Rats, Class, and Disease

Charles Booth Maps Descriptive of London Poverty
LSE Library. Charles Booth Maps Descriptive of London Poverty. Wikimedia Commons

Written by Elisabeth Crawford

During the reign of Queen Victoria, London with its nearly three million inhabitants experienced a period of poverty, famine, and wide-spread poor sanitary conditions. Black and brown rats dominated the undergrounds and infestations were about as common as the sight of sewage spilling into the streets due to a sewer system incapable of carrying out the demands necessary of a city of that capacity. Diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, and typhus, were common during those times and the night-crawling rodents were often accused of being responsible for them. They were given partial blame for miasmas. Later, when it became known that many of the epidemic diseases of London were actually waterborne, rats continued to share responsibility for living and dying within the sewer system and causing contamination. As the sewers were updated by Sir Bazalgette, the spreading of diseases was significantly reduced. On the downside, homes grew more accessible to rats due to pipes and drains directly connecting to the sewers, opening a new gateway for them to enter the living spaces of humans. With more space to live, the rats, however, bred at an unimaginable rate, and a large number of rats also equaled a great hunger that had to be satisfied. Therefore, when the rats started to steal food from the already starving Londoners, they declared war on these ghastly creatures.

London, in the 19th century, separated its citizens according to classes. There were wealthy districts, characterized by technological advancements, housing prosperous aristocrats. These affluent districts were often found within the center of the city, while the underprivileged residents of London could be found especially along the river-fronts of the Thames, as well as outside of the city (Old Bailey). Because of their locations, the slums were often infested by rats and ravaged with diseases. Shoreditch, a district on the outskirts of central London, north of the Thames, was one of the districts that often experienced problems with rats. The Medical Officer of Health Reports regularly reported rat attacks, even within homes, that sometimes resulted in deadly infections to the victims (Shoreditch 1882). The lack of money in this borough, as in many others, resulted in degenerated homes with cracks and holes, allowing rats to enter upon arriving from defective ditches used to dispose of waste products (Shoreditch 1879). The rat predicament was more severe in the presence or vicinity of slaughterhouses, such as in the case of the district of Paddington (Paddington 1872). Atypical for the time, slaughterhouses were often built within London city limits (Paddington 1875) in order to reduce the loss of perishable meats and to be closer to meat markets (Velten 35). The blood and meat were dreadfully inviting to these displeasing rats and instigated a problem expanded beyond simply being a nuisance to the population. The cows housing the slaughterhouses were increasingly deemed unfit for their meat and milk consumption due to rat contamination (Paddington 1873), which was a huge obstacle butchers faced.

Cartoon from Punch Magazine, Volume 35 Page 137; 10 July 1858. Wikimedia Commons.

The concern for the spreading of diseases increased with the ever-growing number of rats. The dilemma was that rats living in the sewers also died in them, and their corpses often clogged the already too small pipes (St. James’s 1867), consequentially flooding the streets of London. The smell, especially in vicinity of the river Thames, was unbearable, and excruciatingly bad during the hot summer months. Diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, and typhus ravaged London, killing thousands (Health and Hygiene in the Nineteenth Century), and was initially believed to be caused by miasma (St. James’s 1860), the theory that certain diseases were caused by the fumes escaping the sewer system (Islington 1865). When the stench became so grave that not even the government could function anymore, Sir Bazalgette, a civil engineer, suggested the development of a new sewer system. The goal of this project was to build a system capable of meeting the demands of a city of the size of London in current time, as well as allowing for future growth. Sir Bazalgette suggestion came just in time to liberate the metropolitan from the Great Stink of 1858 (Cholera and the Thames). Beyond that, the rats reduced their frequent appearances (Paddington 1889), or at least so it seemed.

Les Chatfield. Egg-section sewer in the Victorian sewer system of Brighton, East Sussex. Brighton, England, 2006. Wikimedia Commons.

After the city received its new sewer system, the number of people falling ill to cholera and typhoid dropped significantly. Dr. John Snow had previously suggested that these diseases were a result of water contaminated with human feces rather than being a result of miasma (Father of Modern Epidemiology). His ideas were disregarded until they became contained with sanitation advancements. All of a sudden, the connection that Dr. Snow made previously, was recognized and acknowledged. Cholera and typhoid were indeed waterborne and essentially eliminated with the building of the new water system (St. James’s 1883). Rats, however, were still not off the hook.

With the new sewer system, brand new problems arose. Each home now possessed larger pipes and drains, which directly connected to the main sewer, where rats lived. This meant that the furry rodents were capable of entering people’s homes, gnawing on anything that was accessible to them. The unfortunate people of London already had to deal with famine and now were forced to share the scarcely food they had available to them (16). Further, rats were accused of causing structural damage to the sewers (St. James’s 1975) as they continued to breed within the brick walls of the undergrounds, at an unimaginable rate, ultimately provoking a war between humans and rodents – Rat Week was born (Fulham 1919).


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2. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Shoreditch, Parish of St. Leonard, Page 75. Wellcome Library.

3. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Shoreditch, Parish of St. Leonard. Page 56. Wellcome Library.

4. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Paddington. Page 14. Wellcome Library.

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6. Velten, Hannah. Beastly London a History of Animals in the City. London: Reaktion Books, 2013. Page 35.

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10. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for St James’s, Westminster. Page 21. Wellcome Library.

11. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Islington, Parish of St Mary. Wellcome Library.

12. Lemon, Joanna. “The Great Stink.” The Great Stink. Accessed April 06, 2017. http://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/the-great-stink/.

13. Paddington 1889 – The new sewer has largely been built and the problem has reduced.

14. Frerichs, Ralph R. “Father of Modern Epidemiology.” Father of Modern Epidemiology. June 2005. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/fatherofepidemiology.html.

15. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for St James’s, Westminster. Page 58-59. Wellcome Library.

16. Velten, Hannah. Beastly London a History of Animals in the City. London: Reaktion Books, 2013. Page 217.

17. Report of the Medical Officer of Health for St James’s, Westminster. Page 17. Wellcome Library.

18. Annual report of the Medical Officer of Health for the year 1919. Wellcome Library.