Old Ways

From Dark Alleys to the Cities: The Rat Catchers of Britain

Rat catchers are individuals who specializes in controlling and eliminating rat populations to prevent the spread of disease, reduce damage to property, and improve sanitation.

Historically, rat catchers used various methods such as traps, poison, and trained animals like dogs and ferrets to catch or kill rats. The profession has its roots in times when rat infestations were common in cities, posing serious public health risks, including the spread of diseases like the plague.


The Early Days of Rat Catchers

The presence of rats in Britain has been a longstanding issue since the days of Roman rule, but it was particularly during the medieval period that their proliferation began to pose substantial challenges. This was especially true in urban centres, which were expanding rapidly due to the agricultural and economic developments of the era.

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Cities with their growing populations, busy markets, and extensive grain storage facilities provided an ideal environment for these vermin. The increasing accumulation of waste and organic refuse in these areas further exacerbated the situation, offering both nourishment and nesting sites for the rat population.

A rat-catcher, carrying a box over his shoulder, is accompanied by a young boy holding a cage on a long stick with rats in it. Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

As the threat from rats grew, primarily because of their propensity to spoil food stores and facilitate the spread of disease, the need for effective control measures became increasingly urgent. However, the concept of public health was rudimentary at best during this period, and systematic pest control measures were virtually non-existent.

Growing Menace

In response to this growing menace, the early rat catchers emerged as essential figures within towns and villages. These individuals often operated as itinerant workers, travelling from place to place in search of employment.

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Their methods were primitive by today’s standards, relying on simple but time-tested techniques such as manually set traps and the use of ferrets. Ferrets, being natural hunters of small mammals, were particularly effective in flushing rats out of their burrows or hiding places, allowing the rat catchers to kill or capture the exposed rodents.

A rat-catcher (accompanied by two dogs) carrying a cage of live rats in his right hand and a sharpened wooden stick with dead rats dangling from it in his left. Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

Despite their important role in maintaining the health and sanitation of medieval communities, these early rat catchers were not regarded as professionals. Their work was sporadic and largely unregulated.

Grim Nature

There was no formal recognition of their skills, nor was there any organised system of employment. They operated on the fringes of society, often viewed with a mix of necessity and disdain.

Their transient lifestyle and the grim nature of their work contributed to this perception, keeping them within the lower strata of the social hierarchy.

A rat-catcher and his young assistant standing outside a doorway having their services refused by an old man: the rat-catcher holds a long stick with a cage on top of it containing rats, on his right shoulder sits a rat. Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

Moreover, these early practitioners of pest control played a crucial but unsung role in the prevention of epidemics. By controlling rat populations, they indirectly helped to limit the spread of rat-borne diseases, which were not yet understood but were nonetheless devastating.

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The Black Death, which later swept through Europe, would highlight the importance of their work, as it brought into sharp relief the connections between pest populations, human health, and epidemic diseases.

The Black Death and Rat Catchers

The Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century, served as a grim milestone that significantly altered the public’s perception of rats and their association with disease. As the bubonic plague decimated nearly a third of Europe’s population, the role of rats, and more specifically the fleas they carried, in facilitating this pandemic became increasingly apparent.

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This period marked a critical turning point in the understanding of public health risks associated with rodent infestations, though the exact nature of the transmission mechanism—fleas living on rats—was not scientifically proven until centuries later.

A rat-catcher enticing rats in to a tray which is strapped around his shoulder; he also holds a pole with a cage on top of it in which rats are trapped. Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

However, the devastating impact of the plague intuitively underscored the potential danger posed by rats, enhancing the social standing and perceived necessity of rat catchers within European communities.

Rat catchers during the era of the Black Death employed a variety of rudimentary yet effective techniques designed to mitigate the burgeoning rat populations that threatened public health. They often used specially trained dogs, adept at sniffing out and killing rats.

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These dogs were invaluable in controlling rat numbers, especially in urban environments where tight spaces and crowded living conditions made traditional hunting methods impractical.

In addition to canine assistance, rat catchers set traps baited with food, which proved to be an effective lure for rats seeking sustenance. These traps were strategically placed in areas known to be infested with rats, such as granaries, cellars, and along city walls.


The use of traps was a preferred method during times when maintaining the purity of food supplies was critical; it reduced the risk of contamination that could occur with other methods, such as poisoning.

The Rat Catcher by Pieter De Bloot

The application of poisons was another method employed by rat catchers, although it was less common due to the inherent risks it posed not only to food supplies but also to humans and other non-target wildlife.

