Episode 107: Rats – a Victorian problem

Join London tour guide Hazel Baker and gain insight into the rat problem experienced in Victorian London.

In this captivating episode of “London History Podcast” host Hazel Baker delves into the fascinating world of Victorian London and its notorious rat problem. Join us as we uncover the stories of writer James Mayhew and naturalist Charles Waterton, who not only documented this historical issue but also shed light on its broader implications.

Hazel starts the episode by setting the scene in the streets of 19th century London, a city teeming with rats, which posed a significant threat to public health and safety. She goes on to discuss how James Mayhew, a pioneering investigative journalist and social researcher, brought attention to this growing problem through his evocative writings.

As we journey further into the topic, Hazel introduces us to Charles Waterton, a naturalist and environmentalist who studied the rat population in London. His detailed observations and insights into the rodents’ behaviour and ecology provided valuable information that helped shape the city’s approach to dealing with this issue.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this episode is the exploration of how lightning evoked memories of rats for the renowned Victorian actress Ellen Terry. Hazel dives into the story behind this curious connection, examining the historical context, Terry’s own experiences, and the role that rats played in the lives of Victorians.

Don’t miss this engaging and informative episode of “London History Podcast” as we uncover the captivating world of Victorian London and the rat problem that plagued its streets. Listen now and be transported back in time!

Hazel Baker is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified  CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain(Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7). Het Rampjaar 1672Afl. 2: Vijand Engeland and Arte.fr Invitation au Voyage, À Chelsea, une femme qui trompe énormément.

Welcome to the London History Podcast, a show dedicated to exploring the rich and fascinating history of one of the world’s greatest cities. From the Romans to the present day, we delve deep into the archives to uncover the stories, people and events that have shaped London into the vibrant, diverse and dynamic city it is today.

I am your host, Hazel Baker, a qualified London Tour guide, and founder of londonguidedwalks.co.uk

Whether you’re a born-and-bred Londoner or a curious listener, join us on a journey through time as we explore the city’s landmarks, neighbourhoods and hidden secrets. From the Tower of London to the West End, from Kings Cross to Kensington, there’s always something new to discover in this ever-evolving metropolis.

Show notes, transcripts, photos support each episode, and further reading are available for each episode. If you enjoy what we do, then you’ll love our guided walks and private tours that we offer throughout the year, all bookable online.

You can listen to the London History Podcast on all major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and more. Subscribe now to never miss an episode, and if you enjoy the show, please leave us a review and rating to help spread the word to other history lovers.

So get that cup of tea, put your feet up and let’s delve into the captivating history of London together.

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Related Podcast Episodes:

Episode 2: Fantastic Beasts in London

Episode 6: Lost London – Hockley in the Hole

Episode 18: Victorian Photographs


Explore Victorian London

‘It is a bold and fierce little animal, and when closely pursued, will turn and fasten on its assailant’ Mayhew


Welcome, dear listeners, to another fascinating episode of the London History Podcast, where we delve into the vibrant and diverse past of this great city. Whether you’re a born-and-bred Londoner or a curious listener, join us on a journey through time as we explore the city together. Each episode is supported by show notes, transcripts, photos, and further reading all to be found on our website. 

If you enjoy what we do, then you’ll love our guided walks and private tours that we offer throughout the year, all bookable online.

Subscribe now to never miss an episode, and if you enjoy the show, please leave us a review and rating to help spread the word to other history lovers.

So get that cup of tea, put your feet up and let’s delve into the captivating history of London together.

For the next two episodes, we’ll be whisking you back to the dimly lit alleyways of Victorian London, where we’ll explore a rather unusual profession of rat catching and the intrepid individuals who devoted themselves to this dangerous and often thankless task.

Thia was era where rats were ubiquitous in the streets, homes, and businesses of London. The rat catchers armed with a keen understanding of rodent behaviour, rudimentary tools, and a fearless disposition, navigated the bustling streets, dank sewers, and shadowy corners of the Victorian metropolis to keep the rat population at bay.

In these two episodes, we’ll delve into the lives and methods of these fascinating individuals, such as the legendary Jack Black, the Royal Rat Catcher, who proudly served Queen Victoria herself. We’ll also explore the broader historical context of rat catching in the 19th century, including the spread of disease, the rise of public sanitation efforts, and the societal attitudes that shaped the profession.

