catchers would capture live rats only to release them later, allowing them to collect additional payments for their recapture. In his conversation with Mayhew, Jemmy Shaw, a well-known figure in the ratting industry, clarified that farmers were required to pay 2 pence per rat caught on their property in earlier times. As proof, the caught rats were nailed to a wall. This practice demonstrated the rat-catcher’s effectiveness and ensured that the same rats were not released and caught again for further payment.

And what if, as a rat catcher, your client still refuses to pay your fee after the work is completed? Matthews has the answer: “when he has finished a job according to contract (catching, say, 40 or 50 rats), should there be a dispute about the price and the people decline to pay the bill, then he has the expedient of letting the rats at liberty again in the place where he had caught them. Most people will pay the price you send in rather than have the rats turned loose again”.


Child Rat Catchers

Child Rat Catchers in Victorian London: A Glimpse into Their Lives

During the Victorian era, child labour was widespread, and some worked in hazardous or demanding jobs. However, catching rats emerged as a popular alternative for children who sought to avoid other strenuous or dangerous occupations, such as cleaning chimneys, working in coal mines, or hawking wares on the streets.


The Attraction of Rat Catching for Children:

One reason why rat catching appealed to the youth of Victorian London was the relatively lucrative income it offered. De-ratting English manors, businesses, and other establishments could earn a considerable sum of rat-catcher wages ranging from two shillings to one pound. 

While London’s homes, sewers, stores, and docks were teeming with rats, the healthiest and most robust specimens originated from the farms and hedgerows in rural areas. Numerous rural and suburban families thrived on rat catching, making a living by selling their catches for three pence per rat. During periods of scarcity, rat catchers could even fetch prices as high as a shilling for each rat.


The Practicalities and Challenges of Child Rat Catchers:

While rat catching offered a potentially profitable income, it also required an initial investment in tools and animals, such as owning a terrier dog or a ferret. This necessity meant that many child rat catchers were older youths who had accumulated some resources or had apprenticed under an experienced rat catcher to learn the trade and acquire the necessary equipment.

Additionally, rat catching was not without its dangers. Children involved in this profession often had to navigate dark, cramped spaces and face the risk of injury or disease from the rats they hunted. 


The Role of Child Rat Catchers in Victorian Society:

Child rat catchers played an essential role in the ongoing battle against rat infestations in Victorian London. Their efforts improved public health and safety by reducing rat populations and preventing the spread of diseases. The presence of child rat catchers also highlights the challenging socioeconomic conditions of the time, as these young individuals sought to earn a living in a harsh and unforgiving urban landscape.

Other children working in establishments which held rat matches were instructed to remove the skins from the deceased rats. Jemmy Shaw, an owner of such an establishment, emphasised their appealing, warm, and attractive grey appearance. This conversation about repurposing rat skins is reminiscent of Mayhew’s significant focus on waste recycling in London’s sanitation systems and the city’s scavenging culture. 

In Victorian London, rat catchers used various methods to capture and exterminate rats, including traps. Two of the most common types of rat traps used during this period were cage traps and snap traps. These traps were designed to catch rats alive or kill them instantly.


Cage Traps:

Cage traps, also known as live traps, were designed to capture rats without causing them harm. These traps were constructed using wire mesh or metal bars, forming a cage with a one-way entry mechanism. The entry mechanism was typically triggered when the rat attempted to reach bait inside the cage. Once the rat entered the cage and triggered the mechanism, the door would close, trapping the rat inside.

Some rat catchers favoured cage traps due to their humane nature and ability to catch multiple rats in a single trap. Additionally, live rats could be sold to establishments that organised rat-baiting events.


Snap Traps:

On the other hand, Snap traps were designed to kill rats instantly upon capture. One of the most well-known types of snap traps is the spring-loaded bar trap, which consists of a wooden base, a metal bar, and a trigger mechanism. The trap is set by placing bait on the trigger mechanism and pulling the metal bar back, creating tension in the spring.

When a rat attempts to take the bait, it triggers the mechanism, causing the metal bar to snap forward with significant force, killing the rat instantly. Snap traps were considered efficient and practical because they eliminated the need to handle live rats, which could bite and spread disease.