Poisons needed to be used with extreme caution, and their deployment was usually a measure of last resort. Rat catchers who specialised in this method had to be knowledgeable about the types and amounts of poison to use to effectively kill rats while minimising the danger to other animals and people.

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The elevated role of the rat catcher during and after the Black Death can also be seen as a reflection of the broader shifts in medieval society’s approach to public health and community welfare. As the link between pest control and disease prevention became more widely accepted, the services of rat catchers began to be viewed as not merely a practical necessity but a vital public service.

Recognition of Rat Catchers

This recognition, however, was slow to manifest into formal acknowledgment or improved social status, as the occupation remained largely marginalised, with practitioners continuing to operate without official support or adequate compensation for their hazardous work.

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This period also set the stage for more systematic approaches to pest control in the subsequent centuries, as the lessons learned from the Black Death eventually led to more organised and scientific methods in public health and sanitation, including the management of urban and rural rodent populations.

The rat catcher’s role evolved, becoming more integrated into public health strategies, particularly as understanding of disease transmission mechanisms improved with advancements in medical science.

Professionalisation in the 18th and 19th Centuries

As the 18th century unfolded, Britain was undergoing dramatic transformations due to the Industrial Revolution. Urban centers like London, Manchester, and Birmingham not only expanded in physical size but also saw their populations swell exponentially.

The Rat-Catcher and his Dogs
exhibited 1824, Thomas Woodward

This rapid urbanization provided fertile ground for the proliferation of rats. The densely packed housing developments and sprawling factories characteristic of this era created abundant shelters and food sources for these vermin.

The increasing rat population posed significant public health risks, as they were carriers of disease and were also known to cause considerable damage to food supplies and property.

Jack Black, her majesty’s ratcatcher, 1851

In response to the rapidly growing rat problem, the profession of rat catching underwent a significant transformation. From being a casual and largely disorganized activity, it became more structured and professionalized.

Etching of a Rat Catcher dated 1655

The first major step towards professionalization was the adoption of uniforms by rat catchers, which was not merely a symbolic change but also signified a formal recognition of their role in urban sanitation and health.

These uniforms helped in legitimizing their work and distinguishing them as professionals in a field that was essential to maintaining public health and safety.

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Moreover, during this period, local municipalities began to recognize the importance of controlling the rat population as part of their broader responsibility for urban sanitation.

As a result, many rat catchers found themselves employed by these local bodies or by large institutions like the Royal Navy, which had its own issues with rats aboard ships. These positions provided a more stable income and social recognition, albeit limited, for the rat catchers.

The Role and Perception of Rat Catchers in 19th century

Victorian rat catchers were often viewed with a blend of necessity and disdain. Their work, crucial for controlling diseases and protecting food supplies, was undeniably important, yet they were frequently associated with the squalor from which they drew their livelihoods.

This period saw the rat catcher often depicted in literature and popular culture, sometimes as a shadowy figure lurking at the fringes of society, yet possessing an intimate knowledge of the city’s underbelly.

Official rat-catcher for Southern Railway with Terriers and quarry. 1924.

Despite their low social status, rat catchers in Victorian Britain prided themselves on their skills. They were often seen as masters of a necessary but undesirable craft, employing a variety of methods to capture or kill rats.

These included traps, trained animals (especially dogs and ferrets), and, increasingly throughout the 19th century, chemical poisons. The employment of animals was particularly noted, with ferrets used to chase rats out of their hiding places and terriers to kill them.

Economic Aspects and Livelihood of Rat Catchers

The primary source of income for rat catchers was, of course, the fee they charged for their services, which could vary significantly based on the severity of the infestation and the economic status of their clients.

rat catchers
Rat Catcher and his Dog

Wealthier households and businesses, plagued by the presence of rats, might pay handsomely to resolve such a distressing issue promptly, thus providing rat catchers with opportunities to earn substantial sums. Moreover, the ongoing nature of rat problems in urban areas ensured a steady demand for their expertise.

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Beyond service fees, rat catchers often augmented their income through the sale of rat pelts. The pelts of rats, while not overly valuable, could nonetheless be sold in bulk, adding a modest supplement to a rat catcher’s income. In an age where every small commodity had a market, such by-products of their primary work provided an essential revenue stream.

rat catchers
Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher, after 25 Years’ Experience by Ike Matthews – 1898

Perhaps more controversially, the trade in live rats constituted another significant aspect of their livelihood. Live rats were in demand for the popular though gruesome sport of rat-baiting. This entertainment involved placing a large number of rats in a pit or enclosed area and then releasing a dog—typically a terrier—trained to kill rats efficiently.

rat catchers
Ratting at the “Graham Arms”, Graham Street

Spectators would bet on how quickly the dog could kill all the rats, with these events drawing large crowds eager for the macabre spectacle. For rat catchers, supplying live rats to these events was a profitable sideline that could be more lucrative than catching rats for the purpose of extermination alone.

