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A hot night in a Manchester rat pit
The pub's landlord nipped the rats’ spines with his own teeth to make sure they were dead
The gaslights in the backstreet beer house near Piccadilly were so dim that a policeman stepping inside would need to adjust his eyes to the darkness.
It would give the house’s patrons a few seconds to make a run for it before he had a chance to pick out their faces.
The landlord no doubt also hoped the gloom would make it harder for a “blue” to feel his way through the kitchen and upstairs to find the rat pit.
But after a long moment in the half light, even the bony black shapes under the tables could be seen for what they really were.
The men had brought their dogs to fight the rats.
"Some of them were nursing their dogs as affectionately as if they had been babies — or probably much more affectionately,” a writer from a satirical magazine wrote after finding his way inside the beer house’s parlour.
"A variety of squeaks from behind the counter assured us that we were in rat land.”
In a city infested with rats, it was no surprise that Mancunians had made a sport of killing them using dogs.
Not only were rats blamed for spreading disease, they were claimed to have started fires and even caused an explosion after their teeth marks were reportedly found on damaged gas pipes.
Rat-baiting, where a dog was dropped into an enclosed space with a number of rats and timed on how quickly it could kill them, was banned in 1835.
But the “game” was so popular it was still continuing in the upper rooms of pubs and beer houses in Manchester towards the end of the nineteenth century.
This beer house near Piccadilly was one of those dens and soon tonight’s match was ready to start.
First, the dogs were weighed like jockeys to determine how many rats they would fight — four for the smallest dog and eight for the biggest. Mostly, it was five or six.
Then the punters gave sixpence to the landlord and walked in a procession through the kitchen and up the rickety stairs to the small hot room with the rat pit.
The pit was a hexagonal enclosure with a wooden wall over 3ft-high and four yards in diameter with a circle marked in chalk on the floor.
Some of the crowd stood on benches around the edge of the room. The rest packed themselves around the pit.
“A large cage of rats occupied one corner of the room and into this cage a youth, who appeared to be the landlord’s son, put his hand and immediately threw five rats into the pit, over the heads of the spectators,” the magazine writer later said.
The landlord, a tough man who would nip the rats’ spines with his teeth to ensure they were dead at the end of each bout, acted as referee.
“Are you ready?” he shouted to the owner of the first dog before it was lowered into the pit.
The writer described what happened next.
“Down goes the dog and he has seized a rat before your eye has had time to twinkle. Everybody seems to shout something that nobody else distinctly hears.
“In the same breath, the dog is cheered and decried as he goes on mauling one rat after another.
“His master becomes fearfully energetic.
“The man is not allowed to step outside the chalked circle or to touch the rats or the dog, except to take him up.
“But he may shout, he may beat the ground, or commit any other noise.
“We never did see a man beat his hand upon a wooden floor with such force before, and probably there was never a dog so shouted at since dogs were invented.”
In just 57 seconds, the dog had killed five rats as they tried to escape up his owner’s trouser leg.
His prize was a teapot.
That night, in that unnamed beer house, a Scottish Terrier named Charlie killed a rat half as big as himself.
“It was”, the writer said, “the most desperate encounter of the evening”.
“We rushed from the rat pit,” he added, “and escaped homewards on the last bus”.
How Manchester terriers survived the city’s rat pits
As rat-baiting reached its gruesome peak in the 1860s, breeders began trying to produce faster and more agile dogs in a canine genetic arms race.
One breed that emerged, the Manchester Terrier, went on to earn legendary status as a first-rate rat killer even in the pits of London favoured by Lord Byron.
Much of its success was said to be due to one breeder named John Hulme, from Crumpsall, who wanted to develop a dog that could be used for both ratting and hare coursing.
A cross between a black and tan terrier and a “snap dog”, which was the forerunner of a whippet, Manchester terriers had a smooth coat, a long tapered nose and bright eyes.
But most of all, in an arena where a frightened rat could scratch out a dog’s eye, they were courageous and lightning fast.
One of the terriers, named Tiny, was even known to have killed 200 rats in an hour in an exhibition match in the capital.
They also saw service as rat catchers in the mills and backstreets of Manchester.
With the decline of rat-baiting, and the increased used of chemicals to deal with rat infestations, the dogs eventually began to fall out of favour.
By 1945, there were only 11 Manchester terriers left in the whole country and their survival as a breed was said to be “touch and go”.
But their numbers have been growing ever since the British Manchester Terrier Club stepped into protect them from extinction.
More than 170 Manchester terriers were born across the UK in 2021.
However, they now serve as affectionate if feisty family pets rather than the deadly trained killers of rats.
Thanks to everyone who subscribed this week, but particularly to Leo, an east Manchester lad who kindly emailed me from Australia, where he now lives, and also to Rob who is researching his Mancunian ancestors.
Wishing a safe journey as well to Lynn, who travelling to Australia from Manchester to visit her son.
I’m catching up on a few emails and will do my best to reply to everyone who wrote in during the week.
Enjoy the rest of the weekend everyone. If you’re stuck for something to read, you can find my archive at www.manchesterhistory.uk