Jack Black: The Royal Rat Catcher of Victorian London

In Victorian London, Jack Black was one of the most renowned figures in this profession. Jack Black started his career as a child rat catcher, and in an interview with Mayhew in the 1800s, he recounted his experiences:

“I should think I’ve been ratting a’most for five-and-thirty year. I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name and right through my thumbnail too… When a rat’s bite touches the bone, it makes you feel faint in a minute, and it bleeds dreadful like you have been stuck with a penknife.… The first rats I caught were when I was about nine years of age. After that, I bought some ferrets, and I was, I think, the first that regularly began to hunt rats to ‘sterminate them.”


Early Life and Beginnings in Rat Catching

Jack Black’s career in rat catching began at a young age. He caught his first rats when he was nine and quickly developed a passion for the profession. Recognising the need for a systematic approach to hunting and exterminating rats in London, Black was among the first to use ferrets. His expertise in handling ferrets and understanding rat behaviour made him an efficient and successful rat catcher.


Royal Rat Catcher and Entrepreneur

Black’s talent in rat catching caught the attention of Queen Victoria, who appointed him as her personal rat catcher. This prestigious position elevated Black’s status, earning him the nickname “The Royal Rat Catcher.” His duties included eradicating rats from the royal premises and ensuring the safety and cleanliness of the queen’s surroundings. In addition to serving the queen, Black was an entrepreneur who capitalised on the rat-catching business. 


Jack Black’s Techniques and Methods

Black’s expertise extended beyond capturing rats; he was also adept at handling them, despite the risks associated with their bites.


Legacy and Impact

Jack Black’s unique profession and royal appointment made him an iconic figure in Victorian London. His entrepreneurial endeavours catered to the interests of high society.


The Rat Catcher’s Image and Legacy

Rat catchers in Victorian London were often seen as mysterious and somewhat eccentric figures. They typically wore distinctive attire, such as a top hat adorned with the tails of their catches, which served as both a testament to their skills and an advertising tool. Rat catchers also carried bags filled with captured rats and were known to demonstrate their abilities by releasing and recapturing rats in public spaces, drawing crowds of curious onlookers.


Rat Baiting: A Gritty Blood Sport of Victorian London

Rat baiting was a popular blood sport in Victorian London, drawing large crowds to witness the violent spectacle. In a time when gambling and entertainment were inextricably linked, rat baiting provided both thrills and opportunities for betting. The sport involved placing bets on how long a dog, typically a terrier, would take to kill a group of rats within a confined space, like a pit. Despite its brutality, rat baiting remained a popular pastime in London until the eventual decline of blood sports in the late 19th century.


The Appeal of Rat Baiting

The popularity of rat baiting in Victorian London can be attributed to several factors. The large rat population at the time and the lack of effective pest control methods made the extermination of rats a vital necessity. This, in turn, made the sport a spectacle that resonated with the public’s disdain for the disease-carrying rodents.

Furthermore, rat baiting allowed gambling enthusiasts to place bets on the contest’s outcome, with wagers based on the number of rats killed within a specific timeframe. The adrenaline-inducing nature of the sport, combined with the opportunity to win money, made rat baiting an irresistible attraction for many Victorians.


The Rules and Structure

Rat baiting typically took place in a rat pit, a small, enclosed area where rats were released, and a dog was tasked with killing them as quickly as possible. A set number of rats, sometimes as many as 100, were placed in the pit with the dog, and bets were placed on how long the dog would take to kill all the rats. The dog’s owner, or handler, would also be in the pit, encouraging and directing the dog during the contest.

In the bustling city of London, Mayhew observed more than forty rat pits, highlighting the sport’s immense popularity at the time. The initial pits were primitive—several sticks and planks haphazardly assembled into a square. However, wood provided too much traction for the rats’ claws, leading them to escape by frequently climbing up. By the mid-19th century, promoters had improved their designs, boasting escape-proof wire or octagonal pits with vertical iron bars.

Mayhew’s sombre portrayal of the killing arena in his writing sets the stage for a gruesome representation that blends elements of the bizarre with the modern, intermingling the natural and the grotesque. He describes “the pit,” as it was known, as a small circular area akin to the size of a central flower bed. The pit is encircled by a tall wooden rim that extends up to elbow height.

