Rat Catcher’s Day is celebrated on 26 June to commemorate the story of the Pied Piper in the town of Hamelin in Germany in 1284. The tale by Brothers Grimm tells how a
“black sea of rats swarmed over the whole town. First, they attacked the barns and storehouses, then, for lack of anything better, they gnawed the wood, cloth or anything at all.”
Pest control agent a.k.a. The Pied Piper was called in to deal with the situation. He blew his pipe and led all the rats out of the town and into the river where they were swept away. The business deal broke down when the Mayor of Hamelin refused to pay the Pied Piper for his rat catching services. The Pied Piper took his evil revenge by playing his magic flute which led all the children into a cave, never to be seen again.
In 1965 Rentokil signed a ten year contract with the City Fathers of Hamelin to sweep the town clear of rats. The fact that it took six months to clear the rats indicates just how bad the rat problem was, but not as bad as Victorian London.
The brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, was introduced to the UK in the 19th century. By the mid 1850’s the population exploded and rats reached infestation levels in London and the countryside. When Buckingham Palace became infested Queen Victoria appointed Jack Black.
Jack wore an eye catching costume of leather breeches, a green velveteen coat, scarlet waistcoat and a gold band round the hat. A leather belt across his shoulder was decorated with images of fierce rats.
Sometimes he would carry an iron cage containing ferrets, while two or three terriers would follow his footsteps. His arms and face were covered in scars and by his own account he had almost died three times from infected rat bites. Read an interview with Jack Black at the Albion Chronicles.
Rat catching forms a key part of Rentokil’s history. Rentokil was formed from British Ratin which distributed the bacillus Ratin. A newspaper advertisement published in 1929 declares:
It is a difficult job. Probably you have tried that; and yet the foulness remains. Now comes the British Ratin Co. whose service is based on Science – on the researches of Dr. Louis Bahr, the eminent Danish Bacteriologist. Ratin is the stuff that kills the things and keeps them killed.
The British Ratin rat catchers were not dressed as elborately as Jack Black. For many of the large companies which British Ratin served, discretion was desired. Each operator was provided with an allowance of up to £3 to purchase a new suit and spare pair of trousers. They could choose any material as long as it was grey. The suit was accessorized with an Oxford bag full of tiny parcels of stale bread impregnated with rat poison and wrapped in newspaper.
To all those pest control experts out there – Happy Rat Catcher’s Day!