Articles

In the Shadow of Man:
The History and Culture of Rats

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Driving the smaller roof rat from its territory, the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) flourished in England, eventually bringing about the vocation of rat-catcher, as well as the sport of rat-baiting. The rat catcher would supply thousands of live rats to the rat-baiting pits. These rats would then be placed into a pit with a single dog, often a terrier. The dog would be given the task of killing as many rats in as little time as possible. The sport of rat-baiting began to decline in the early 20th century, as it was considered cruel to subject dogs to the practice, though nobody really cared about the fate of the rats (“Rat-baiting“).

Ironically enough, it is a rat-catcher who is credited with the domestication of rats. The most famous rat-catcher in Victorian England, Jack Black served under Queen Victoria, and is recorded to have kept and bred those rats of unusual color and markings that he caught. In London Labour and the London Poor: Volume 3, Henry Mayhew interviews Black about his hobby of breeding:

I ketched the first white rat I had at Hampstead; and the black ones at Messrs. Hodges and Lowman‘s, in Regent-street, and them I bred in. I have ‘em fawn and white, black and white, brown and white, red and white, blue-black and white, black-white and red. People come from all parts of London to see them rats, and I supplied near all the ‘happy families’ with them. Burke, who had the ‘happy family’ showing about London, has had hundreds from me. They got very tame, and you could do anythink with them. I‘ve sold many to ladies for keeping in squirrel cages.

Indeed, in Victorian times rats were a popular pet for women, and were kept by such notables as children’s author Beatrix Potter (who dedicated The Tale of Samuel Whiskers to her childhood rat, Sammy). Even Queen Victoria was said to have owned rats (Ducommun 12).

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All text, images, and content copyright Lori Weeder © 2006 unless otherwise noted.