Overcrowded Living Conditions and Inadequate Sanitation

The exponential population growth in London led to a housing shortage, forcing many people to live in cramped, poorly ventilated spaces. Victorian London’s sanitation infrastructure was ill-equipped to handle the needs of the city’s growing population. Waste disposal was often haphazard, with rubbish and human waste frequently accumulating in the streets and alleys. This provided an abundant food source for rats, while the open sewers and cesspools created ideal nesting sites. The city’s inadequate sanitation measures contributed to the rat explosion and posed significant health risks to its inhabitants.


The Rat Species and Their Impact

Cultural practices of the time imbued rats with a fearsome reputation, portraying them as a species that co-existed and co-evolved with human civilisation, gnawing away at its foundations. Author Henry Mayhew noted that the animosity towards rats intensified with the emergence of a new species. The indigenous black rat (rattus rattus), considered relatively harmless by naturalists, was displaced and supplanted by the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), perceived to be more aggressive, adaptable, and resistant to harsh environments, became the predominant species in Victorian London. Mayhew wrote:

“This formidable invader is now universally diffused through the whole country, from whence every method has been tried in vain to exterminate it. This species is about nine inches long, of a light-brown colour, mixed with tawny and ash; the throat and belly are of a dirty white, inclining to grey; its feet are naked, and of a pale flesh-colour; the tail is as long as the body, covered with minute dusky scales, thinly interspersed with short hairs.”

Mayhew’s depiction of the brown rat aligned with the observations of naturalists like Charles Waterton, who commented on their “destructive presence” and “ominous habits,” urging for their swift removal. By adopting the language associated with national identity, Mayhew characterised the brown rat as an invasive, foreign species notorious for its voracious appetite. 

Mayhew portrayed these rats as cunning and strategic creatures, bent on annihilating habitats and human food supplies while slyly concealing their ill-gotten gains, ‘It is a bold and fierce little animal, and when closely pursued, will turn and fasten on its assailant’

The proliferation of rats had a significant impact on public health, the economy, and society as a whole. Rats were notorious carriers of leptospirosis and typhus, constantly threatening the city’s inhabitants. 

The fear of being bitten or eaten by a rat was real. Naturalist Charles Waterton wrote in his Essay on Natural History ​rats will occasionally attempt to feed on individuals of the human species when they sleep’. Mayhew wrote of its bite: ‘Its bite is keen and the wound it inflicts is painful and difficult to heal, owing to the form of its teeth, which are long, sharp, and of an irregular shape’.

The infestations also damaged property and food supplies, causing financial losses for businesses and exacerbating issues such as poverty and class divides.

Ellen Terry, a renowned British stage actress and socialite, was a prominent figure in the world of Victorian London theatre. While much of her early life is shrouded in mystery, her memoirs provide a fascinating glimpse into the everyday experiences and challenges faced by those who lived and worked in the bustling city during the 19th century. One particularly vivid episode from her memoirs recounts her observations of rats at the Lyceum Theatre, revealing an often overlooked aspect of Victorian London’s urban environment.

The Lyceum Theatre: A Playground for Rats

According to Terry’s memoirs, the Lyceum Theatre’s courtyard, where spare scenery was stored, served as a gathering place for a multitude of rats. While the exact reasons for their presence remain unclear, it is likely that the rodents were drawn to the area by the prospect of gnawing on the paint-covered canvas. As a testament to the adaptability of rats in urban settings, this account offers a unique perspective on the coexistence of humans and animals in Victorian London.

From her window seat at the Lyceum Theatre, Ellen Terry would watch the rats in amazement, marvelling at the sheer number of creatures that inhabited the courtyard. 

The Storm and Its Lasting Impact

In her memoirs, Terry recalls a particularly striking incident during which a violent storm struck the theatre. The tempestuous weather, combined with the sight of rats crawling across the courtyard, left a lasting impression on her. Years later, while performing in a production of “Faust” at the Lyceum, the Brocken Scene – characterized by thunder, lightning, and an overwhelming sense of gloom – would trigger this memory, cementing the connection between the rats of the Lyceum and the darker aspects of the city’s atmosphere.

The Need for Rat Catchers

In an age before modern pest control methods, rat catchers emerged as a necessary force to keep these vermin at bay.

Rats could be a big problem, as reported by one Victorian rat catcher: “One pair of rats … with their progeny, will produce in three years no less a number than 646,808 rats, which will consume day by day as much food as 64,680 men, leaving eight rats to starve.”

The Art of Rat Catching

Knowledge of rat behaviour: A successful rat catcher needed a deep understanding of rat habits and behaviour and knows where to find them and how best to capture them. This knowledge was often acquired through years of experience and passed down from generation to generation.

