Unlike many school leavers neither Nell or Kitty Jarvis of Camberwell in London had to worry about what to do next. For they were destined to join their father in the noble art of rat-catching.
This necessary occupation attracted the attention of the journalist Henry Mayhew, who wrote extensively about rat-catchers in London Labour and the London Poor. He gave a starring role to Jack Black of Battersea, the self-styled “Royal rat-catcher”, who as well as dispatching rats sold them for rat-baiting, bred the fancier varities for household pets, practised taxidermy and exterminated moles. A picture of Black shows him looking very dapper in an advertising sash decorated with the royal initials, some perky-looking rats and a crown. He holds a rat cage and is accompanied by one of his terriers—possibly the famous Billy.1
In A Falcon on St Paul’s James Wentworth Day opines that “the rat is, in short, a low beast with neither uses nor romance to commend him. Yet I can find romance in ratcatching. It is an ancient and honourable art, full of tradition and secret recipes”.2 He goes on to praise some celebrated rodent killers—Willie Dalton of Southwark, for example, who was reputed to have caught a rat that was two feet two inches long, and a Mr H. G. Wood of Roseman Road, Battersea, rat-catcher and linguist fluent in six languages, who was said to have caught 8,000 rats in one drive. He also includes Mr John James Jarvis (nephew of Willie Dalton) in his panegyric: “… Mr J. Jarvis of Camberwell. He has brought up his two pretty daughters to follow in the ratcatching footsteps of their forebears, and to-day Miss Nell and Miss Kitty Jarvis are the only two women ratcatchers in London—possibly in the world. Mr Jarvis has done a great work. His daughters do more. They catch from 500 to 600 rats a week.”3
This prompted an investigation into the ratcatching forebears of the Jarvis girls. Before we feel sorry for them it might be worth noting the words of Mr Ike Matthews: “The profession is a peculiar and exciting one, but all right if pursued in the right way. Although the calling takes one into dirty and obnoxious places, there is no reason why the Rat-catcher should not always appear respectable.”4
Willie Dalton told Wentworth Day that his family had been in the rat-catching trade since about 1710. While this may well be true, the first recorded Dalton-Jarvis rat-catcher I can find is John James Dalton—Kitty and Nell’s great-grandfather. Born in Lambeth in about 1828 he was working as a vermin destroyer by the early 1850s. He married a young lady called Emma Pizey, the daughter of a cheesemonger—I like to think they met through his work. John would not have necessarily killed all the rats he caught, as live rats were valuable for rat-baiting, so rather than use poison he may have flushed them out with dogs and ferrets. In 1883 he placed an advert in Sporting Life offering:
Rats! Rats! Rats!
Plentiful and cheap of J. Dalton, Ratcatcher 10A James Street Borough SE
Gentlemen supplied privately with any number5
Rat-baiting was allowed in the nineteenth century—despite bear-baiting and dog-baiting having been made illegal in 1835. The purpose was to provide ‘sport’ for gambling men—rats would be put in a pit and bets placed on which dog would kill the most rats in the shortest time. Mayhew also tells the story of a street fire-eater, who when desperately hard-up was persuaded to pit himself against a rat-catcher’s dog to see who could kill the most rats—the man won, but not before he received a nasty bite.
So, whether from catching, selling or betting against them John James Dalton did well in the business, leaving £1,000 when he died in 1915—in today’s money this would be about £95,000.
At least two of John’s sons followed him into the business. Wentworth Day is probably referring to William Henry Dalton when he talks about the “The King of All Ratcatchers.” He accompanies Mr Dalton and his sixteen helpers on a rat hunt in a City of London cellar where a hundred and twenty of the creatures were taken alive. “There was no noise, no fuss, no dogs, no ferrets, no sticks and no vulgarity. It was just a quiet gentlemanly evening, with no demonstrations on either side.”6
John James’s son-in-law Henry Jarvis is listed as a carman when he marries Clara Dalton in 1878 and a bricklayer’s labourer in 1881. By 1891 he is a cat rat catcher—whether this means he catches cats and rats or uses cats to catch rats, I’m not sure. But in 1902 he has risen to be the Camberwell Parochial rat-catcher at £10 per year.
Henry and Clara in turn have a son called John James Jarvis born 1879 in Camberwell. Although listed on his marriage certificate to Nellie Abrahams as a carman (driver of cart that transports goods), John James also becomes a rat-catcher, as do at least two of his five children—Kitty born 1904 and Nellie Matilda born 1906. His wife also helped, as recorded in The Western Daily Press of 6 May 1927: “Miss Kitty Jarvis of Brisbane Road Camberwell and her mother (Nellie) are said to be the only women professional rat-catchers in Britain.”7 Nell had married in 1923, which is why she wasn’t mentioned.
During the Second World War the Jarvis women would not be regarded as anything unusual, as there were hundreds of Land Army Girls responsible for rat-catching and protecting the country’s precious food stocks.8
1Mayhew, Henry. (1861) London Labour and The London Poor. Vol. 3. Griffin, Bohn & Co: London, p.1
2Day, James Wentworth (1935?) A Falcon on Saint Paul’s: being a book about the birds, beats, sports & games of London. Hutchinson: London, p.242.
3As 2 above, pp.243 – 244.
4Matthews, Ike. (1898) Full revelations of the life of a professional rat-catcher; after 25 years experience, p.43.
5(1883) ‘Rats! Rats! Rats!’ in Sporting Life 15 September 1883 p.4.
6See 2 above, p.246.
7(1927) Miss Kitty Jarvis in Western Daily Press 6 May 1927.
8Tyrer, Nicola. (1996) They Fought in the Fields: The Women’s Land Army. Sinclair-Stevenson: London, p.127
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