Rat-Catcher Job and Rat-Baiting

Rat catchers of the company Howard's work with dogs and ferrets and poison and guns in London, 1935
Rat catchers of the company Howard’s work with dogs and ferrets and poison and guns in London, 1935


The term “rat-catcher” refers to individuals who are hired to capture and exterminate rats. They have been historically employed to control rat populations, particularly in urban areas. Rat-catchers use various methods such as traps, poisons, and trained animals to catch and kill rats.

Rat-catching can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as ancient Egypt, where cats were initially employed to control rat populations. In ancient Rome, specially trained dogs known as “ratters” were utilized for this purpose.

Beware of dog sign from Pompeii
Cave Canem (Beware of dog). Roman mosaic at the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, Italy

The rat-catcher job occupied a unique position in society, often seen as both necessary and slightly disreputable figures. Their profession was surrounded by superstitions and folklore, attributing mystical powers to these rat-wranglers. Tales of rat-catchers charming and leading rats to their doom were widespread, heightening their mystique in the public imagination.

Nevertheless, these professionals play a crucial role in public health by controlling and preventing rodent infestations and the spread of diseases carried by rats. Rat-catching has evolved over time, and today it is primarily carried out by pest control professionals using modern techniques and tools.

Myth: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is perhaps one of the best-known stories involving an infestation of rodents. It is a famous German folk tale that dates back to the Middle Ages. The story revolves around a town called Hamelin that is infested with rats and the mysterious piper who promises to rid the town of its vermin problem.

The tale begins with the town of Hamelin suffering from a severe rat infestation. The rats overrun the town, causing destruction and spreading diseases. The desperate townspeople seek a solution to this problem and offer a reward to anyone who can eliminate the rats.

In response to their plea, a stranger appears in the town dressed in colourful attire, with a peculiar hat and a magical pipe. This stranger is known as the Pied Piper. He confidently assures the townspeople that he can rid their town of the rats and demands a significant fee in return.

The Pied Piper starts playing a captivating tune on his pipe, creating enchanting music that lures the rats out of their hiding places. The rats follow the music, mesmerized by its spell. They gather around the piper and are led to the Weser River, where they drown.

The oldest picture of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hamelin (c.1300-1633)
The oldest picture of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hamelin (c.1300-1633)

With the town now free from the rat infestation, the townspeople are elated. However, the mayor and the town council refused to fulfil their promise and pay the agreed-upon fee to the Pied Piper. They dismiss him, thinking that the problem is resolved and that they can avoid payment.

In a twist of events, the Pied Piper returns to Hamelin seeking justice for the broken promise. This time, he plays a different tune, a haunting melody that has a mesmerizing effect on the town’s children. The children are inexplicably drawn to the music and begin following the Pied Piper through the streets of Hamelin. This part of the legend is sometimes linked to the 13th-century Medieval Dance Mania outbreaks in Germany.

As the Piper leads the children out of the town, the townspeople watch helplessly, realizing their mistake. The distraught parents rush to the river, where they see the Pied Piper and the children disappear into a mountainside. The mountainside then closes, trapping them inside, and they are never seen again.

The story ends with the town of Hamelin suffering a grave loss, as the parents are left mourning the loss of their children. The lesson behind the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is often interpreted as a warning about the consequences of breaking promises and the importance of honouring commitments. It serves as a reminder that actions have consequences, and reneging on promises can lead to great sorrow.

Historical Significance of Rat-Catchers

Rat-catching was done in ancient Egypt by cats, who were cherished and revered as vessels of the gods, but also due to their hunting skills and their ability to keep mice and rats away from the granaries. The Romans used specially trained dogs to keep rats at bay.

As urbanization gained momentum in medieval Europe, the proliferation of rats became a pressing concern. Cities and towns provided abundant food sources and shelter for these vermin, leading to the rapid growth of rat populations. In the absence of effective waste management systems, rats thrived on the discarded organic matter and grain stores found in abundance. As a consequence, diseases like the bubonic plague (The Black Death), carried by fleas that infested rats, became a dreaded threat to public health.

