Europe Used To Be So Filthy That Rat Hunters Were A Legitimate Job

What do Queen Victoria, the Pied Piper, and a children’s book have in common? Rats, of course – more specifically, the art of catching them. The history of rat-catching is a lot more fascinating than you might expect, but it's probably just as gross. From sewers to disease to lucrative rat-fighting businesses, rat-catching is definitely the kind of dirty and disgusting job that deserves more recognition. 

The origins of the rat-catching story are pretty simple. Basically, Europe had a rat problem, and people were hired to solve it. The profession was a way to stem the tide of the Black Death during the Middle Ages, and it reached its height in Victoria's England. The way catchers took advantage of their position as vermin hunters, though, is what makes the history of rat-catchers so intriguing. Thanks to various first-hand accounts, biographies, pictures, and even fairy tales, there is so much to learn about the dirty work that kept Europe safe from disease and contaminated food. Despite all the good rat-catchers did, though, the idea of getting paid to hunt rats is still a bit icky. 

Try not to think too hard about it as you go read about the fascinating profession that was rat-catching. After all, if someone named Jack Black could hide six disease-ridden rats underneath his shirt, then you can certainly read about it from the comfort of your own home.

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  • Rat-Catching Was A Lucrative Business – Especially When You Bred The Rats That You Would Go On To Catch Or Sell

    Most rat-catchers were simple, poor folk who thought they might as well make a living off of killing the rats that already lived among them. Yet there were also those who realized that they could do much better than simply getting paid per dead rat. They used dogs and ferrets to hunt the rats rather than crawling down on the floor themselves. The real entrepreneurial rat-catchers sometimes even ended up simply breeding rats in order to release or sell them – and increase their pay.

  • Rat-Catchers Bred 'Fancy' Pet Rats For The Rich And Famous

    Rat-Catchers Bred 'Fancy' Pet Rats For The Rich And Famous
    Photo: Mayhew, H. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Rat breeding resulted not only in higher pay for rat-catchers, but also in the popularity of what were called "fancy rats." Fancy rats were, basically, pet rats that fancy, rich Victorians would keep in gilded cages. A man named Jack Black was most famous for breeding unusually colored rats and selling these designer vermin as pets to the likes of Beatrix Potter and Queen Victoria (yes, even Queen Victoria bought into the fashionable rat frenzy).

  • Rats Became Legit Thanks To Rat-Catchers

    Fancy rats became so popular that in 1901, the National Mouse Club began accepting rats, and by 1912, officially changed its name to the National Mouse and Rat Club. Interest in rats did decline over time, and the club reverted back to its original title, but in 1976 these fancy rats were finally given the proper acknowledgment they deserved, and the National Fancy Rat Society was born. 

  • Because Of Rat-Catchers And An 1835 Law, Rat-Baiting Became A Popular Blood Sport

    Because Of Rat-Catchers And An 1835 Law, Rat-Baiting Became A Popular Blood Sport
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Although the way to make money as a rat-catcher would seem to be catching rats, some rat catchers found a more unsettling way to use the vermin they hunted. In 1835, the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in the United Kingdom, forbidding popular blood-sport animals – like bears and bulls – from being used in animal baiting. However, this act said nothing about rats, and rat-baiting, or rat fighting, became a popular blood sport. Captured rats would be placed in a pit, and bets would be taken on how long a dog would take to kill the rats. This is certainly a lot less pleasant than selling rats as fancy pets, yet the same man who sold pet rats to Queen Victoria, Jack Black, participated heavily in rat-baiting as well.

  • These Weren’t Your Average Rats – Rat-Catchers Were After The Brown Ones With The Big 'Ol Bodies

    By the late 18th century, a new species of rat had invaded Great Britain. These were brown rats, AKA "Norway rats," and they were bigger and a lot more terrifying than the typical black rat. This is probably one of the main reasons rat-catchers were so sought after – who wants rats that chew on the hands and feet of children running around? In 1813, a naturalist named Charles Fothergrill wrote that these new "gray" rats had “superior bodily powers.” It’s no wonder the people who caught these rats were usually the most in need of money. 

  • Rat-catching Was Mostly a Poor Man’s Job

    Because of the literal dirty work necessary to catch and kill or capture rats, the business was mostly reserved for the poorest people. Jack Black, the most famous rat-catcher of his day, is so well known because he was written up in Henry Mayhew’s 1815 literary examination of London’s poor, called London Labour and the London Poor. There was a clear line between those who crawled around in the sewers catching rats and those who kept them as pets in gold cages. It made sense that the people who spent their childhoods playing with rodents in the floorboards would be the best adept at catching them. Hats off to “the London poor” for leveraging their unpleasant upbringing for a profit.