London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Rats in the Sewers.


I WILL now state what I have learned from longexperienced men, as to the characteristics of the rats in the sewers. To arrive even at a conjecture as to the numbers of these creatures—now, as it were, the population of the sewers—I found impossible, for no statistical observations have been made on the subject; but all my informants agreed that the number of the animals had been greatly diminished within these or years.

In the better-constructed sewers there are no rats. In the old sewers they abound. The sewer rat is the ordinary house or brown rat, excepting at the outlets near the river, and here the water-rat is seen.

The sewer-rat is the common brown or Hanoverian rat, said by the Jacobites to have come in with the George, and established itself after the fashion of his royal family; and undoubtedly such was about the era of their appearance. man, who had worked years in the sewers before flushing was general, told me he had never seen but black (or old English) rats; another man, of years' experience, had seen but ; others had noted no difference in the rats. I may observe that in my inquiries as to the sale of rats (as a part of the live animals dealt in by a class in the metropolis), I ascertained that in the older granaries, where there were series of floors, there were black as well as brown rats. "Great black fellows," said man who managed a granary, "as would frighten a lady into asterisks to see of a sudden."

The rat is the only animal found in the sewers. I met with no flusherman or other sewer-worker who had ever seen a lizard, toad, or frog there, although the existence of these creatures, in such circumstances, has been presumed. A few live cats find their way into the subterranean channels when a house-drain is being built, or is opened for repairs, or for any purpose, and have been seen by the flushermen, &c., wandering about, looking lost, mewing as if in misery, and avoiding any contact with the sewage. The rats also—for they are not of the water-rat breed—are exceedingly averse to wetting their feet, and "take to the sewage," as it was worded to me, only in prospect of danger; that is, they then swim across or along the current to escape with their lives. It is said that when a luckless cat has ventured into the sewers, she is sometimes literally worried by the rats. I could not hear of such an attack having been witnessed by any ; but intelligent and trustworthy man said, that a few years back (he believed about years) he had in week found the skeletons of cats in a particular part of an old sewer, feet wide, and in the drains opening into it were perfect colonies of rats, raging with hunger, he had no doubt, because a system of trapping, newly resorted to, had prevented their usual ingress into the houses up the drains. A portion of their fur adhered to the cats, but the flesh had been eaten from their bones. About that time a troop of rats flew at the feet of another of my informants, and would no doubt have maimed him seriously, "but my boots," said he, "stopped the devils." "The sewers generally swarms with rats," said another man. "I runs away from 'em; I don't like 'em. They in general gets away from us; but in case we comes to a stunt end where there's a wall and no place for 'em to get away, and we goes to touch 'em, they fly at us. They're some of 'em as big as good-sized kittens. of our men caught hold of the other day by the tail, and he found it trying to release itself, and the tail slipping through his fingers; so he put up his left hand to stop it, and the rat caught hold of his finger, and the man's got an arm now as big as his thigh." I heard from several that there had been occasionally battles among the rats, with another.

Why, sir," said one flusherman, "as to the number of rats, it ain't possible to say. There hasn't been a census (laughing) taken of them. But I can tell you this—I was one of the first flushermen when flushing came in general—I think it was before Christmas, 1847, under Mr. Roe—and there was cart-loads and cart-loads of drowned rats carried into the Thames. It was in a West Strand shore that I saw the most. I don't exactly remember which, but I think Northumberland-street. By a block or a hitch of some sort, there was, I should say, just a bushel of drowned rats stopped at the corner of one of the gates, which I swept into the next stream. I see far fewer drowned rats now than before the shores was flushed. They're not so plenty, that's one thing. Perhaps, too, they may have got to understand about flushing, they're that 'cute, and manage to keep out of the way. About Newgatemarket was at one time the worst for rats. Men couldn't venture into the sewers then, on account of the varmint. It's bad enough still, I hear, but I haven't worked in the City for a few years.

The rats, from the best information at my command, do not derive much of their sustenance from the matter in the sewers, or only in particular localities. These localities are the sewers neighbouring a connected series of slaughterhouses, as in Newgate-market, Whitechapel, Claremarket, parts adjoining Smithfield-market, &c. There, animal offal being (and having been to a much greater extent or years ago) swept into the drains and sewers, the rats find their food. In the sewers, generally, there is little food for them, and none at all in the best-constructed sewers, where there is a regular and sometimes rapid flow, and little or no deposit.

The sewers are these animals' breeding grounds. In them the broods are usually safe from the molestation of men, dogs, or cats. These "breeding grounds" are sometimes in the holes (excavated by


the industry of the rats into caves) which have been formed in the old sewers by a crumbled brick having fallen out. Their nests, however, are in some parts even more frequent in places where old rotting large house-drains or smaller sewers, empty themselves into a -class sewer. Here, then, the rats breed, and, in spite of precautions, find their way up the drains or pipes, even through the openings into water-closets, into the houses for their food, and almost always at night. Of this fact, builders, and those best informed, are confident, and it is proved indirectly by what I have stated as to the deficiency of food for a voracious creature in all the sewers except a few. man, long in the service of the Commissioners of Sewers, and in different capacities, gave me the following account of what may be called a rat settlement. The statement I found confirmed by other working men, and by superior officers under the same employment.

