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RAT CATCHERS



Rat catchers' was the subject of David Cufley's illustrated talk on 15 September 2017.
Himself descended from a nineteenth-century dynasty of rat catchers in Enfield, David traced the history of rats from the worst medieval plague (1348-50), to the first use of the word 'rat catcher' in English (1592), the first appearance of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin in English (1605), and the Great Plague of London (1665) as documented in weekly printed Bills of Mortality.

Then, drawing on Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (1851-62), he described the popular sport of Rat Matches in London pubs.
Two dogs competed in a sunken pit surrounded by spectators to see how many rats they could kill in a set time. The dogs, often terriers, killed the rats by taking them in their mouths and shaking them to death. The winner received a prize and there were wagers among the spectators. Jimmy Shaw, an ex-prize fighter, held Rat Matches on Wednesdays and Saturdays in his pub in Bunhill Row, behind the burial ground in City Road.
So popular was the sport that country rat catchers, who had been receiving 2d. from farmers for each dead rat, could now make 3d. by bringing live rats to London, where they were held in cages and fed until their time came.
London sewer rats could also be used, but only after a period of quarantine because of the danger of infecting the dogs. Jimmy Shaw's establishment accounted for 26,000 rats a year, and his was only one of some 40 London pubs to offer the sport. Contemporary illustrations show some of the rat pits, and also the traditional dress of rat catchers in a velvet jacket, corduroy trousers, and laced up boots. In the early nineteenth century rat catching was more profitable than ordinary farm labour, but as agricultural wages increased it became a less attractive occupation. It is not certain when the last pub closed its rat pit. Altogether a fascinating talk on an unexpected corner of Victorian life.






 

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May 18, 2018

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