London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


A Night at Rat-Killing.


CONSIDERING the immense number of rats which form an article of commerce with many of the lower orders, whose business it is to keep them for the purpose of rat matches, I thought it necessary, for the full elucidation of my subject, to visit the well-known publichouse in London, where, on a certain night in the week, a pit is built up, and regular ratkilling matches take place, and where those who have sporting dogs, and are anxious to test their qualities, can, after such matches are finished, purchase half a dozen or a dozen rats for them to practise upon, and judge for themselves of their dogs" "performances."

To quote the words printed on the proprietor"s card, "he is always at his old house at home, as usual, to discuss the FANCY generally."

I arrived at about o"clock at the tavern where the performances were to take place. I was too early, but there was plenty to occupy my leisure in looking at the curious scene around me, and taking notes of the habits and conversation of the customers who were flocking in.

The front of the long bar was crowded with men of every grade of society, all smoking, drinking, and talking about dogs. Many of them had brought with them their "fancy" animals, so that a kind of "canine exhibition" was going on; some carried under their arm small bull-dogs, whose flat pink noses rubbed against my arm as I passed; others had Skyeterriers, curled up like balls of hair, and sleeping like children, as they were nursed by their owners. The only animals that seemed awake, and under continual excitement, were the little brown English terriers, who, despite the neat black leathern collars by which they were held, struggled to get loose, as if they smelt the rats in the room above, and were impatient to begin the fray.

There is a business-like look about this tavern which at once lets you into the character of the person who owns it. The drinking seems to have been a secondary notion in its formation, for it is a low-roofed room without any of those adornments which are now generally considered so necessary to render a public-house attractive. The tubs where the spirits are kept are blistered with the heat of the gas, and so dirty that the once brilliant gilt hoops are now quite black.

Sleeping on an old hall-chair lay an enormous white bulldog, "a great beauty," as I was informed, with a head as round and smooth as a clenched boxing-glove, and seemingly too large for the body. Its forehead appeared to protrude in a manner significant of water on the brain, and almost overhung the short nose, through which the animal breathed heavily. When this dog, which was the admiration of all beholders, rose up, its legs were as bowed as a tailor"s, leaving a peculiar pear-shaped opening between them, which, I was informed, was of its points of beauty. It was a white dog, with a sore look, from its being peculiarly pink round the eyes, nose, and indeed at all the edges of its body.



On the other side of the fire-place was a white bull-terrier dog, with a black patch over the eye, which gave him rather a disreputable look. This animal was watching the movements of the customers in front, and occasionally, when the entrance-door was swung back, would give a growl of inquiry as to what the fresh-comer wanted. The proprietor was kind enough to inform me, as he patted this animal"s ribs, which showed like the hoops on a butter-firkin, that he considered there had been a "little of the greyhound in some of his back generations."

About the walls were hung clusters of black leather collars, adorned with brass rings and clasps, and pre-eminent was a silver dogcol- lar, which, from the conversation of those about me, I learnt was to be the prize in a rat-match to be "killed for" in a fortnight"s time.

As the visitors poured in, they, at the request of the proprietor "not to block up the bar," took their seats in the parlour, and, accompanied by a waiter, who kept shouting, "Give your orders, gentlemen," I entered the room.

I found that, like the bar, no pains had been taken to render the room attractive to the customers, for, with the exception of the sporting pictures hung against the dingy paper, it was devoid of all adornment. Over the fireplace were square glazed boxes, in which were the stuffed forms of dogs famous in their day. Pre-eminent among the prints was that representing the "Wonder" Tiny, " and a half in weight," as he appeared killing rats. This engraving had a singular look, from its having been printed upon a silk handkerchief. Tiny had been a great favourite with the proprietor, and used to wear a lady"s bracelet as a collar.

Among the stuffed heads was of a white bull-dog, with tremendous glass eyes sticking out, as if it had died of strangulation. The proprietor"s son was kind enough to explain to me the qualities that had once belonged to this favourite. "They"ve spoilt her in stuffing, sir," he said; "made her so short in the head; but she was the wonder of her day. There wasn"t a dog in England as would come nigh her. There"s her daughter," he added, pointing to another head, something like that of a seal, "but she wasn"t reckoned half as handsome as her mother, though she was very much admired in her time.

