When Queen Victoria Employed an Official Rat-Catcher

Wikimedia Commons // Rebecca O'Connell
Wikimedia Commons // Rebecca O'Connell

Victorian England was infested with rats. Rodents were in your basement, your sewers, your garden, your pantry, your parks, your pipes—and it was a huge problem. An untold number of rats crippled crops, spoiled food supplies, clogged drains, and, of course, had helped spread a plague that killed about 60 percent of Europe’s population. (Though gerbils may deserve some blame, too.)

Residents resorted to a handful of techniques to stop the critters. Farmers were known to catch rats and strap bells around their necks, or singe their fur, hoping a horde of jangly burnt rodents would scare fellow pests away. It didn’t. “Rats are everywhere about London,” said a man named Jack Black, “both in rich and poor places.”

Black would know. He was England’s royal rat-catcher.


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“Rat-catcher” may not be a job you see at Career Day anymore, but in Victorian England, it was a popular and sometimes lucrative career. According to author Barbara Tufty [PDF], a decent rat-catcher could earn “special privileges” if he caught at least 5000 rats a year, or about 13 rats a day. The job was so common that rodent-chasers in England established their own professional rat-catcher guilds. The occupation even inspired a popular folktale: The Pied Piper was a rat-catcher.

During the Victorian era, Jack Black was the king of the rat-catchers. The official “rat and mole destroyer to her Majesty,” Black got his start doing government work as a young man after he noticed London’s royal parks were spilling over with rats. (Literally: They had gnawed through the bridge drains.) His talent for catching rodents proved unmatchable, and he was eventually appointed by Queen Victoria to the post of supreme rat-catcher.

Black strolled around London with the swagger and audacity of royalty while maintaining the appearance of a court jester. He wore a homemade uniform of white leather pants, a scarlet waistcoat, a green topcoat, a gold band around his hat, and a sash emblazoned with metal rat-shaped medallions, which he had made by secretly melting down his wife’s saucepans.

Ever the showman, Black ambled around the city with a cart full of rats and peddled a homemade brew of varmint poison. After finding a crowd, he would set up a small stage, open a giant cage of rats, and reach inside. The rodents would jump onto his arms, scurry over his shoulders, and scamper from one hand to the next. The crowds oohed and ahhed—Black was rarely bitten. (Whenever a rat did sink its teeth in, Black treated his wound by visiting the local pub and having some “medicine,” a.k.a. stout—although if the bite was really bad, he would make sure to clean the wound.)

After luring a crowd, Black would begin hawking his poison to onlookers. “I challenge my composition, and sell the art of rat-destroying, against any chemical ray-destroyer in the world, for any sum,” he’d bark. “I don’t care what it is. Let anybody, either a medical or druggist manufacturer of composition, come and test with rats again me.”

After a pleasant afternoon selling rodenticide, Black would descend into London’s basements and sewers with a legion of ferrets and dogs to catch more rats. Black had trained the ferrets to sniff out vermin, while he trained the dogs to track down the ferrets in case they got lost or stuck in a sewer pipe, according to Lapham’s Quarterly.

Black tried using other animals to catch vermin. He trained a badger, two raccoons, and a monkey, but most of them couldn’t compete with dogs and ferrets. “I’ve learnt a monkey to kill rats,” he said, “but he wouldn’t do much, and only give them a good shaking when they bit him.”


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Black didn’t kill every rat he caught, though. He often kept them alive and bred them for sport.

Nineteenth-century Europeans have an unfortunate history of enjoying animal bloodsports: Monkey-baiting (Can a monkey armed with a stick fight a dog?); fox-tossing (Who can throw a fox highest in the air?); and goose-pulling (Can you decapitate a goose while riding a horse?) were just a few. During Black’s time, rat-baiting, in which dozens of rats are tossed in a pit with a dog, was one of the most popular pastimes in London taverns. The bloodsport was so beloved that the government taxed the rat-killing dogs. London’s premiere rat pit owner, Jimmy Shaw, bought 26,000 live rats each year from rat-catchers like Black.

But Black also bred rats for gentler reasons. He knew that some people wanted rodents as pets—and that some folks would pay handsomely for an equally handsome rat—so he began breeding “fancy” rats. Whenever he discovered a rat-of-a-different-color, he’d take it home for “ladies to keep in squirrel cages.”

Black was proud of his fancy rat-breeding skills. It’s rumored that he bred rats for the Queen and the author Beatrix Potter. He claimed that “I’ve bred the finest collection of pied rats which has ever been knowed [sic] in the world.” Which is probably true. The American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association says Black “can be credited as the originator of the first true domestic rats.”

But Jack Black’s legacy may dig even deeper: The first white lab rat—bred in Philadelphia—was descended from an albino rat that may have been bred by the rat catcher.

There’s no way to be certain, but as Robert Sullivan writes in his book Rats: Observations on the History & habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, “I like to think that all the great scientific achievements that have been made in the modern scientific era as a result of work with laboratory rats are ultimately the result of the work of Jack Black, rat catcher.”

You can read more about Jack Black in Robert Mayhew’s 1851 classic oral history of everyday Londoners, London Labour and the London Poor—the fun starts on page 11 [PDF].

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

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Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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