The Rat Catchers who supplied the Pits

From Henry Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor,” we get a nice description of the rat catchers of his day who supplied the rat pits where small dogs competed based on weight:

“The number of Vermin-Destroyers and Rat-Catchers who ply their avocation in London has of late years become greatly diminished. One cause which I heard assigned for this was that many ruinous old buildings and old streets had been removed, and whole colonies of rats had been thereby extirpated. Another was that the race of rat-catchers had become distrusted, and had either sought some other mode of subsistence, or had resorted to other fields for the exercise of their professional labours.

“The rat-catcher’s dress is usually a velveteen jacket, strong corduroy trousers, and laced boots. Round his shoulder he wears an oil-skin belt, on which are painted the figures of huge rats, with fierce-looking eyes and formidable whiskers. His hat is usually glazed and sometimes painted after the manner of his belt. Occasionally — and in the country far more than in town — he carries in his hand an iron cage in which are ferrets, while two or three crop-eared terriers dog his footsteps. Sometimes a tamed rat runs about his shoulders and arms, or nestles in his bosom or in the large pockets of his coat. When a rat-catcher is thus accompanied, there is generally a strong aromatic odour about him, far from agreeable; this is owing to his clothes being rubbed with oil of thyme and oil of aniseed, mixed together. This composition is said to be so attractive to the sense of the rats (when used by a man who understands its due apportionment and proper application) that the vermin have left their holes and crawled to the master of the powerful spell. I heard of one man (not a rat-catcher professionally) who had in this way tamed a rat so effectually that the animal would eat out of his mouth, crawl upon his shoulder to be fed, and then ‘smuggle into his bosom’ (the words of my informant) ‘and sleep there for hours.’ The rat-catchers have many wonderful stories of the sagacity of the rat, and though in reciting their own feats, these men may not be the most trustworthy of narrators, any work on natural history will avouch that rats are sagacious may be trained to be very docile, and are naturally animals of great resources in all straits and difficulties.

“One great source of the rat-catcher’s employment and emolument thirty years ago, or even to a later period, is now comparatively a nonentity. At that time the rat-catcher or killer sometimes received a yearly or quarterly stipend to keep a London granary clear of rats. I was told by a man who has for twenty-eight years been employed about London granaries, that he had never known a rat-catcher employed in one except about twenty or twenty-two years ago, and that was in a granary by the river-side. The professional man, he told me, certainly poisoned many rats, ‘which stunk so,’ continued my informant — but then all evil odours in old buildings are attributed to dead rats — ‘that it was enough to infect the corn.

“‘He poisoned two fine cats as well. But I believe he was a young hand and a bungler.’ The rats, after these measures had been taken, seem to have deserted the place for three weeks or a month, when they returned in as great numbers as ever; nor were their ravages and annoyances checked until the drains were altered and rebuilt. It is in the better disposition of the drains of a corn-magazine, I am assured, that the great check upon the inroads of these ‘varmint’ is attained — by strong mason work and by such a series and arrangement of grates, as defy even the perseverance of a rat. Otherwise the hordes which prey upon the garbage in the common sewers, are certain to find their way into the granary along the drains and channels communicating with those sewers, and will increase rapidly despite the measures of the rat-catcher.

“The same man told me that he had been five or six times applied to by rat-catchers, and with liberal offers of beer, to allow them to try and capture the black rats in the granary. One of these traders declared he wanted them ‘for a gent as vas curous in them there hinteresting warmint’; but from the representations of the other applicants, my informant was convinced that they were wanted for rat-hunts, the Dog Billy being backed for 100 pounds. to kill so many rats in so many minutes. ‘You see, sir,’ the corn merchant’s man continued, ‘ours is an old concern, and there’s black rats in it, great big fellows; some of ’em must be old, for they’re as white about the muzzle as is the Duke of Wellington, and they have the character of being very strong and very fierce. One of the catchers asked me if I knew what a stunning big black rat would weigh, as if I weighed rats! I always told them that I cared nothing about rat-hunts and that I knew our people wouldn’t like to be bothered; and they was gentlemen that didn’t admire sporting characters.’

“The rat-catchers are also rat-killers. They destroy the animals sometimes by giving them what is called in the trade ‘an alluring poison.’ Every professional destroyer, or capturer, of rats will pretend that as to poison he has his own particular method — his secret — his discovery. But there is no doubt that arsenic is the basis of all their poisons.

“If the rats have to be taken alive, they are either trapped, so as not to injure them for a rat-hunt (or the procedure in the pit would be accounted ‘foul’), or if driven out of their holes by ferrets, they can only run into some cask, or other contrivance, where they can be secured for the ‘sportman’s’ purposes.

“The grand consumption of rats, is in Bunhill-row, at a public-house kept by a pugilist. A rat-seller told me that from 200 to 500 rats were killed there weekly, the weekly average being, however, only the former number; while at Easter and other holidays, it is not uncommon to see bills posted announcing the destruction of 500 rats on the same day and in a given time. Dogs are matched at these and similar places, as to which kills the greatest number of these animals in the shortest time. I am told that there are forty such places in London, but in some only the holiday times are celebrated in this small imitation of the beast combats of the ancients.

“To show the nature of the sport of rat- catching, I print the following bill, of which I procured two copies. The words and type are precisely the same in each, but one bill is printed on good and the other on very indifferent paper, as if for distribution among distinct classes. The concluding announcement, as to the precise moment at which killing will commence, reads supremely business-like:


A Sporting Gentleman,
Who is a Staunch Supporter of the destruction of these Vermin will

Under 13£Kw. Wt.


On Tuesday, May 20, 1851

To be killed in a Large Wire Pit.
A chalk Circle to be drawn in the centre for the Second.—

Any man touching Dog or Rats, or acting in any
way unfair his dog will be disqualified.

To go to Scale at Half past
7 Killing to Commence At Half past 8 Precisely.

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