Why, sir, in the Milford-lane sewer, a goodish bit before you get to the river, or to the Strand —I can't say how far, a few hundred yards perhaps—I've seen, and reported, what was a regular chamber of rats. If a brick didn't fall out from being rotted, the rats would get it out, and send it among other rubbish into the sewer, for this place was just the corner of a big drain. I couldn't get into the rat-hole, of course not, but I've brought my lamp to the opening, and—as well as others—have seen it plain. It was an open place like a lot of tunnels, one over another. Like a lot of rabbit burrows in the country—as I've known to be—or like the partitions in the pigeon-houses: one here and another there. The rat-holes, as far as I could tell, were worked one after another. I should say, in moderation, that it was the size of a small room; well, say about 6 yards by 4. I can't say about the height from the lowest tunnel to the highest. I don't see that any one could. Bless you, sir, I've sometimes heerd the rats fighting and squeaking there, like a parcel of drunken Irishmen—I have indeed. Some of them were rare big fellows. If you threw the light of your lamp on them sudden, they'd be off like a shot. Well, I should say, there was 100 pair of rats there—there might be more, besides all their young-uns. If a poor cat strayed into that sewer, she dursn't tackle the rats, not she. There's lots of such places, sir, here, and there, and everywhere.

"I believe rats," says a late enthusiastic writer on the subject, under the cognomen of Uncle James, "to be of the most fertile causes of national and universal distress, and their attendants, misery and starvation."

From the author's inquiries among practical men, and from his own study of the natural history of the rat, he shows that these animals will have , , or nests of young in the year, for or years together; that they have from to at a litter, and breed at months old; and that there are more female than male rats, by to .

The author seems somewhat of an enthusiast about rats, and as the sewerage is often the head- quarters of these animals—their "breeding-ground" indeed—I extract the following curious matter. He says:—

Now, I propose to lay down my calculations at something less than one-half. In the first place, I say four litters in the year, beginning and ending with a litter, so making thirteen litters in three years; secondly to have eight young ones at a birth, half male and half female; thirdly, the young ones to have a litter at six months old.

At this calculation, I will take one pair of rats; and at the expiration of three years what do you suppose will be the amount of living rats? Why no less a number than 646,808.

Mr. Shaw's little dog 'Tiny,' under six pounds weight, has destroyed 2525 pairs of rats, which, had they been permitted to live, would, at the same calculation and in the same time, have produced 1,633,190,200 living rats!

And the rats destroyed by Messrs. Shaw and Sabin in one year, amounting to 17,000 pairs, would, had they been permitted to live, have produced, at the above calculation and in the same time, no less a number than 10,995,736,000 living rats!

Now, let us calculate the amount of human food that these rats would destroy. In the first place, my informants tell me that six rats will consume day by day as much food as a man; secondly, that the thing has been tested, and that the estimate given was, that eight rats would consume more than an ordinary man.

Now, I—to place the thing beyond the smallest shadow of a doubt—will set down ten rats to eat as much as a man, not a child; nor will I say anything about what rats waste. And what shall we find to be the alarming result? Why, that the first pair of rats, with their three years' progeny, would consume in the night more food than 64,680 men the year round, and leaving eight rats to spare!

The author then puts forth the following curious statement:—

And now for the vermin destroyed by Messrs. Shaw and Sabin—34,000 yearly! Taken at the same calculation, with their three years' progeny— can you believe it?—they would consume more food than the whole population of the earth? Yes, if Omnipotence would raise up 29,573,600 more people, these rats would consume as much food as them all! You may wonder, but I will prove it to you:—The population of the earth, including men, women, and children, is estimated to be 970,000,000 souls; and the 17,000 rats in three years would produce 10,995,736,000: consequently, at ten rats per man, there would be sufficient rats to eat as much food as all the people on the earth, and leaving 1,295,736,000. So that if the human family were increased to 1,099,573,600, instead of 970,000,000, there would be rats enough to eat the food of them all! Now, sirs, is not this a most appalling thing, to think that there are at the present time in the British Empire thousands—nay, millions—of human beings in a state of utter starvation, while rats are con- suming that which would place them and their families in a state of affluence and comfort? I ask this simple question: Has not Parliament, ere now, been summoned upon matters of far less importance to the empire? I think it has.

The author then advocates the repeal of the "rat-tax," that is, the tax on what he calls the "true friend of man and remorseless destroyer of rats," the well-bred terrier dog. "Take the tax off rat-killing dogs" he says, "and give a legality to rat-killing, and let there be in each parish a man who will pay a reward per head for dead rats, which are valuable for manure (as was done in the case of wolves in the old days), and then rats would be extinguished for ever!" Uncle James seems to be a perfect Malthus among rats. The overpopula- tion and over-rat theories are about equal in reason.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work