That there is a dog," he continued, pointing to one represented with a rat in its mouth, "it was as good as any in England, though it"s so small. I"ve seen her kill a dozen rats almost as big as herself, though they killed her at last; for sewer-rats are dreadful for giving dogs canker in the mouth, and she wore herself out with continually killing them, though we always rinsed her mouth out well with peppermint and water while she were at work. When rats bite they are pisonous, and an ulcer is formed, which we are obleeged to lance; that"s what killed her.

The company assembled in "the parlour" consisted of sporting men, or those who, from curiosity, had come to witness what a ratmatch was like. Seated at the same table, talking together, were those dressed in the costermonger"s suit of corduroy, soldiers with their uniforms carelessly unbuttoned, coachmen in their livery, and tradesmen who had slipped on their evening frock-coats, and run out from the shop to see the sport.

The dogs belonging to the company were standing on the different tables, or tied to the legs of the forms, or sleeping in their owners" arms, and were in turn minutely criticised — their limbs being stretched out as if they were being felt for fractures, and their mouths looked into, as if a dentist were examining their teeth. Nearly all the little animals were marked with scars from bites. "Pity to bring him up to rat-killing," said , who had been admiring a fierce-looking bull-terrier, although he did not mention at the same time what line in life the little animal ought to pursue.

At another table man was declaring that his pet animal was the exact image of the celebrated rat-killing dog "Billy," at the same time pointing to the picture against the wall of that famous animal, "as he performed his wonderful feat of killing rats in minutes and a half."

There were amongst the visitors some French gentlemen, who had evidently witnessed nothing of the kind before; and whilst they endeavoured to drink their hot gin and water, they made their interpreter translate to them the contents of a large placard hung upon a hatpeg, and headed—



About o"clock the proprietor took the chair in the parlour, at the same time giving the order to "shut up the shutters in the room above, and light up the pit." This announcement seemed to rouse the spirits of the impatient assembly, and even the dogs tied to the legs of the tables ran out to the length of their leathern thongs, and their tails curled like eels, as if they understood the meaning of the words.

Why, that"s the little champion," said the proprietor, patting a dog with thighs like a grasshopper, and whose mouth opened back to its ears. "Well, it is a beauty! I wish I could gammon you to take a "fiver" for it." Then looking round the room, he added, "Well, gents, I"m glad to see you look so comfortable.

The performances of the evening were somewhat hurried on by the entering of a young gentleman, whom the waiters called "Cap"an."

"Now, Jem, when is this match coming off?" the Captain asked impatiently; and despite


the assurance that they were getting ready, he threatened to leave the place if kept waiting much longer. This young officer seemed to be a great "fancier" of dogs, for he made the round of the room, handling each animal in its turn, feeling and squeezing its feet, and scrutinising its eyes and limbs with such minuteness, that the French gentlemen were forced to inquire who he was.

There was no announcement that the room above was ready, though everybody seemed to understand it; for all rose at once, and mounting the broad wooden staircase, which led to what was once the "drawing-room," dropped their shillings into the hand of the proprietor, and entered the rat-killing apartment.

"The pit," as it is called, consists of a small circus, some feet in diameter. It is about as large as a centre flower-bed, and is fitted with a high wooden rim that reaches to elbow height. Over it the branches of a gas lamp are arranged, which light up the white painted floor, and every part of the little arena. On side of the room is a recess, which the proprietor calls his "private box," and this apartment the Captain and his friend soon took possession of, whilst the audience generally clambered upon the tables and forms, or hung over the sides of the pit itself.

All the little dogs which the visitors had brought up with them were now squalling and barking, and struggling in their masters" arms, as if they were thoroughly acquainted with the uses of the pit; and when a rusty wire cage of rats, filled with the dark moving mass, was brought forward, the noise of the dogs was so great that the proprietor was obliged to shout out—"Now, you that have dogs make "em shut up."

The Captain was the to jump into the pit. A man wanted to sell him a bull-terrier, spotted like a fancy rabbit, and a dozen of rats was the consequent order.

