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.
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 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).
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.
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.