Rats Prior to Discovery of Yersina Pestis (1848-1894)

Written by Sarah Schultz

A rat-catcher carries a cage of live rats and a wooden stick with dead rats. 1789. Credit: Wellcome Library, London 

This page focuses on the relationship between rats and humans, as well as many of the main issues regarding rats, in the city of London from the year 1848 to the year 1894. The year 1894 was important because it was the year the bacteria that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, was discovered, during the third great plague pandemic. The discovery of yersinia pestis explained the relationship between rats and plague for the first time. Even though rats were the carriers of the bacteria that caused the plague, the fleas on the rats actually transmitted the deadly disease from rats to humans. When a rat would die, the fleas would have to find another source of blood, therefore transmitting the bacteria from rats to humans through blood.

However, even before rats were linked to plague they were considered a major threat to public health in London. The Medical Officer of Health reports As often cite rats as an issue because they damaged the sewer and drain systems in the city of London. They did this by creating nests and breeding in the pipes. Rats also posed an issue to the public health by infecting meat that was sold throughout the city of London. The diseased meat resulted from slaughter houses that were infested with rats. Rats would also attack humans that entered the sewers, so violently that some even struggled to escape (Velten 2016, 216-220). After 1894, when rats were accused of spreading the plague, the city of London stepped up efforts to completely wipe out the rat population, but these efforts began in the mid-19th century, before the connection between rats and plague was even suspected.

In 1858, the Medical Officer of Health for St. Martin in the Fields pointed out how the drains in his section were so poorly built in the first place that the inhabitants were dealing with the consequences. The report listed many complaints such as the foul smell, resulting diseases as well as poor drainage. The medical officer also said that the destructive power of rats did not help with the already large issue.

In Hanover Square in 1866, a report from the Medical Officer of Health for Hanover Square, The Vestry of the Parish of Saint George, included a particular concern about rats living within the city drains. The report detailed a very old sewer that was in need of repair. Rats had also burrowed this sewer. Later in the report it was mentioned that a new sewer was constructed and the drainage of the street was perfect. The next street over, similar conditions existed. This time however instead of a new sewer being constructed, the sewer was left open and the rats were forced to come out.

A report from the Medical Officer of Health for Shoreditch, Parish of St. Leonard in 1882 described yet another similar concern regarding rats. Eleven houses on Bookham Street were infested with rats and sewer gas, consequently. In the report, it was mentioned that  one person complained that rats attacked her while we was sleeping in her bed. The premises were examined, and then the drains within the premises were cleaned out. It was believed to have solved the rat infestation issue until another one of the tenants complained that he frequently saw rats in his front area and that they were completely destroying the woodwork on the doorway. After a second examination, it was found that rats had been living in the drain again and had also created a large breeding place for themselves, which was connected to the houses.

In Wandsworth in the year of 1882, the Medical Officer of Health described a much more serious problem resulting from rats than most of the other reports. It was reported that sewer gas was freely leaking through a number of houses, due to rat infestation/burrows. In this specific case one person died. The officer reported that in any house in which a fever has occurred, the drains need to be opened up and cleansed out properly to avoid another fatality resulting from sewer gas and rat infestation.

Eight years later in 1890 also in Wandsworth, another report proved that the rat issue had not been completely solved. This report detailed the number of ‘nuisances’ that had been reported. In this particular case, two different rat sightings were reported along with other things such as smoke complaints and accumulation of dead dogs.

The problem with sewers did not only result from rats however. A report from the Medical Officer of Health for St. James in 1866 described why maintenance of sewers was particularly difficult. When sewers started to decay, the progress was very rapid especially when assisted by rats.

The Medical Officer of Health for Hanover Square brought up another main concern about rats in 1858. The report cited that there was a very bad smell coming from the drains. After further investigation, the smell was confirmed to be coming from several rat holes that were opening into the cellar. The drains had to be cleaned out and repaired due to the infestation.

The damage caused by rats to the sewers was expensive. For example, in 1878 a report from the Medical Officer of Health for Hamlet of Mile End Old Town described the budget needed to repair sewers and demolish the rat burrows completely. The Medical Officer believed that it the drain damage was due primarily to the rats, and requested enough funds to demolish them. He cited that the cost of the new work was £230, bringing the total for the year up to roughly £1043.

A report from the Medical Officer of Health for Paddington brought up another issue that was not found within another health report during this time period. The slaughter houses in Paddington had a major problem with rats, that was a public health hazard. These slaughter houses were infested with rats because of the blood that drained from them. The rats therefore knew where the blood was coming from. It was estimated that about one hundred tons of infected meat were served throughout London every year. However, the diseased meat did not only result from rat infection within slaughter houses. Other common causes of the diseased meat included the how the hot weather would attract blue-bottle flies which would lay their eggs on the meat.

In 1882 in Hackney, the Medical Officer of Health wrote that the connection between the pipes and traps were not completed. Therefore, the rats were displaced, and ended up in the houses. Rats dug their way under a garden wall and into the pantry.

However, rats were also used for entertainment in some ways in London in the 1800s. Some old British pubs used to be home to “ratting,” a game where people would bet on how many rats a dog could maul in a certain amount of time. A bull terrier mix named Billy is a well known record holder, it has been said that he killed 100 rats in under six minutes! Photographs and paintings can still be found in some of the pubs showing the rich history of the relationship between rats and humans in London in the 1800s. One of those paintings can be found here.

Young boy sits with a cage with rats on his knee. 1832. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.


  1. Rats linked to plague
  2. Velten, Hannah. Beastly London a history of animals in the city. London: Reaktion Books, 2016, 216-220.
  3. St Martin in the Field 1858
  4. Hanover Square 1866
  5. Shoreditch 1882
  6. Wandsworth 1882
  7. Wandsworth 1890
  8. St James 1866
  9. Hanover Square 1858
  10. Mile End 1878
  11. Paddington 1872
  12. Hackney 1882
  13. Ratting