The Captain preferred pulling the rats out of the cage himself, laying hold of them by their tails and jerking them into the arena. He was cautioned by of the men not to let them bite him, for "believe me," were the words, "you"ll never forget, Cap"an; these"ere are none of the cleanest."

Whilst the rats were being counted out, some of those that had been taken from the cage ran about the painted floor and climbed up the young officer"s legs, making him shake them off and exclaim, "Get out, you varmint!" whilst others of the ugly little animals sat upon their hind legs, cleaning their faces with their paws.

When the dog in question was brought forth and shown the dozen rats, he grew excited, and stretched himself in his owner"s arms, whilst all the other animals joined in a full chorus of whining.

"Chuck him in," said the Captain, and over went the dog; and in a the rats were running round the circus, or trying to hide themselves between the small openings in the boards round the pit.

Although the proprietor of the dog endeavoured to speak up for it, by declaring "it was a good "un, and a very pretty performer," still it was evidently not worth much in a ratkill- ing sense; and if it had not been for his "," who beat the sides of the pit with his hand, and shouted "Hi! hi! at "em!" in a most bewildering manner, we doubt if the terrier would not have preferred leaving the rats to themselves, to enjoy their lives. Some of the rats, when the dog advanced towards them, sprang up in his face, making him draw back with astonishment. Others, as he bit them, curled round in his mouth and fastened on his nose, so that he had to carry them as a cat does its kittens. It also required many shouts of "Drop it—dead "un," before he would leave those he had killed.

We cannot say whether the dog was eventually bought; but from its owner"s exclaiming, in a kind of apologetic tone, "Why, he never saw a rat before in all his life," we fancy no dealings took place.

The Captain seemed anxious to see as much sport as he could, for he frequently asked those who carried dogs in their arms whether "his little "un would kill," and appeared sorry when such answers were given as—"My dog"s mouth"s a little out of order, Cap"an," or "I"ve only tried him at very small "uns."

little dog was put in the pit to amuse himself with the dead bodies. He seized hold of almost as big as himself, shook it furiously till the head thumped the floor like a drumstick, making those around shout with laughter, and causing man to exclaim, "He"s a good "un at shaking heads and tails, ain"t he?"

Preparations now began for the grand match of the evening, in which rats were to be killed. The "dead "uns" were gathered up by their tails and flung into the corner. The floor was swept, and a big flat basket produced, like those in which chickens are brought to market, and under whose iron wire top could be seen small mounds of closely packed rats.

This match seemed to be between the proprietor and his son, and the stake to be gained was only a bottle of lemonade, of which the father stipulated he should have drink.

It was strange to observe the daring manner in which the lad introduced his hand into the rat cage, sometimes keeping it there for more than a minute at a time, as he fumbled about and stirred up with his fingers the living mass, picking out, as he had been requested, "only the big "uns."

When the animals had been flung into the pit, they gathered themselves together into a mound which reached - up the sides, and which reminded of the heap of hairsweepings in a barber"s shop after a heavy day"s cutting. These were all sewer and water-


ditch rats, and the smell that rose from them was like that from a hot drain.

The Captain amused himself by flicking at them with his pocket handkerchief, and offering them the lighted end of his cigar, which the little creatures tamely snuffed at, and drew back from, as they singed their noses.

It was also a favourite amusement to blow on the mound of rats, for they seemed to dislike the cold wind, which sent them fluttering about like so many feathers; indeed, whilst the match was going on, whenever the little animals collected together, and formed a barricade as it were to the dog, the cry of "Blow on "em! blow on "em!" was given by the spectators, and the dog"s puffed at them as if extinguishing a fire, when they would dart off like so many sparks.

The company was kept waiting so long for the match to begin that the impatient Captain again threatened to leave the house, and was only quieted by the proprietor"s reply of "My dear friend, be easy, the boy"s on the stairs with the dog;" and true enough we shortly heard a wheezing and a screaming in the passage without, as if some strong-winded animal were being strangled, and presently a boy entered, carrying in his arms a bull-terrier in a perfect fit of excitement, foaming at the mouth and stretching its neck forward, so that the collar which held it back seemed to be cutting its throat in .

The animal was nearly mad with rage— scratching and struggling to get loose. "Lay hold a little closer up to the head or he"ll turn round and nip yer," said the proprietor to his son.

