The Rat-Catcher’s Daughters

AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 11 AUGUST 2019

Black rat. Samuel Howitt 1808. Wellcome Collection.

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 had many rather dubious accomplishments.

For when he was not dispatching rats, Black was selling them for baiting, breeding the fancier varieties for household pets, practising taxidermy and exterminating 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.

Famous rat-catchers

In A Falcon on St Paul’s the writer 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.

He goes on to praise some celebrated rodent killers. Willie Dalton of Southwark, for example, was reputed to have caught a rat that was two feet two inches long. And a Mr H. G. Wood of Roseman Road in Battersea, a rat-catcher and a linguist fluent in six languages, was said to have caught eight thousand rats in one drive. Wentworth Day 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.

Well, I have been investigating the ratcatching forebears of the Jarvis girls. But lest you start to feel sorry for them, I would urge you to note the words of Mr Ike Matthews, a pest controller who worked in Manchester:

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.

Willie Dalton told Wentworth Day that his family had been in the rat-catching business since about 1710. While this may well be true, the first recorded Dalton-Jarvis rat-catcher I can find is John James Dalton, who was 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, and I like to think that they met through his work.

Rat catcher. William Collins 19th century. British Museum.

John James Dalton

John would not necessarily have killed all the rats he caught as live rats were valuable for baiting, so rather than use poison he may have flushed them out with dogs and ferrets. In 1883 he placed an advertisement in Sporting Life offering:

RATS! RAT! RAT! plentiful and cheap of J. Dalton, Ratcatcher, 10A, James-street, Borough-street, S.E. Gentlemen supplied privately with any number.

Although bear-baiting and dog-baiting had been made illegal in 1835, rat-baiting was permitted throughout the nineteenth century. 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 receiving a nasty bite.

More Daltons

So whether from catching or selling or betting against them, John James Dalton did well out of rats. He left £1000 when he died in 1915, which in today’s money would be worth 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 are 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.

John James’s son-in-law, Henry Jarvis, was listed as a carman — a driver of a cart for transporting goods — when he married Clara Dalton in 1878. When the census was taken in 1881, he was a bricklayer’s labourer, and ten years later a ‘cat rat catcher’. Whether this means he catches cats and rats or uses cats to catch rats, I am not sure. But in 1902 he has risen to be the Camberwell Parochial rat-catcher at £10 per annum.

Rat catching at the Blue Anchor Tavern in Bunhill Row in Finsbury. Jemmy Shaw c.1850. Museum of London

And now the Jarvises

Henry and Clara in turn had a son called John James Jarvis, who was born in 1879 in Camberwell. Although registered at the time of his marriage to Nellie Abrahams as a carman, John James also became a rat-catcher. So did two of his five children, namely Kitty and Nellie Matilda, who were born in 1904 and 1906. His wife also helped, and The Western Daily Press in the issue for 6 May 1927 noted that

Miss Kitty Jarvis of Brisbane Road Camberwell and her mother (Nellie) are said to be the only women professional rat-catchers in Britain.

Nell had married in 1923, which is why she was not mentioned.

But the Jarvis women would not have been regarded as anything unusual during the Second World War. For there were hundreds of Land Army Girls charged with protecting the country’s precious food stocks. And to carry out this important task they would certainly have had to know how to catch a rat.

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