Above the pit, gas lamp branches are positioned, illuminating the white-painted floor and every corner of the diminutive battleground. The audience, eager to witness the spectacle, often clambers upon tables and benches or leans over the sides of the pit itself. This vivid description captures the macabre fascination of the spectators as they gather to observe the brutal clash between rats and their adversaries within the confines of this eerie arena.

The brutality of the match was counterbalanced by the thrill experienced by both the dogs and the spectators. As the dogs display their agility and persistence, the onlookers are captivated by the contest. In this fierce encounter, the audience is drawn not only to the sheer ferocity of the fight but also to the incredible prowess and determination exhibited by the dogs:

“The moment the dog was ‘free,’ he became quiet in a most business-like manner, and rushed at the rats … . In a short time a dozen rats with wetted necks were lying bleeding on the floor, and the white paint of the pit became grained with blood. In a little time the terrier had a rat hanging to his nose, which, despite his tossing, still held on. He dashed up against the sides, leaving a patch of blood as if a strawberry had been smashed there … . As the rats fell on their sides after a bite they were collected together in the centre, where they lay quivering in their death gasps! ‘Hi, Butcher! Hi, Butcher!’ shouted the second, ‘good dog! but-r-r-r-r-h!’ and he beat the sides of the pit like a drum till the dog flew about with new life.”

As an observer unaccustomed to the scene, Mayhew found himself puzzled and intrigued by the carnage of the rat pit. The almost surreal return to normalcy particularly struck him after the violent encounter had ended. The surviving rats, seemingly aware that the threat had passed, began to groom themselves and cautiously approach their former adversary, the dog, driven by curiosity and natural instincts.


Jemmy Elton Shaw, also known as Jimmy Shaw, was a well-known figure in the ratting industry, managing one of London’s largest sporting public houses. He was also a prominent aficionado during the early days of dog shows. 

As a passionate promoter of dog fighting and rat-baiting contests, Shaw played a key role in developing the sport. Not only did he breed Old English bulldogs, bull terriers, and toy terriers.

Known for his keen interest in unusually coloured animals, he would breed and nurture these distinctive creatures whenever he encountered them. He likely sold these uniquely hued, fancy rats, as pets to interested buyers.

Shaw highlighted the positive impact of ratting on the economy. This thriving trade extended across the country, creating job opportunities for various population segments, including the “barn-door labouring poor” and individuals who might have been considered less educated or skilled. He argued that by creating a demand for their services, ratting helped support a segment of the population that might otherwise have struggled to find stable employment. This dynamic aspect of the ratting trade showcased the diverse opportunities within the economy, even for those who might have been considered marginalised or disadvantaged.

Of course, he would say this when he is profiting from hosting such events. Scrolling through the Victorian London newspapers, I was surprised to see so many adverts for ratting events or rat matches, as Shaw calls them, with 203 mentioned in 1867 alone. 

Here’s a typical advert for such an event that I have created from snippets of those in the Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle newspaper:

The highly anticipated 100 Rat Match, featuring the All England Ratting Sweepstakes for attractive prizes, is set to take place next Tuesday evening at exactly nine o’clock. Expect an abundance of thrilling sports, including large ferrets and more. Jemmy Shaw has over 300 fresh barn rats ready for public and private entertainment. Don’t miss this exciting event!

On average, Shaw purchased many rats weekly, ranging from 300 to 700, throughout the year.

It was Jemmy Shaw who invented the no-touch rule, meaning neither the rat nor the dog could be removed from the pit before completion of the match.

And what would you have experienced should you attend such an event? Bells Life in London and Sporting Chronicle [Town Edition] shared just that in 1857:

“Well, gents, I’m delighted to see you all looking so at ease,” Jemmy Shaw, proprietor of the Queen’s Head, situated just off London’s Haymarket, warmly greeted the diverse crowd of a few hundred dock-workers, dandies, aristocrats, and tradespeople, who jostled shoulder to shoulder around the six-foot-wide enclosure in the centre of the room. It was the 1840s, and these men had congregated for an evening of rat-baiting. Bulldogs with tight, round heads resembling clenched boxing gloves and bandy legs that revealed the sought-after pear-shaped gap between grasshopper-like thighs were scattered throughout the room, along with toy terriers weighing merely three or four pounds each. Maltese dogs and other less identifiable breeds and mixtures—black, tan, white, or brindled—strained against their spiked collars, nearly yanking the leashes from their owners’ hands. One dog yipped and stood on its hind legs in an attempt to peer into the pit. As more dogs joined the chorus, the conversation became virtually impossible.