Whilst the gasping dog was fastened up in a corner to writhe its impatience away, the landlord made inquiries for a stop-watch, and also for an umpire to decide, as he added, "whether the rats were dead or alive when they"re "killed," as Paddy says."

When all the arrangements had been made the "" and the dog jumped into the pit, and after "letting him see "em a bit," the terrier was let loose.

The moment the dog was "free," he became quiet in a most business-like manner, and rushed at the rats, burying his nose in the mound till he brought out in his mouth. In a short time a dozen rats with wetted necks were lying bleeding on the floor, and the white paint of the pit became grained with blood.

In a little time the terrier had a rat hanging to his nose, which, despite his tossing, still held on. He dashed up against the sides, leaving a patch of blood as if a strawberry had been smashed there.

"He doesn"t squeal, that"s good thing," said of the lookers-on.

As the rats fell on their sides after a bite they were collected together in the centre, where they lay quivering in their deathgasps!

"Hi, Butcher! hi, Butcher!" shouted the , "good dog! bur-r-r-r-r-h!" and he beat the sides of the pit like a drum till the dog flew about with new life.

Dead "un! drop it!" he cried, when the terrier "nosed" a rat kicking on its side, as it slowly expired of its broken neck.

Time!" said the proprietor, when of the minutes had expired, and the dog was caught up and held panting, his neck stretched out like a serpent"s, staring intently at the rats which still kept crawling about.

The poor little wretches in this brief interval, as if forgetting their danger, again commenced cleaning themselves, some nibbling the ends of their tails, others hopping about, going now to the legs of the lad in the pit, and sniffing at his trousers, or, strange to say, advancing, smelling, to within a few paces of their enemy the dog.

The dog lost the match, and the proprietor, we presume, honourably paid the bottle of lemonade to his son. But he was evidently displeased with the dog"s behaviour, for he said, "He won"t do for me—he"s not of my sort! Here, Jim, tell Mr. G. he may have him if he likes; I won"t give him house room."

A plentiful shower of halfpence was thrown into the pit as a reward for the who had backed the dog.

A slight pause now took place in the proceedings, during which the landlord requested that the gentlemen "would give their minds up to drinking; you know the love I have for you," he added jocularly, "and that I don"t care for any of you;" whilst the waiter accompanied the invitation with a cry of "Give your orders, gentlemen," and the lad with the rats asked if "any other gentleman would like any rats."

Several other dogs were tried, and amongst them who, from the size of his stomach, had evidently been accustomed to large dinners, and looked upon rat-killing as a sport and not as a business. The appearance of this fat animal was greeted with remarks such as "Why don"t you feed your dog?" and "You shouldn"t give him more than meals aday."

Another impatient bull-terrier was thrown into the midst of a dozen rats. He did his duty so well, that the admiration of the spectators was focussed upon him.

Ah," said one, "he"d do better at a hundred than twelve;" whilst another observed, "Rat-killing"s his game, I can see;" while the landlord himself said, "He"s a very pretty creetur", and I"d back him to kill against anybody"s dog at eight and a half or nine.

The Captain was so startled with this terrier"s "cleverness," that he vowed that if she could kill in a minute "he"d give a guineas for her."

It was nearly o"clock before the evening"s performance concluded. Several of the


spectators tried their dogs upon or rats, either the biggest or the smallest that could be found: and many offers as to what "he wanted for the dog," and many inquiries as to "who was its father," were made before the company broke up.

At last the landlord, finding that no "gentleman would like a few rats," and that his exhortations to "give their minds up to drinking" produced no further effect upon the company, spoke the epilogue of the rat tragedies in these words;—

Gentlemen, I give a very handsome solid silver collar to be killed for next Tuesday. Open to all the world, only they must be novice dogs, or at least such as is not considered pheenomenons. We shall have plenty of sport, gentlemen, and there will be loads of rat-killing. I hope to see all my kind friends, not forgetting your dogs, likewise; and may they be like the Irishman all over, who had good trouble to catch and kill "em, and took good care they didn"t come to life again. Gentlemen, there is a good parlour down-stairs, where we meets for harmony and entertainment.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men