We hear today many convincing stories regarding the centre of town being plagued by rats in the 1940’s and 50’s.
Now, as I have mentioned often before, I was born close to St Peter’s Church which seemed to be the centre of all activities during my childhood. To hear a tale of rats or even to spot one seemed an everyday occurrence to a lad like me growing up during the war.
If I tried to describe the feeling I had every time I entered the old retail market in the shadow of St Peter’s Church with my mother during the war, you’d think I was talking about entering the Coliseum in Rome, because it was certainly built on a similar grand scale.
On its two main fronts the east and west ones the entrances were enriched with many Corinthian and Doric columns, and the pictures here can only give you a glimpse of this magnificent interior so full of variety, and atmosphere, with a bustling spirit of life.
As you passed through those majestic columns fronting the east entrance to the market, you would then go down a flight of steps turning right alongside the many fish stalls which my mother and I would each week, to call at Wood’s Grocers, who we were registered with during the days of food rationing.
Woods the grocers backed on to that eastern wall. A friend of my father, Fred Thomas, one of the many fish merchants, faced Wood’s grocers, and on the left of Woods was Harry Cutts hosiers.
The vaults were a no go area
At that time rats were over running the market, and Fred Thomas would say the early arrivals in the market hall would always stamp their feet as they walked on to their pitch, first thing in the morning.
I myself remember an incident happening on an early visit with my mother to Wood’s, which caused a certain hue and cry.
A mother was chastising a young child, who was crying in front of the stall one day. It was later discovered that a large rat, which had obviously been poisoned, had crawled beneath the pram to die, and the young child had spotted it and was making her anxious.
A little later at the end of the war I used to help my Aunt who delivered milk around town on an electric truck for the Levedale dairy in Dudley Street.
In those days the town centre was very mean regarding road traffic, and manoeuvring the streets and alleys was no problem.
Of course there were exceptions. Our milk float, seen here amongst the traffic delivering to the Market Tavern in Cheapside.
Mr Mills one of the rooftop Caretakers at that time.
Those were happy days discovering the many diverse locations across the town where our customers lived, many hidden well out of the public gaze.
I would, with my bottle carrier in hand, climb flights of stairs to reach caretakers homes situated on top of many historical buildings such as the Queen’s Arcade in the Square, the Royal London Buildings, and the Midland Bank in Lichfield Street.
People living and working in and above many of the shops and offices in all the major streets in town, most of whom I got to know quite well and they always seemed to have time to share a story or two.
Getting back to the Rodent problem at that time!
I mentioned earlier, one of our regular calls would be on the top floor of the Queen Arcade in the square (notice the entrance to the stairs on the right in this photo of the interior) where Mr Mills, the caretaker, an ex naval man, would delight in taking me to see the contents of his traps he had set the previous night.
Needless to say, flattened, blood soaked rats didn’t appeal to this eight year old much. I only let it happen once.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin
I suppose you will agree the most scariest of rat tales, and every child’s nightmare, was a legend describing a piper dressed in multi-coloured clothing. This rat-catcher was hired by the town to lure rats away with his magic. Was this truth or fiction? You must decide for yourself.
As you must with this local story that was told to me in the early 1950’s.
The Rodent Operative
Sam Higgins was a rat catcher, and a good one too.
Wherever the rats were thickest, he was to be found with his two terriers.
Whenever the job became to inaccessible for his dogs, he would burrow and smell out the entrance and exit holes, then use poison with telling effect.
One day, after spending the morning in the vaults under the Retail Market, he was walking back across to the Town Hall to report complete success on a ratting foray, when he was stopped by the Town Clerk.
“Higgins” he said briefly, “a resolution has been passed in Council, that the official rat catcher will forthwith be known as rodent operative, Class I. We are all agreed that an important job like yours, deserves a more dignified appendage. Oh – and one more thing before you go, Mr Higgins, this job has been done a little too casually in the past, so we have decided to install you into a little office in the Town Hall here.”
“Don’t think we do not appreciate your services; we are all agreed that you have done a remarkably fine job in keeping down the rat menace to a minimum. But we must have statistics; we are helpless without them. After all, figures are our job,” he said with a wintry smile.
“For a start I suggest that a graph tabulating rodent results from week to week be instituted. Peak periods could be indicated and augmented with other relevant details. No doubt other ideas will cross your mind from time to time, when you are settled in properly. And – Oh Mr Higgins, when we are suitably ensconced in the Town Hall – ah – we shall have to dress more in keeping with our position.”
As Sam left the Town Hall he rolled the phrase “rodent operative” around his tongue and agreed to himself that it did sound more dignified than that of rat catcher. He was honest enough to admit though that previously, he hadn’t been bothered about his designation so long as the money was alright.
He looked down at his dirty boots and soiled corduroys, and scratched thoughtfully at the bared chest revealed by his open-necked shirt. Two days later he turned up at his office dressed neatly in pin-striped trousers, black jacket and bowler hat.
The day being fine, he had decided to leave his umbrella at home. As the weeks went by, Sam’s rodent-catching expeditions began to fail. He was naturally reluctant to crawl along avenues thick with filth and grime; and he avoided sewers like a plague.
Once or twice, he thought of changing into his corduroys and old boots, but felt somehow his new found dignity as rodent operative was being assailed.
As the ranks of the rats grew thicker, so did the correspondence from the Town Hall. He had to reply to this mass of memo’s in triplicate, and in long hand too, until the Town Clerk took pity on him and loaned him a typist for three hours a day.
As the correspondence grew, the necessity for the storage of these documents became apparent. A girl of sixteen was engaged to look after the filing cabinet.
The rats by now were so thick on the ground that they took to strolling about in the daytime, often in twos. Sam was doing the rats a disservice, for there was not enough food to go round.
Cases of cannibalism among the rats became common, but in spite of this, their ranks grew steadily.
By now Sam’s correspondence had reached immense proportions, and the typist was working full time.
The Town Clerk was very pleased with Sam’s undoubted clerical ability, and congratulated him on the efficiency of his filing system. He even went so far as to hint that a man of his capabilities could be used to more advantage in some other department.
Sam refused this offer, preferring to be senior in his own department rather than a junior in some other department.
So, the Town Clerk patted him affectionately on the shoulder saying “Well keep up the good work, Mr Higgins,” and turned as he was leaving the office to say jocularly, “ I suppose we must really catch some rats one of these days!”
The climax came one morning.
Sam entered his office, and there, sitting on his swivel chair, was a large grey rat stroking its whiskers.
Something snapped in Sam’s brain. From the depths of his artisan’s soul, some decent instinct pushed itself upwards and was horrified at what he saw.
He opened the tin on his desk marked simply enough “Rat Poison” and was dead in three minutes
Written on the pad in front of his slumped body, was a message, stark in its simplicity. It seemed to point a moral somewhere.
It read, “R.O.D. / 1500. As a rat-catcher, I was a good ‘un. As a rodent operative Class I, I have failed!”
The advert in the local paper that evening clashed with Sam’s obituary notice .
It read “Wanted, Assistant Rodent Operative Class II. Apply in own handwriting to Town Clerk. Superannuation. Good Canteen. Overtime worked or if desirous 40 hour week.”