Incidents at a Rat Pit in London: 1850s


A few years back I attended a rat-match in London, at which the dog which could kill the greatest number in the shortest time would win the prize. The first man that entered the pit brought in with him a dog, which was as handsome as the man himself was ugly. Time being called, he seized his dog by each side of the face, and, arching his long carcass, was soon in readiness. They now made a curious picture. From the fierce anxiety of their countenances, it became a strong matter of doubt as to which would mouth the first rat—the dog or its master. However, upon the signal being given, away went the dog, first killing one rat, then another; down went the man on his hands and knees, then pounded the floor most furiously, and roared and bellowed with all his might, to urge on the dog. The rats were falling in every direction, when, all in an instant, the man stood bolt upright, with his eyes staring like a madman, and his mouth wide open. But the cause, to the great amusement of all present, soon became apparent. It is the custom for those who enter the pit to tie a piece of string or garter round each ankle, to prevent the rats from crawling up their legs beneath their trousers. He had neglected to do this, and a rat was plainly seen working its way up his body between his skin and his shirt. With maniacal desperation he pulled off his cravat, and, tearing open his shirt, exposed his thin scraggy neck. Presently out came a pretty little glossy creature on his shoulder, and made a spring to the edge of the pit, which it succeeded in accomplishing. Heels-over-head went a dozen or twenty of the lookers-on, forms and all; and from the general scrambling, kicking, bustling, and alarm, one might have thought that, had it not been for their hats and boots, the poor little frightened rat would have swallowed at least a dozen of them; but, as it was, the little creature made its escape; and thus were they allowed to return home to their families undigested. Suffice it to say, I have since heard that nothing could ever induce this man to enter the pit again, but that he always pays another to do it for him.

On the opposite side to where the rat made its escape sat an enormous publican, who had laughed most heartily at the discomfiture of his friends. His face was a perfect picture of the sign of his house, namely, the “Rising Sun.” He was lounging carelessly on the edge of the pit, and resting his chin on his thumbs, when in came the second dog, —a fine furious creature. Time was called; the dog set to work, and down lay the rats, one after the other, with a single bite each. Presently one seized the dog by the lip; he gave his head a violent shake, and twirled the rat into the fat publican’s face. To describe his agitation and alarm would be impossible; but, throwing his head back, the rat fell into the bosom of his coat; and, in his anxiety to get it unbuttoned, he puffed, grunted, and blew like a great hog with a bone in its throat; and thus ended his sport for that evening.

Unhappily, however, these rat-frights do not always terminate so harmlessly as in the preceding cases. A friend of mine once informed me that twenty years since his father took a house in Edinburgh, and that after he had taken it, he found, to his dismay, that it was swarming with rats. However, one day, as they were all in the kitchen, where the boards of the flooring were about an inch apart, they were suddenly aroused by two rats, which had commenced a regular battle beneath the boards. My informant told me that his little brother became very much alarmed; when suddenly one of the rats gave a dreadful squeal, and at the same time one of their hind legs and a tail appeared through the cracks, which so frightened the lad, that he sprang to the other end of the place, when it was found, to the great affliction of the family, that he was bereft of reason, or, rather, he had become a complete maniac; nor was it till some weeks had passed, accompanied with sound medical treatment and warm baths, that anything like consciousness returned. However, by degrees he recovered the possession of his faculties; but to this day he is horror-stricken at the bare mention of a rat.

The Rat: its history & destructive character, With Numerous Anecdotes,  James Rodwell, (Uncle James.) 1858

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has scant sympathy for vermin. If left unchecked they destroy the crops, gorge on candles and shoes, undermine the drains, gnaw through rat-proof meat-safes, and devour invalids and infants. Mrs Daffodil shudders to remember the stories that her father used to tell about rats the size of bull terriers fought in the pits beneath the Hops and Hoe at Maidstone. Despite her antipathy for these rodents, Mrs Daffodil thinks it rather unsporting that not all of the rats are forced to enter the pit—the ones with florid complexions or wearing cravats, to give two instances.


One thought on “Incidents at a Rat Pit in London: 1850s

  1. Pingback: The Mystery of “French-Kid” Gloves: 1858 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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