Rat catchers of Lancashire who killed thousands

During the 1930s, November saw the annual marking of National Rat Week. In a look back to the traditional period for culling rodents, local historian Keith Johnson recalls the role of the rat catcher in pre-war Lancashire

Friday, 5th November 2021, 4:40 pm
Updated Friday, 5th November 2021, 4:42 pm

Ninety years ago if you had wandered down to Preston Docks you would most likely would have come upon Mr Houghton Hodson and his little dog named Peggy. He had at that time one of the most peculiar jobs in town, being the official Preston Corporation rat catcher.

If there was one place that rats delighted in finding themselves, it was on the dock side as ships brought them free of charge to the neighbourhood of the warehouses containing wheat and other cereals which the rodent palate favoured.

As a boy Hodson had spent many an hour in rat hunting on farms in the rural districts around Preston. Consequently in 1919 when the Rats and Mice Destruction Act was introduced and he learned Preston Corporation wanted a rat catcher, he applied and his hobby was turned into his livelihood.

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Rat catchers display their catch

His main task was to keep the vermin out of Preston Docks and whenever a ship arrived he would, along with the Port Sanitary Inspector, board the vessel and inquire as to the number of rats which had made the voyage. He would then descend into the hold and commence the task of clearing the vessel of any four-legged stowaways.

Poison baits and a trap or two were set in various parts of the boat, and left to do their work. The traps were about 10 times the size of a common mousetrap and were primed with fat bacon, a delicacy the rats preferred to cheese.

The traps working on the same principle as a mousetrap, but operated with such power that the curious rat was invariably killed instantly. On ships from foreign ports, Hodson recorded a tally of 200 rats in 1930.

However, not all rats were so obliging and if the poison baits failed and bacon and fish baits failed to tempt the rodents who still scampered about the decking he turned to suffocation – fumigation by sulphur dioxide sealing their fate.

Railway rat catchers walk along a railway track

The rats which did not succumb to even this method and were intent on making their way ashore via the hawsers which secured the boat to the dock side found metal discs placed on the ropes to thwart their attempts. When the discs were encountered, the rats had either to drop into the water or return to the vessel.

Despite all his efforts some rats did manage to evade Hodson’s vigilance and gain entry to the warehouses where the rat catcher would have many an exciting duel with the rodents. Often he was bitten on the hand when rats took a dislike to him, and more than once his faithful dog had to worry a rat before it released its grip.

A rat which took up residence in a warehouse could not even go to drink without encountering some snare or other. For if they sought water from the gutters of the roof, Hodson had laid baits and traps along their way. The rodent visitors being either black or brown. The former coming off foreign vessels, and the latter of the barn rat species.

There was always cause for anxiety if a black rat was found in town, those being potential carriers of dangerous diseases such as the plague, cholera, dysentery or yellow fever.

Spectators at the Turnspit in Quaker’s Alley watch a dog catching rats in a pit

Each year about 3,000 rats were destroyed by Hodson, his dog and snares. It was estimated in the 1930s that rats cost the country £60m each year and the introduction of the ‘National Rat Week’ in early November each year kept the nation aware of the perils of the rat population.

Hodson was far from alone in his battle with the rats in Lancashire and a local farmer informed ‘Lancashire Post’ readers that he had, during National Rat Week, caught and collected more than 100 rats.

His solution to the problem were the 20 cats which roamed his fields, their reward being a saucer of milk in return for their endeavours. In Wigan they had Chorley-born Henry Sherrington, known as ‘ Harry Rat’, he was a son of a well respected rat catcher of Chorley and his brother Richard Sherrington was a professional rat catcher on the ships at Liverpool Docks.

Henry Sherrington had an annual retaining fee as the rat catcher for a number of county families. The rats he caught he often used to sell for sixpence each for sporting purposes. In those earlier days there was a ‘rat pit’ in Wigan, and many gentlemen visited the pit with their dogs for the sport of rat baiting.

A rat catcher lays out his victims in National Rat Week, 1939

Besides his rat catching exploits, Sherrington was a bird, poultry and dog dealer, making him a familiar figure in Wigan. When he died in 1924, aged 91, it was recorded that the oldest rat catcher in the county had passed way.

There was also great enthusiasm for catching rats in Lancaster with a slaughter house, rubbish tips and a quarry among the places the resident rat catcher frequented during 50 years of duty.

By 1935, using similar methods to the Preston rat catcher, he had, during the official rat week, rid the city of 440 rats. He also recalled with pride the occasion several years earlier when, in a single drive, he had captured 320 rats from a ship.

The fame of Mr Dodd, the Fleetwood rat catcher, even spread to Ireland in 1928 when he received a letter from a Miss Fforde, in Armagh, asking for details of the method he employed as her barns were infested by rats.

Not one to give away the secrets of his trade, he offered to go to Ireland and clear the rats from her estate. On a particular Saturday that a reporter from the ‘Fleetwood Chronicle’ caught up with him, he was busy clearing a Fleetwood fishing steamer and he had just caught 19 rats in five minutes, although he added that was nothing special because earlier in the week he caught 87 rates in 20 minutes on a boat called the ‘Ethel’.

He was keen to mention that he had his own method, not employing ferrets, dogs or poison but getting them in his own way. The enthusiasm for National Rat Week was certainly at a height in the 1930s, timed as it was to occur at the period when rats were experiencing the colder days and were making their way from fields and banks to the shelter of ricks, granaries, barns and outhouses.

Two railway rat catchers with their haul

There was certainly little pity expressed on their behalf as the hands of man were raised against them, along with the fangs, beaks and claws of many a beast and bird along with dogs, weasels, stoats, cats, ferrets, foxes, owls, buzzards, raven and seagulls which the rat had usually to contend with.

During the Second World War many a woman carried out the tasks which had traditionally been done by the men prior to call up for military service, and the Liverpool Corporation had enlisted a volunteer rat catcher called Mrs Helen Purcell in 1944. With her husband away in the Merchant Navy, she had, within four months, captured her 500th rodent.

The Lancashire War Agriculture Committee, aware that farmers were keen to exterminate the rodents during this period, offered workers and children a penny for each rat’s tail. While Mr Rogerson, the rodent officer based in Lancaster, was nicknamed the ‘Pied Piper of Lancashire’ as he introduced the ‘Kill The Rat’ campaign.

In more recent times sewer baiting has helped to control the number of rats although it is reckoned that milder winters have seen the rat menace increase and although we no longer have ship loads of rats to contend with in Preston, the modern day pest control officers are still busy.

It was reported in 2017 that Preston City Council received more than 1,100 calls to deal with rats alone, besides 400 other calls to tackle vermin. It seems that more than a century on from the introduction of National Rat Week, the rodents are still prepared to battle for existence, although in these more enlightened times a World Rat Day was introduced in 2002 by a group of pet rat enthusiasts and there is a national Fancy Rat Society formed in 1976.

In truth it has never been as simple as the Pied Piper of Hamelin would have us believe as he played his tune and ‘out of the houses the rats came tumbling. Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats, brown rats, black cats, grey rats …’ as the poet Robert Browning lyrically stated.