Map showing the spread of the Black Death in Europe between 1346 and 1353.
Map showing the spread of the Black Death in Europe between 1346 and 1353. – The origin and early spread of the Black Death in Italy

Rat-catchers were unsung heroes of the Middle Ages, battling against the scourge of rat infestations and the diseases they carried. Through their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and determination, they protected communities from the devastating impact of the bubonic plague and other rat-borne illnesses while often enduring societal stigmatization. Their contributions paved the way for modern pest control practices and shaped our understanding of the importance of public health measures.

Rat-catchers also left their mark on folklore and literature. They became the subjects of legends and tales, often depicted as cunning and resourceful individuals. Stories were spun about their ability to communicate with rats or even control them through magical means. These imaginative narratives captured the imagination of the public and added to the enduring legacy of rat-catchers in popular culture.

As cities grew and progressed, the need for organized pest control efforts became more apparent. Municipal authorities began to recognize the significance of rat-catchers in maintaining cleanliness and preventing disease outbreaks. Rat-catcher guilds or associations were formed, providing a formal structure for the profession. These organizations regulated the activities of rat-catchers, established standards of practice, and ensured their skills were passed down through generations.

Rat-catchers also found their way into the cultural fabric of the Renaissance. Society increasingly recognized the need for comprehensive urban planning and sanitation measures. The principles of hygiene and cleanliness gained prominence, and cities implemented regulations to address waste management and rat control. Municipal authorities employed rat-catchers as part of these efforts, emphasizing the importance of their role in urban development.

A rat-catcher carrying a pole with dead rats suspended from
A rat-catcher carrying a pole with dead rats suspended” (etching by Léopold Flameng, The library at Wellcome Collection

Rat Catchers in the Renaissance appeared in artwork, literature, and theatrical performances, both as protagonists and as supporting characters. Paintings depicted rat-catchers with their tools and trophies, while plays and poems featured them as colourful figures within the narrative. This integration into cultural expressions further highlighted their significance as both practical and symbolic figures during this transformative era.

As cities expanded exponentially during the Victorian era, overcrowding, inadequate waste management systems, and unsanitary living conditions created a conducive environment for rats. The industrial revolution led to an abundance of food sources, including improperly stored grain and waste from factories and households, which attracted and sustained rat populations. The presence of rats posed a significant threat to public health, leading to the spread of diseases such as typhus, cholera, and plague.

The escalating rat problem in Victorian England necessitated the professionalization of rat-catching. Rat-catchers emerged as skilled individuals who possessed the knowledge and expertise to deal with vermin infestations. While some were employed directly by municipalities or private entities, many were self-employed entrepreneurs who offered their services to communities in need.

Rat-catcher was a popular and sometimes lucrative career. A decent rat-catcher could earn “special privileges” if he caught at least 5000 rats a year, or about 13 rats a day

A famous rat-catcher during the Victorian era was Jack Black. His talent for catching rodents proved unmatchable, and he was eventually appointed by Queen Victoria to the post of supreme rat-catcher.

Jack Black, rat-catcher, 1851
Jack Black, rat-catcher, 1851 – ‘London Labour and the London poor’,

As cities grew, urban rat infestations became more prevalent. In the 19th century, rat-catchers became popular figures, known for their unique skills and techniques. The rat-catcher profession continued to evolve with advancements in pest control science, leading to the development of more effective methods and tools.

Methods and Tools

Rat-catchers, often seen as an unsavoury presence in the streets, emerged as the solution to the escalating rat problem. These skilled individuals were adept at capturing and exterminating rats, making them an indispensable asset to communities. While their methods varied, rat-catchers employed a combination of ingenious techniques to control rat populations.

View of a rat catcher holding a cage of rats in one hand and a ferret in the other in 1804
View of a rat catcher holding a cage of rats in one hand and a ferret in the other in 1804

One of the primary tools used by rat-catchers was the trusty rat trap. These contraptions were designed to lure rats with bait and spring shut upon the slightest touch. Rat-catchers would strategically place traps in areas frequented by rats, such as cellars, granaries, and alleyways, maximizing their chances of success. Poisoned baits were also employed, often containing toxic substances like arsenic or strychnine. These lethal concoctions were administered in controlled quantities to avoid harming other animals or humans.