Victorian rat catchers used an array of techniques to trap and kill rats. Methods employed by rat catchers included using ferrets to flush rats out of their hiding places and employing well-trained terrier dogs to catch and kill them.

In his influential book, “London Labour and the London Poor,” author Henry Mayhew documented the lives and occupations of various individuals living and working in Victorian London. 

Mayhew wrote about the remarkable abilities of terriers to catch and kill rats. He noted that these dogs were highly skilled and efficient, capable of “throttling them [rats] silently, excepting the short squeak, or half-squeak, of the rat, who, by a ‘good dog’, is seized unerringly by the part of the back where the terrier’s gripe and shake is speedy death.” This vivid description highlights the effectiveness of terriers in dispatching rats quickly and quietly, minimising the struggle and noise that could otherwise alert other rats or disturb residents.

Rat catchers of the time often boasted about their use of mysterious secret poisons, which they claimed were irresistibly enticing to rats. However, the truth behind these so-called secret poisons was much simpler: their primary ingredient was plain, easily accessible arsenic.

Rat catchers would carefully mix arsenic with various food items that were known to be attractive to rats. These included toasted cheese, bacon, fried liver, tallow, or oatmeal. By combining the deadly poison with these appealing ingredients, rat catchers created lethal bait that rats would readily consume, leading to their swift demise.

Although arsenic proved to be an effective means of killing rats, it had drawbacks. One significant concern was the potential risk to humans and other animals if they accidentally ingested the poisoned bait or rats. 

Despite these challenges, rat catchers in Victorian London relied on arsenic-based poisons as one of their primary methods for controlling rat populations. This approach, combined with other techniques such as employing well-trained terrier dogs or using traps like cages and snap traps, contributed significantly to the efforts to mitigate the threat of rats and the diseases they carried in the city.

In certain circumstances, capturing rats alive rather than killing them was necessary. Two primary reasons for this were to use the rats for blood sports and to breed and sell them as house pets.

Capturing Rats for Blood Sports:

One effective method for capturing rats unharmed was to use ferrets to flush them out and drive them into a trap. As natural predators of rats, ferrets were highly effective in coaxing the rodents out of their hiding places, making it easier for rat catchers to seize them without causing injury.

Breeding and Selling Rats as House Pets:

Another reason to capture rats alive was to breed and sell them as pets. A famous rat catcher named Jack Black, who served as Queen Victoria’s personal rat catcher, was known for catching rats of various colours, including rare and unusual ones. He would breed and sell these rats to aristocratic women, who kept them in squirrel cages as fashionable pets.

The Rat Catcher even made his way into a song, well, his daughter did anyway.

The Rat Catcher’s Daughter is a song. Sam Cowell (1820 – 1864) became a prominent performer in the early Music Halls and supper rooms of the 19th century. He became particularly known for his unique talent of reinterpreting older songs in a satirical, burlesque manner that evoked laughter from his audiences. Cowell’s performance of this particular song, which he famously popularised, showcased his comedic prowess and contributed to his stardom.

Reverend Edward Bradley (1827-1889), who wrote under the pseudonym Cuthbert Bede, was an accomplished novelist and humourist. He is credited with authoring the lyrics for this specific rendition of the song, published in 1852. The song’s origins can be traced back to an earlier version that appeared in numerous 19th-century broadsheets and songbooks. Although these sources’ dates are only sometimes precise, the earliest known reference to the song dates back to 1832.

The song’s popularity persisted throughout the 19th century and even experienced a resurgence in the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to Music Hall revivalists like Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Butcher, and Muriel George. These artists’ performances and recorded versions of the song likely influenced and inspired a new generation of traditional singers to incorporate it into their repertoires.

According to the Notes and Queries in Music section of the Queen newspaper, 1894, the song’s manuscript could be purchased from J Allen of 20 Warwick Lane, Paternoster Row or at the Music Bouquet office on High Holborn.

The Ratcatcher’s Daughter

Video: The Ratcatcher’s Daughter

Ultimately, the song The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, is a love story between the rat catcher’s daughter and a salt seller. I have included a link to the song in the show notes (copyright doesn’t allow me to play it for you now) but I can share with you the lyrics:


Not long ago in Westminster

 There lived a rat catcher’s daughter

 But she didn’t quite live in Westminster

 Cos she lived t’other side of the water

 Her Father caught rats and she sold sprats

 All round and about that quarter

 And the gentlefolk all took off their hats

 To the pretty little rat catcher’s daughter.


