By the Victorian Era it was common knowledge that rats carried diseases and thousands of the nefarious vermin infested London sewers, factories, and homes. In seasons when rats overran London, rat catchers were in high demand. Many children preferred catching rats to cleaning chimneys, working in coal mines, or hawking wares.
One reason rat catching was popular with the youth was because it was lucrative. De-ratting English manors and businesses earned rat catchers wages that ranged from two shillings to one pound. However, because rat catchers had to make an investment and at least own a terrier or a ferret, many rat catchers were older youths.
Rat catchers were also rat killers. To kill a rat was a straight forward task. Rat catchers often claimed to have alluring secret poisons, but in reality their prime rat-killing poison was plain old arsenic. The arsenic was mixed with “toasted cheese, or bacon, or fried liver, or tallow, or oatmeal.”
A second way to kill rats involved ferrets and terriers. Ferrets would flush the rats out and trained terriers would seize them. According to Henry Mayhew in his book London Labour and the London Poor, the terriers would “throttle them silently, excepting the short squeak, or half-squeak, of the rat, who, by a ‘good dog’, is seized unerringly by the part of the back where the terrier’s gripe and shake is speedy death.”
If the pervasive disease-ridden varmints needed to be captured alive, there were several ways to accomplish the job. One way was to have the ferret flush out and rat and then drive it into some contrivance. This was the best way to catch rats used for blood sports, because there could be no visible injuries on the rat. (One popular blood sport was rat-baiting. It involved filling a pit with rats and placing bets on how long it would take a dog, usually a terrier, to kill them.)
The second reason rats were captured alive was to breed and sell as house pets. One famous rat catcher was named Jack Black. Black worked as Queen Victoria’s personal rat catcher. He caught all sorts of rats, including unusual colored ones and bred them and sold them “to well-bred young ladies to keep in squirrel cages.”