Beyond traps and poisons, rat-catchers developed innovative techniques to improve their effectiveness. Improved traps were designed, incorporating mechanisms for efficient capture and disposal. Rat poison formulations became more sophisticated, enhancing effectiveness while minimizing collateral damage.

They trained dogs, ferrets, and even cats to track down and catch rats, using their natural hunting instincts to their advantage. These animals were valued companions in the rat-catching trade, capable of reaching spaces inaccessible to humans and flushing out elusive rodents.

Professional rat-catchers behind a pile of dead rats, during the outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900
Professional rat-catchers behind a pile of dead rats, during the outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900

Victorian rat-catchers employed a range of methods and tools to combat rat infestations. Traditional wooden traps, similar to those used in earlier periods, remained in use, but new innovations also emerged. Spring traps equipped with powerful mechanisms were introduced, providing higher chances of a successful capture. Poisoning rats with baits laced with substances like arsenic and phosphorus was another method employed, albeit with caution to minimize unintended harm.


Rat-catcher Jack Black, and many like him, didn’t kill every rat they caught and often kept them alive for a variety of reasons. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there were instances where rat-catchers opted to raise rats rather than capture them, allegedly with the intention of boosting their payment from the towns or cities they served.

Some rodents were also kept for breeding, especially those with different colours or unusual attributes, since many people wanted to keep them as pets and would pay handsomely for them.

These practices, coupled with the emergence of rat-fights as a form of entertainment, potentially contributed to the unintended consequence of rat-breeding. Rat-baiting, a practice that originated centuries ago, was a form of entertainment that involved pitting dogs against rats in a cruel and often bloody contest.

Tiny the Wonder, created circa 1850 by Jemmy Shaw.
Tiny the Wonder, created circa 1850 by Jemmy Shaw. ‘Rat-Catching at the Blue Anchor Tavern, Bunhill Row, Finsbury’, c1850. A black and tan terrier called “Tiny the Wonder” is attempting to kill two hundred barn rats in under an hour, a feat which he accomplished on two separate occasions, on 28th March 1848 and 27th March 1849.  Tiny was owned by Shaw, the proprietor of the Blue Anchor Inn, who could store up to 2,000 farm rats in his establishment. The original painting is in the Museum of London.

Rat-baiting gained popularity in Europe during the 16th century and reached its peak in the 19th century, particularly in England. The origins of rat-baiting can be traced back to a combination of factors, including the abundance of rats in urban areas and a growing interest in blood sports and animal fights.

Rat-baiting typically took place in a designated arena or pit. Rats were placed in a confined space, often with holes or tunnels, while a dog—usually a terrier or a small breed known for its hunting abilities—was set loose to capture and kill as many rats as possible within a given time frame. Spectators gathered to witness the gruesome spectacle, placing bets on the outcome and cheering for their favoured dog.

Liverpool Port Sanitary Authority rat-catchers in equipment /WellcomeCollection
Liverpool Port Sanitary Authority rat-catchers in equipment /Wellcome collection

With the passage of anti-cruelty laws and changing societal attitudes, rat-baiting declined in popularity throughout the 19th century. While rat-baiting as a public spectacle has largely disappeared, it is essential to address contemporary issues related to animal fights and cruelty. Illegal dogfighting and other forms of animal-based blood sports still persist in various parts of the world.


Rat-catchers were instrumental in addressing the challenges posed by rat infestations in expanding urban centres. Their techniques, tools, and cultural significance shaped the way cities approached public health and urban planning. As we reflect on their artistic and intellectual achievements, it is important to recognize and appreciate the vital role played by rat-catchers in maintaining a clean and healthy environment for society to thrive.

London Underground rat catchers with their net and ferrets scour the tunnels in 1950
London Underground rat catchers with their net and ferrets scour the tunnels in 1950

If You Enjoyed This Content, Feel Free To Leave A Tip Or Visit One Of The Sponsor Adverts