London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Jimmy Shaw.

THE proprietor of of the largest sporting public-houses in London, who is celebrated for the rat-matches which come off weekly at his establishment, was kind enough to favour me with a few details as to the quality of those animals which are destroyed in his pit. His statement was certainly of the most curious that I have listened to, and it was given to me with a readiness and a courtesy of manner such as I have not often met with during my researches. The landlord himself is known in pugilistic circles as of the most skilful boxers among what is termed the "light weights."

His statement is curious, as a proof of the large trade which is carried on in these animals, for it would seem that the men who make a business of catching rats are not always employed as "exterminators," for they make a good living as "purveyors" for supplying the demands of the sporting portion of London.

The poor people," said the sporting landlord, "who supply me with rats, are what you may call barn-door labouring poor, for they are the most ignorant people I ever come near. Really you would not believe people could live in such ignorance. Talk about Latin and Greek, sir, why English is Latin to them— in fact, I have a difficulty to understand them myself. When the harvest is got in, they go hunting the hedges and ditches for rats. Once the farmers had to pay 2d. a-head for all rats caught on their grounds, and they nailed them up against the wall. But now that the rat-ketchers can get 3d. each by bringing the vermin up to town, the farmers don"t pay them anything for what they ketch, but merely give them permission to hunt them in their stacks and barns, so that they no longer get their 2d. in the country, though they get their 3d. in town.

I have some twenty families depending upon me. From Clavering, in Essex, I suppose I have hundreds of thousands of rats sent to me in wire cages fitted into baskets. From Enfield I have a great quantity, but the ketchers don"t get them all there, but travel round the country for scores of miles, for you see 3d. a-head is money; besides, there are some liberal farmers who will still give them a halfpenny a-head into the bargain. Enfield is a kind of head-quarters for rat-ketchers.

It"s dangerous work, though, for you see there is a wonderful deal of difference in the specie of rats. The bite of sewer or waterditch rats is very bad. The water and ditch rat lives on filth, but your barn-rat is a plump fellow, and he lives on the best of everything. He"s well off. There"s as much difference between the barn and sewer-rats as between a brewer"s horse and a costermonger"s. Sewerrats are very bad for dogs, their coats is poisonous.

Some of the rats that are brought to me are caught in the warehouses in the City. Wherever there is anything in the shape of provisions, there you are sure to find Mr. Rat an intruder. The ketchers are paid for ketching them in the warehouses, and then they are sold to me as well, so the men must make a good thing of it. Many of the more courageous kind of warehousemen will take a pleasure in hunting the rats themselves.

I should think I buy in the course of the year, on the average, from 300 to 700 rats a-week." (Taking 500 as the weekly average, this gives a yearly purchase of 26,000 live rats.) "That"s what I kill taking all the year round, you see. Some first-class chaps will come here in the day-time, and they"ll try their dogs. They"ll say, "Jimmy, give the dog 100." After he"s polished them off they"ll say, perhaps, "Hang it, give him another 100." Bless you!" he added, in a kind of whisper, "I"ve had noble ladies and titled ladies come here to see the sport—on the quiet, you know. When my wife was here they would come regular, but now she"s away they don"t come so often.

The largest quantity of rats I"ve bought from one man was five guineas" worth, or thirty-five dozen at 3d. a-head, and that"s a load for a horse. This man comes up from Clavering in akind of cart, with a horse that"s a regular phenomena, for it ain"t like a beast nor nothing. I pays him a good deal of money at times, and I"m sure I can"t tell what he does with it; but they do tell me that he deals in old iron, and goes buying it up, though he don"t seem to have much of a head-piece for that sort of fancy neither.

During the harvest-time the rats run scarcer you see, and the ketcher turns up rat- ketching for harvest work. After the harvest rats gets plentiful again.

I"ve had as many as 2000 rats in this very house at one time. They"ll consume a sack of barley-meal a week, and the brutes, if you don"t give "em good stuff, they"ll eat one another, hang "em!

I"m the oldest canine fancier in London, and I"m the first that started ratting; in fact, I know I"m the oldest caterer in rat-killing in the metropolis. I began as a lad, and I had many noble friends, and was as good a man then as I am now. In fact, when I was seventeen or eighteen years of age I was just like what my boy is now. I used at that time to be a great public charakter, and had many liberal friends —very liberal friends. I used to give them rat sports, and I have kept to it ever since. My boy can handle rats now just as I used to then.