Shaw authoritatively demanded silence, exclaiming, “You that ‘ave dogs, do make ’em shut up!” Slaps and curses ensued, and the noise subsided momentarily. However, the dogs’ yelps became even louder when a man entered the room carrying a large wire cage filled with writhing brown rats. A well-dressed man known as the captain clambered over the edge of the pit, opened the cage door, and extracted a dozen of the largest rats by their tails. “Chuck him in,” he bellowed, and a small but energetic terrier soon accompanied the mass of rodents. The novice dog was uncertain about his role, nervously approaching a cluster of rats that leapt at his face. One bit the dog’s lip, clinging on briefly before releasing its grip. The enraged terrier lunged forward, instinctively seizing the rat by the nape of its neck, delivering a swift twist and shake before dropping the lifeless body and glancing up, seemingly pondering its next move. The dog’s handler pounded on the wooden sides of the pit with his hand, shouting, “Hi! Hi! At ’em!” The message was received, and two more rats lay dead within thirty seconds. Another dog had embarked on its career.

As the evening progressed and glasses were continually refilled, the grand match of the night—the killing of 50 rats—commenced. A seasoned terrier occupied the pit this time, and onlookers quickly noted the difference. The terrier displayed no hesitation in carrying out its task, dispatching rat after rat at five or ten seconds intervals. If a rat latched onto the dog’s nose or jowl, the terrier would promptly move and slam the rodent’s body against the pit’s side. When “Time!” was called, the handler lifted the dog, and the remaining rats were tallied. Showering halfpennies into the ring, benefiting the handler, indicated the crowd’s satisfaction with the performance. By midnight, a dozen dogs had demonstrated their abilities. When Shaw inquired whether “any other gentleman would like some rats” and received no reply, he declared the evening’s entertainment concluded—until the following Tuesday.

“Young Reed, professor of the noble art of self-defence, Jem Burn’s, the Rising Bun, Air-street, Piccadilly, gives private lessons daily, from twelve till five, and from eight till ten in the evening. Gloves and every requisite provided. Gentlemen attended their own residences. Gloves, dumbbells, and all gymnastic equipment forwarded to any part of the United Kingdom on receipt of remittance. Young Reed can also be heard at Owen Swift’s, Tichborne-street, Haymarket Old timer revived Jemmy Shaw and Son’s old far-famed sporting establishment, the Queen’s Head Tavern, Windmill Street, Haymarket. Boxing, in reality, Saturday evening, Jan H., when some first-rate boxers will display the manly art in all branches. On Monday evening, Jan 2«, the new spacious ring will open to the public generally. On this occasion, the new arena will surpass any other. It is the oldest established academy of the present age. Far greater improvements are in contemplation. Private lessons are given in the noble art by the young champion himself at any hour, day or evening. Gentlemen attended their own chambers if required. The private class is held for amateurs every Thursday evening in the private saloon. Gentlemen wishing to join can inquire at the bar. And received information from senior and junior homes glad to see all my old and new friends. This evening, the grand canine exhibition and small toy dog show are expected to surpass anything this season. Entrance is free to the public generally. For handsome prizes, the All England ratting sweepstakes comes off Tuesday evening, Jan 37. Come early. The 100 rat match will also come off the same evening.”


Several rat baiting pits in Victorian London gained notoriety

The Blue Anchor Tavern: A Dark Corner of Victorian Entertainment

Situated in St. Luke’s Finsbury, the Blue Anchor Tavern was a prominent and notorious venue for rat-baiting events throughout the early 19th century. (Londoners nowadays will know it as the Artillery Arms, at 102 Bunhill Row. The tavern was a popular destination for those seeking a thrilling and brutal spectacle, drawing crowds from all walks of life, eager to witness the grisly encounters between terriers and rats.

The wooden walls of the pit were tall and sturdy, ensuring the safety of the onlookers while keeping the rats and dogs contained within the pit. The floor, covered in sawdust, absorbed the bloodshed and made it easier to clean up after each gruesome match.

