The brown rat arrived in England during the 18th century and quickly supplanted the native black rat. By the end of the 19th century these creatures were swarming around the sewers and cellars of Victorian London.
Rat-catching was a popular profession among London’s poor, who were well acquainted with these creatures. In 1851, Henry Mayhew published London Labour and the London Poor, a ground-breaking examination of the condition and lives of London’s underclass. In volume III, he wrote of the lives of the ‘Street-Folk’. Here he described he life and time of Jack Black.
The first time I ever saw Mr Black was in the streets of London, at the corner of Hart Street, where he was exhibiting the rapid effects of his rat poison, by placing some of it in the mouth of a living animal. He had a cart then with rats painted on the panels, and at the tailboard, where he stood lecturing, he had a kind of stage rigged up, on which were cages filled with rats, and pills, and poison packages.
Here I saw him dip his hand into this cage of rats and take out as many as he could hold, a feat which generally caused an ‘oh!’ of wonder to escape from the crowd, especially when they observed that his hands were unbitten. Women more particularly shuddered when they beheld him place some half-dozen of the dusty-looking brutes within his shirt next his skin; and men swore the animals had been tamed, as he let them run up his arms like squirrels, and the people gathered round beheld them sitting on his shoulders cleaning their faces with their front-paws, or rising up on their hind legs like little kangaroos, and sniffing about his ears and cheeks.
But those who knew Mr Black better, were well aware that the animals he took up in his hand were as wild as any of the rats in the sewers of London, and that the only mystery in the exhibition was that of a man having courage enough to undertake the work.
[B]lack told Mayhew that he had started catching rats at the age of nine, and by the early 1840s he was rat-catcher for various government departments in London, which included the Royal Palaces occupied by the Queen. Well-trained ferrets and terriers were the tools of his trade.
Like many a successful 19th-century entrepreneur, Black [right] was one-part showman. To advertise his business, he took to exhibiting in the streets wearing a striking costume of what leather breeches, a green coat and scarlet waistcoat, and a gold band round the hat, with leather belt embellished with cast iron rats worn sash-like across his body.
Not only did Black destroy the vermin, but he also supplied them for use in ratting competitions held in taverns, where terriers fought live rats [above] while their masters bet on their prowess at killing the rodents.
He appears also to have eaten them. “Moist as rabbits, and quite a nice”, was how he described them.
Black was reported to be ‘the most fearless handler of rats of any man living’, and Mayhew witnessed it himself when, at a public display, Black placed half a dozen rats (taken directly from the sewers) inside his shirt while delivering a sales pitch on the rapid effects of rat poison.
He was covered in scars and on his own account he had been at death’s door three times through rat bites.
When he caught any unusually coloured rats, he bred them to establish new colour varieties. He would sell his home-bred domesticated coloured rats as pets, mainly, ‘to well-bred young ladies to keep in squirrel cages’. In this way the keeping of domesticated rats was established.
Featured picture: Jack Black and the Wistar Rat © P. Burns Terrierman’s Daily Dose