Have I been bit by them? Aye, hundreds of times. Now, some people will say, "Rub yourself over with caraway and stuff, and then rats won"t bite you." But I give you my word and honour it"s all nonsense, sir.

As I said, I was the first in London to give rat sports, and I"ve kept to it ever since. Bless you, there"s nothing that a rat won"t bite through. I"ve seen my lads standing in the pit with the rats running about them, and if they haven"t taken the precaution to tie their trousers round with a bit of string at the bottom, they"d have as many as five or six rats run up their trouser-legs. They"ll deliberately take off their clothes and pick them out from their shirts, and bosoms, and breeches. Some people is amused, and others is horror-struck. People have asked them whether they ain"t rubbed? They"ll say "Yes," but that"s as a lark; "cos, sometimes when my boy has been taking the rats out of the cage, and somebody has taken his attention off, talking to him, he has had a bite, and will turn to me with his finger bleeding, and say, "Yes, I"m rubbed, ain"t I, father? look here!"

A rat"s bite is very singular, it"s a threecornered one, like a leech"s, only deeper, of course, and it will bleed for ever such a time. My boys have sometimes had their fingers go dreadfully bad from rat-bites, so that they turn all black and putrid like—aye, as black as the horse-hair covering to my sofa. People have said to me, "You ought to send the lad to the hospital, and have his finger took off;" but I"ve always left it to the lads, and they"ve said, "Oh, don"t mind it, father; it"ll get all right by and by." And so it has.

The best thing I ever found for a rat-bite was the thick bottoms of porter casks put on as a poultice. The only thing you can do is to poultice, and these porter bottoms is so powerful and draws so, that they"ll actually take thorns out of horses" hoofs and feet after steeplechasing.

In handling rats, it"s nothing more in the world but nerve that does it. I should faint now if a rat was to run up my breeches, but I have known the time when I"ve been kivered with "em.

I generally throw my dead rats away now; but two or three years since my boys took the idea of skinning them into their heads, and they did about 300 of them, and their skins was very promising. The boys was, after all, obliged to give them away to a furrier, for my wife didn"t like the notion, and I said, "Throw them away;" but the idea strikes me to be something, and one that is lost sight of, for the skins are warm and handsome-looking—a beautiful grey.

There"s nothing turns so quickly as dead rats, so I am obleeged to have my dustmen come round every Wednesday morning; and regularly enough they call too, for they know where there is a bob and a pot. I generally prefers using the authorised dustmen, though the others come sometimes—the flying dustmen they call "em—and if they"re first, they has the job.

It strikes me, though, that to throw away so many valuable skins is a good thing lost sight of.

The rats want a deal of watching, and a deal of sorting. Now you can"t put a sewer and a barn-rat together, it"s like putting a Roosshian and a Turk under the same roof.

I can tell a barn-rat from a ship-rat or a sewer-rat in a minute, and I have to look over my stock when they come in, or they"d fight to the death. There"s six or seven different kinds of rats, and if we don"t sort "em they tear one another to pieces. I think when I have a number of rats in the house, that I am a lucky man if I don"t find a dozen dead when I go up to them in the morning; and when I tell you that at times—when I"ve wanted to make up my number for a match—I"ve given 21s. for twenty rats, you may think I lose something that way every year. Rats, even now, is occasionally 6s. a-dozen; but that, I think, is most inconsistent.

If I had my will, I wouldn"t allow sewer ratting, for the rats in the shores eats up a great quantity of sewer filth and rubbish, and is another specie of scavenger in their own way.

After finishing his statement, the landlord showed me some very curious specimens of tame rats—some piebald, and others quite white, with pink eyes, which he kept in cages in his sitting-room. He took them out from their cages, and handled them without the least fear, and even handled them rather rudely, as he showed me the peculiarities of their colours; yet the little tame creatures did not once attempt to bite him. Indeed, they appeared to have lost the notion of regaining their liberty, and when near their cages struggled to return to their nests.

In of these boxes a black and a white rat were confined together, and the proprietor, pointing to them, remarked, "I hope they"ll


breed, for though white rats is very scarce, only occurring in fact by a freak of nature, I fancy I shall be able, with time and trouble, to breed "em myself. The old English rat is a small jet-black rat; but the white rat as I heard of come out of a burial-ground. At time I bred rats very largely, but now I leaves that fancy to my boys, for I"ve as much as I can do continuing to serve my worthy patrons."

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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