With the capacity to hold hundreds of rats at a time, the Blue Anchor Tavern was the stage for some of Victorian London’s most intense and ferocious rat baiting matches. The rowdy crowds, fuelled by alcohol and the thrill of the spectacle, would place bets on the outcome of each match, often resulting in brawls and arguments among spectators.

Rat-killing contests were also popular at the Badger Pit. In these events, a ferret or dog would be placed in an enclosure filled with rats. Bets were placed on how quickly the animal could kill all the rats, with the crowd cheering and urging the animal on in its grisly task, as reported in the Globe Paper. “The admirers of canine brutality had a thrilling experience on Tuesday evening at the Badger Pit in Holborn, with a dogfight for several sovereigns. One dog was the winner, and the other the loser, which died in the pit, and the other was carried away, nearly dead, after three hours of fighting. As part of the evening’s entertainment, a ferret killed rats, released one at a time from a trap by the rat-killing boy, who grabbed them by their tails. The ferret completed its work within six minutes.”


The Westminster Pit: A Hub of High-Stakes Rat Baiting and Gambling in Victorian London

Nestled in the heart of London, the Westminster Pit was an infamous rat-baiting venue that gained notoriety for its high-stakes matches and diverse audience. A magnet for both wealthy gentlemen seeking a thrilling pastime and working-class spectators eager for a grisly spectacle, the Westminster Pit was a bustling epicentre of Victorian entertainment.

Not only was the Westminster Pit known for its rat-baiting events, but it also became a hub for illegal gambling. Bets were placed on various aspects of the matches, from the dogs’ performance to the number of rats killed within a specific time frame. The high stakes and the allure of quick profits drew in various characters, contributing to the pit’s unsavoury reputation.

The pit was designed to accommodate the large crowds gathering for the rat baiting events. Tall, sturdy walls surrounded the pit, ensuring that the dogs and the rats were contained, while the sawdust-covered floor made for easier clean-up after each blood-soaked match. The intensity of the matches and the energy of the spectators created an atmosphere of excitement and brutality that was unmatched by other forms of entertainment during the era.


An impromptu Event

In 1847 a remarkable Rat-Killing Event happened in Southwark, as reported in the Morning Advertiser. Mr Joseph Jenkins from Blaenplwyf Ystrad, near Lampeter (Wales), along with his two younger brothers, both under twelve, managed to kill an astonishing 107 rats in under thirty minutes. Their action method was as follows: The three siblings poured either boiling water or a mixture of cold water and quicklime into the rats’ burrows. As the rats tried to flee, the young boys swiftly struck them with batons they had at hand, killing the rodents with ease.


Rival of Billy, the Rat Catcher: A Tale of Extraordinary Rat-Killing Skills

In 1847 on Marlborough Street Samuel Province was brought before Magistrate Conant on suspicion of stealing carpenter’s tools. Although the tools were of little value, Province claimed he found them on a seat in a recess on Westminster Bridge while resting with a load of rats he was taking home.

When Magistrate Conant questioned him about the rats, Province explained that they were live rats he had caught. Chief officer Plank recognised the young man as the one who had competed against the famous rat-killing dog, Billy, at the Westminster Pit. To the astonishment of everyone present, Province had killed 100 rats in less than five minutes, beating Billy by several rats. He accomplished this by imitating a dog, going on all fours, and biting the rat’s head off with a single bite.

A parish constable who happened to be present confirmed that Province had been a rat killer since childhood. He worked in slaughterhouses, granaries, and stables to exterminate rats. Rats seemed to have an instinctive horror of his presence, scattering when he entered a space. Province caught all his rats alive and could catch them with his hands or even his mouth. He supplied live rats for sport around the town.

When Magistrate Conant asked if Province lived with the dog, Billy, he replied that they lived separately, with Billy residing at the pit in Westminster and Province living in St. Giles’s. The magistrate humorously noted that it was good they did not live together, as there would likely be rivalry and jealousy between the two skilled rat killers.

As no one claimed the carpenter’s tools, and they were deemed valueless, Province was discharged. His extraordinary rat-killing abilities became a legend, illustrating the lengths some individuals went to excel in the competitive world of rat catching and baiting during the Victorian era.