Market Dynamics and Personal Agency

The ability to capitalise on these diverse income streams required more than mere skill in catching rats. Success in this field also depended on a rat catcher’s proficiency in navigating the local market dynamics.

rat catchers
Liverpool Port Sanitary Authority rat-catchers dipping rats in buckets of petrol to kill fleas for plague control. Liverpool, England. Photograph, 1900/1920

Those with a knack for entrepreneurship could enhance their earnings by establishing regular contracts with local businesses and government bodies, which provided more stable and predictable income compared to the ad-hoc payments received from individual householders.

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Some rat catchers achieved a degree of fame, their reputations bolstered by their success in clearing large infestations or innovating more effective rat-catching techniques. These individuals were able to command higher prices and might even engage in branding and self-promotion, unusual for tradesmen of their kind at the time.

rat catchers
Rat catcher & ferrets

Their visibility could also lead to lucrative contracts with larger corporate or government entities that required ongoing pest control services, further stabilizing their economic situation.

Public Health and Sanitation

The Victorians made significant advancements in public health and sanitation, driven by a burgeoning understanding of disease transmission and public hygiene. Rat catchers were unwittingly at the front lines of these developments.

As knowledge of the link between rats, fleas, and human disease (such as the bubonic plague) became more widely accepted, the demand for effective rat control measures intensified.

rat catchers
MLL 1416 – Mr. ‘Ratty’ Fulton, official rat catcher to the City of Lincoln with his 3 dogs and some of his catch, Lincoln 1920s

Municipalities began to employ rat catchers as part of their public health arsenal. This formal recognition was a double-edged sword—it provided steady employment but also subjected rat catchers to greater scrutiny and regulation.

The introduction of sanitation laws and public health campaigns sometimes placed rat catchers under the jurisdiction of local health authorities, further professionalizing the occupation but also limiting the autonomy that many had previously enjoyed.

John Wheeldon The Rat Catcher. Better known as John Gaunt.

rat catchers
John Wheeldon The Rat Catcher

John lived in Sawmills, England but worked for the Midland Railway Company, as a rat catcher. What’s interesting is that he trained foxes to help him catch rats, and he believed they were better at it than dogs because they could hold more rats in their mouths at once.

Catching rats with foxes was tricky because foxes didn’t kill the rats right away like terriers did. Unfortunately, his two best foxes were accidentally killed by gamekeepers.

He became very famous all over the country for his unique job, and someone even wrote about him in a book, calling him a great sportsman and a great Englishman.

He passed away at the age of 73 in November 1924 while staying at a friend’s house in Belper. He was buried in the Crich churchyard. He was also known for being a member of the Ambergate Cottage Garden Society and winning prizes for his gardening.

Technological Advancements and Professionalisation

The 21st century witnessed substantial advancements in the science of pest control. Early methods, which often relied on brute force or poisons, gave way to more refined techniques. Today, pest control professionals employ a variety of sophisticated tools and strategies.

Electronic surveillance technologies, for instance, allow for the monitoring of rodent activity with minimal human intervention, enabling timely and precise control measures. These might include motion-sensor cameras and ultrasonic devices, which detect and deter rodents without resorting to lethal means.

A cage trap designed to catch rats. The door closes by gravity when the rat moves the penal which is attached to levers. The cage contains bread as bait.

Furthermore, the use of environmentally friendly repellents represents a significant shift towards more sustainable pest control practices.

These repellents often use natural ingredients that are safe for humans and non-target wildlife, reflecting a growing public and professional commitment to ecological stewardship. Such advancements not only improve the efficiency of pest control but also align with the increased public demand for methods that minimise environmental impact.

Regulation and Education

The modern pest control industry is also characterised by a high degree of professionalisation and regulation. This regulatory environment ensures that those entering the field are well-educated in both the practical aspects of pest control and the ethical implications of their work.

Professional qualifications and continuous training are now standard, with many countries requiring pest control operators to hold certified licenses.

These regulations are supported by a body of scientific research that informs best practices in the industry. Pest control professionals must stay abreast of the latest developments in the field, from changes in legislation to advancements in technology and techniques.

This ongoing education is crucial, not only for effective pest management but also for ensuring compliance with health and safety regulations.