 Doodle dee, doodle dum, di dum doodle da


 She wore no ‘at upon ‘er head

 No cap nor dainty bonnet

 The ‘air of ‘er ‘ead all ‘ung down her back

 Like a bunch of carrots upon it

 When she cried “Sprats” in Westminster

 She ‘ad such a sweet loud voice

 You could hear her all down Parliament Street

 As far as Charing Cross, sir


 Now rich and poor, both far and near

 In matrimony sought her

 But at friends and foes she turn’d up her nose

 Did the putty little rat catchers daughter

 For there was a man, sold lily-white sand

 In cupid’s net had caught her

 And right over head and heals in love

 Went the pretty little rat catcher’s daughter,


 Now lily-white sand so ran in her head

 As she went along the Strand, Oh

 She forgot as she’d got sprats on her head

 And cried “D’y want any lily-white sand, Oh”

 The folks, amazed, all thought her crazed

 As she went along the Strand, Oh

 To see a gal with sprats on her head

 Cry “D’y want any lily-white sand, Oh,”


 Now rat catcher’s daughter so ran in his head 

 He couldn’t tell what he was arter

 So instead of crying “D’y want any sand”

 He cried “D’y want any rat catcher’s daughter?”

 His donkey cocked his ears and laughed

 He couldn’t think what he was arter

 When he heard his lily-white sandman cry

 “D’y want any rat catcher’s daughter?”


 They both agreed to married be

 Upon next Easter Sunday

 But rat catcher’s daughter she had a dream

 That she wouldn’t be alive on Monday

 She went once more to buy some sprats

 And she tumbled into the water

 And down to the bottom, all kiver’d up with mud

 Went the pretty little rat catcher’s daughter.


 When lily-white sand ‘e heard the news

 His eyes ran down with water

 Said ‘e in love I’ll constant prove

 And – blow me if I’ll live long arter

 So he cut ‘is throat with a pane of glass

 And stabbed ‘is donkey arter

 So ‘ere is an end of lily-white Sand

 Donkey, and the rat catcher’s daughter.


 Additional verses by Charles Slocum:

 The neighbours all, both great and small

 They flocked unto ‘er ‘berrein’

 And wept that a gal who’d cried out sprats

 Should be as dead as any ‘herrein’

 The Coroner’s inquest on her sot

 At the sign of the Jack i’ the Water

 To find what made life’s sand run out

 Of the pretty little rat catcher’s daughter.


 The verdict was that too much wet

 This poor young woman died on

 For she made an ole in the Riviere Thames

 Vot the penny steamers ride on

 ‘Twas a haccident they all agreed

 And nuffink like self-slaughter

 So not guiltee o’ fell in the sea

 They brought in the rat catcher’s daughter.

To give some context: In episode 103, Annie Besant and mid-19th century London, I describe some of the street sellers, also known as costermongers, who would traverse the streets of London, peddling their wares while shouting their distinct cries to attract customers. I didn’t mention salt or sprat sellers. Now you know why. 

Sand Sellers

As the sand sellers made their rounds, their “Sand O!” cries resonated through the bustling streets. Sand served many purposes in the households of the time, proving indispensable for various tasks and storage methods.

In the kitchens, sand was used to cleanse and scrub utensils, ensuring impeccable cleanliness. For preserving root vegetables and fruits, sand acted as a natural storage medium, maintaining their freshness and delaying spoilage. It was also used to clean floors, providing an effective abrasive to remove dirt and grime.

Moreover, sand formed a protective layer akin to a rug, shielding delicate floors from potential damage. With such a wide array of applications, it’s no wonder the demand for sand was high, attracting the attention of both vendors and customers alike.

Two distinct varieties of sand graced the market, each with its unique attributes and price point. The red sand, with its coarser texture and vibrant hue, was sold at a reasonable “twopence halfpenny.” In contrast, the finer and more sought-after white sand commanded a higher price of “five farthings per peck,” reflecting its superior quality and desirability.

Sprat Sellers

A sprat is a small, oily fish closely related to herrings and sardines sold by London’s Victorian street vendors. The fish were sold fresh, smoked or preserved in salt (which must have been how the rat catcher’s daughter got to know the salt seller).

They would typically carry the sprats in large, shallow baskets or trays, sometimes displaying them atop their heads for better visibility. The vendors often appealingly arranged the sprats, with the fish laid out in a circular pattern or organised in neat rows to catch the eyes of potential buyers.

Sprats were particularly popular in the winter months due to their seasonal abundance. The fish would be sold at relatively low prices, making them an affordable and accessible source of protein for working-class families in London.


Next episode we look into the profession of the rat catchers and others who made a living from rats in Victorian London.


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