Billy the bull terrier of Westminster Pit was an extraordinary canine known for holding the world record for killing 100 rats in just 5 minutes and 30 seconds. Around the same time, another remarkable dog, Tiny the Wonder, an English Toy Terrier (Black & Tan), gained fame in London. Weighing a mere five and a half pounds in 1848/49, Tiny was owned by Jemmy Shaw, the innkeeper of the Blue Anchor Tavern (now the Artillery Arms) in Bunhill Row. Despite his small size, Tiny was a force to be reckoned with, wearing a woman’s bracelet as a collar.

Tiny’s reputation was so renowned that he attracted souvenir collectors who purchased handkerchiefs to commemorate the occasions when he broke rat-slaying records. However, Tiny didn’t fight the unhealthy and foul-smelling sewer rats of London; instead, Shaw imported healthier rats from the countryside, housing up to 2000 of them in cages beneath the Blue Anchor.

Tiny’s impressive feats are immortalized in an oil painting from around 1850-1852 titled “Rat-Catching at the Blue Anchor Tavern, Bunhill Row, Finsbury.” The painting depicts Tiny attempting to kill 200 rats within an hour, a challenge he successfully completed twice, on 28 March 1848 and 27 March 1849, with time to spare on both occasions. Tiny’s legacy lived on, as he and his pit were featured in the Museum of London’s “Beasts of London” exhibition in 2019.


The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 and the Decline of Rat Baiting

Public opinion regarding blood sports began to shift during the latter half of the 19th century as the awareness of animal cruelty and the need for animal welfare grew. The growth of forms of entertainment, such as the theatre and music halls, also contributed to the decline of rat baiting and other blood sports.


In 1835, Britain passed the Cruelty to Animals Act, which marked a crucial shift in the treatment of animals. The Act represented the first serious attempt to legislate against animal cruelty and aimed to protect animals from unnecessary suffering. The enforcement of the Act and the changing public attitudes towards animal welfare eventually led to the prohibition and decline of rat baiting in Victorian London.

It was enacted to amend and consolidate existing laws relating to animal welfare, such as Martin’s Act of 1822, which made it an offence to mistreat horses, cattle, and sheep. The 1835 Act extended protection to a wider range of animals, including dogs, and aimed to prevent cruel treatment in the context of blood sports and other forms of entertainment.

The Act specifically prohibited the organisation and hosting of animal fights, including bull-baiting, bear-baiting, and dog fighting. It also sought to regulate the treatment of animals in public performances, such as circuses and menageries, ensuring they were not subjected to unnecessary suffering. Offenders could face fines and imprisonment for violating the provisions of the Act.


The Impact on Rat Baiting

While the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 did not explicitly mention rat baiting, it was more designed for larger animals. The legislation’s broader implications for blood sports signalled the beginning of the end for the gruesome pastime.


“The time is coming,” forecast the Morning Advertiser, “when rat-killing and pigeon shooting [from traps] will be banned, and a true Englishman will have no option but to emigrate.” The introduction of the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 and the increased enforcement of such laws in the following years led to the prohibition and decline of rat baiting in Victorian London.

The enforcement of the Act and a growing public awareness of animal cruelty led to a decline in the popularity of rat baiting and other blood sports.

Many establishments that hosted rat-baiting events began to close down or shift their focus to other forms of entertainment. This was further reinforced by the emergence of alternative leisure activities, such as theatre and music halls, which provided a more socially acceptable and humane form of entertainment for the Victorian public.

In addition to legislative efforts, the work of animal welfare organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), played a crucial role in raising public awareness of the importance of animal welfare. The RSPCA, founded in 1824, actively campaigned against blood sports, including rat baiting, and worked to ensure the enforcement of animal welfare laws.



The efforts of rat catchers in Victorian London contributed significantly to improving public health and safety. Their unique profession played a crucial role in controlling rat populations and preventing the spread of disease at a time when modern sanitation and pest control were still in their infancy.

The role of rat catchers in Victorian London cannot be understated. They were instrumental in addressing the growing rat population and maintaining public health in the face of inadequate sanitation and overcrowded living conditions. Their skills, expertise, and resourcefulness allowed them to succeed in an era before modern pest control methods. Their impact is still felt today as we continue to combat the challenges posed by urban living and vermin populations.

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