Manhattan’s industrious rat population has been getting a lot of press lately. Think NYC has it bad? According to recent calculations, the city’s rat population is a mere two million, give or take 150,000. Nineteenth-century Londoners wouldn’t have given a fig about Pizza Rat. Their rats were bigger, badder, and meaner (and probably walked around carrying scones).
Even Buckingham Palace had rats. But Queen Victoria wasn’t bothered: she had Jack Black. The self-described “rat and mole destroyer to Her Majesty” started preying on unsuspecting rodents at the age of nine. By the early 1840s, he was the rat-catcher for various government departments in London, including the Royal Palaces occupied by the Queen.
In 1851, the royal rat-catcher enjoyed a burst of notoriety when Henry Mayhew published “London Labour and the London Poor,” a ground-breaking examination of the condition and lives of London’s underclass. The Punch magazine founder spent months interviewing the city’s ‘Street-Folk’—including Jack Black.
Mayhew describes Black as “the most fearless handler of rats of any man living.” The English sociologist’s recollection of their first meeting makes for riveting reading:
“The first time I ever saw Mr. Black was in the streets of London, at the corner of Hartstreet, where he was exhibiting the rapid effects of his rat poison, by placing some of it in the mouth of a living animal. He had a cart then with rats painted on the panels, and at the tailboard, where he stood lecturing; he had a kind of stage rigged up, on which were cages filled with rats, and pills, and poison packages.
Here I saw him dip his hand into this cage of rats and take out as many as he could hold, a feat which generally caused an “oh!” of wonder to escape from the crowd, especially when they observed that his hands were unbitten. Women more particularly shuddered when they beheld him place some half-dozen of the dusty-looking brutes within his shirt next his skin; and men swore the animals had been tamed, as he let them run up his arms like squirrels, and the people gathered round beheld them sitting on his shoulders cleaning their faces with their front-paws, or rising up on their hind legs like little kangaroos, and sniffing about his ears and cheeks.”
Black didn’t let his unsavory profession get in the way of his sartorial predilections. His rat-catching attire consisted of a top hat, scarlet waistcoat, green overcoat, and white leather breeches. Across his torso he wore a leather sash emblazoned with a crown and the initials “V.R.” (for Victoria Regina, or Queen Victoria), flanked by inset, cast-iron rats on either side.
Sadly, the royal rat-catcher fell on hard-times after he left Buckingham Palace. Black confided in Mayhew that he had made an ill-advised decision to open a pub on Regent Street: “My daughter used to dress as the ‘Ratketcher’s Daughter,’ and serve behind the bar, and that did pretty well for a time; but it was a brewer’s house, and they ruined me.”
Feature image via Museum of London