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Jack Black: Rat Catcher to the Queen

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Jack Black, Rat Catcher to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria


Successful people are often the ones who find ways to capitalize on the problems of the day.  Another good way is to present yourself as some kind of an authority on a problem, even if you have to make up your credentials yourself.  Jack Black is a man who did both.

About a century and a half before “School of Rock” was released in theaters, another man named Jack Black, this one from Battersea, England, decided to make himself useful.  England had a rat problem.  The plague-bearing black rat was being driven out of England, but the unwelcome news was that the large, gray Norway rat was what was driving it out, overrunning the cities, and the nation despaired for a solution.  Black stepped forth, presenting himself as the Queen’s official rat-catcher.  This was not an official title, since Queen Victoria never asked him to take on the job, but it certainly lent an air of authority to his work.  What also helped to lend authority was the top hat and scarlet uniform he himself designed, which suggested royal office, though Black was never given any office by anyone.

It’s hard even to imagine the Crown giving a man like Black a royal warrant.  Black wasn’t a dishonest man, but he wasn’t quite the exterminator that one might expect urban Britons to be calling for.  Black just caught rats—alive.  He wasn’t the only one in England who did this, but he was one of the most talented at it.  Live rats, believe it or not, had commercial value.  The main purpose was rat fights, where men would gather in gambling dens to bet on how long it would take a dog—usually a terrier—to kill all the rats.  This was called rat-baiting, and it remained popular in England and America through much of the 19th century.  The British parliament had passed the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1835, which banned baiting bears, bulls and other large animals.  It also banned the practice of rat-baiting, which was every bit as cruel as baiting larger animals.   But since rats were less valued by people and were something of a nuisance, authorities were less inclined to enforce the law where ratting pits were concerned.  In the late 19th century, this started to change in both Britain and America, and ratting pits started to be shut down.  The last one operating in England was closed in 1912, its operator getting slapped with a heavy fine.  Fines were seldom levied on violators, but the idea was to send a message: the era of rat-baiting is over.

There were less cruel uses for live rats.  Rat-catchers noticed that while many rats are vicious, foul-tempered creatures, some of them were quite sweet and affectionate.  Black was one of many rat-catchers who started a cottage industry breeding and selling these nicer rats.  These domesticated rats were known as “fancy rats”, and it was quite fashionable to keep them.  Black liked to breed rats with interesting fur patterns with each other, trying to create new varieties.  He would sell these rats to “well-bred ladies to keep in squirrel cages,” as he put it.  One of these well-bred ladies was none other than celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter, who bought her fancy rat Samuel Whiskers from Black, and dedicated her book of the same name to this rat.  Another well-bred lady was Queen Victoria herself, who was known to keep fancy rats in gilded cages.  Apart from their role as pets, the mild-mannered fancy rats also proved to be useful test subjects at science labs.

Rat-catching was a pretty lucrative business in 19th-century England.  Not only were there plenty of markets to sell rats to, residents would also gladly pay rat-catchers to take the rats away, since the rat infestations got so bad, so they could earn money on both ends.  In this risky work, Jack Black nearly died several times as a result from infections from rat bites, so it was not an easy living.  Black’s less-risky occupations included catching live fish and live birds, as well as taxidermy.  He also bred dogs—rat terriers, specifically.  Rat terriers were bred especially for (what else?) rat-baiting.  Black’s rat terrier named Billy was, by his own account, a particularly talented rat fighter, as well as the ancestor of a sizable portion of rat terriers in the London of his day.
The "sport" of rat-catching, as it was practiced in Jack Black's day.

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