Once upon a time, being a rat-catcher was a noble position, and in Jack Black’s case, an almost envied one. All the ladies of the court loved him and his domesticated rats, which they fed and fawned over with great zeal. Of course, the wild rats running freely about Queen Victoria’s kitchen were not so wanted, so Jack would deal with them accordingly to make sure that the royalty could ate the food instead of the rats.
By the mid-19th century it was well understood that rats carried diseases, however, sanitation within large cities still left a lot to be desired and rats infested sewers and homes alike. As a result, rat-catching could prove a rather lucrative profession. Rat-catchers would capture rats by hand, often with specially-bred vermin terriers, or traps, and payment would be high for catching and selling rats to breeders.
Most famous amongst these rat-catchers was Jack Black: rat-catcher and mole destroyer by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Black is best know through his interview in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 3, where he tells of his work and experiences.
Black cut a striking figure in his self-made “uniform” of scarlet topcoat, waistcoat, and breeches, with a huge leather belt inset with cast-iron rats. He was reported to be “the most fearless handler of rats of any man living”, on one occasion, at a public display, placing half a dozen rats taken directly from the sewers inside his shirt while delivering a sales pitch on the rapid effects of rat poison. His face and hands were covered in scars from bites and by his own account there were numerous occasions on which he had almost died from infection following being bitten.
When he caught any unusually coloured rats, he bred them, to establish new colour varieties. He would sell his home-bred domesticated coloured rats as pets, mainly, as Black observed, “to well-bred young ladies to keep in squirrel cages”. Beatrix Potter is believed to have been one of his customers. The more sophisticated ladies of court kept their rats in dainty gilded cages, and even Queen Victoria herself kept a rat or two. Black also supplied live rats for rat-baiting in pits, a popular mid-Victorian pastime.
(via The Oddment Emporium)