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
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.