This article is from the Mar./Apr. 1986 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.
By Nick Mays, Hon. Secretary, National Fancy Rat Society, England
The title of this article is self-explanatory. Fancy Rats didn’t just appear in modern times, but, by the same token, the story is not so recent either. In fact, the first Fancy Rats had Royal connections (of a sort) with the Queen of England, over 100 years ago, so let us see just . . .
In 1665, England was racked by a terrible disease, a great illness carried by the fleas on Black Rats, Rattus rattus, the disease soon and for ever after to be known as “The Black Death” or “The Great Plague.” People died in the thousands as the seemingly incurable plague spread across the country. In cities and towns it was far worse. There was no proper sanitation, excreta and rubbish rotted in the gutter, the rats ran wild and people died. By 1666, the plague had reached epidemic proportions. Cart loads of the dead from London Town were driven to the county areas surrounding the great city to be buried. (This is how my home town, Mortlake, now part of London, but then a small parish in Surrey came to get it’s name. A lake was drained and the plague victims buried therein. Hence: Mort - Dead, Lake. Mortlake.)
Finally, as all history scholars know, London was largely razed to the ground by a great fire, the Great Fire of London. Although many hundreds of people died, so too did thousands of Black rats, and, as a result, the Plague. Eventually, the Plague throughout the country died out. The already depleted population of Black rats suffered another, irreparable blow in the early 1700s. Ships from the Middle East, travelling via Norway brought a great number of stowaways into Britain. These were Brown rats, Rattus Norvegicus, or the Norway rat. (They were also christened the “Hanoverian Rat,” an injoke at the time, due to the arrival of the Hanoverian kings.) The Brown rats were bigger, more adaptable and stronger than the Black rats and quickly displaced them in superiority. To this day, the Black rat is only found in the heart of the British countryside, or in a few dockland areas. The Brown rat is found almost anywhere. By the 1800s the Brown rat had become a bigger problem than the Black rat, although they did not spread Plague. Many Parish records of the time record the wages paid to the Local Rat-Catcher(s). The Rat-Catcher became a well-known figure in towns and cities throughout the country, especially in London. There was even a Royal Rat-Catcher, by appointment to Queen Victoria, based in London. In the 1870s, the Royal Rat-Catcher, Jack Black by name, started an interesting project. During the course of his job, he occasionally found “Freak” rats; Albinos, Blacks, Fawns, etc. These he caught, and if young enough, tamed, after a fashion. Then he bred them together to see what interesting colours were created. He noted the results most carefully. At this point, it is useful to consider that Jack Black, probably a country man by birth, had no genetical experience or scientific application to utilise in his task, so his research is made all the more impressive. He ultimately wrote a book about his life when he retired and in it detailed all his breeding experiments. This fired the interest of a very straight-laced woman named Mary Douglas, who involved some of her well-to-do friends in the procurement and breeding of “Fancy Rats,” as the strange, coloured rats became known. It is rather unclear as to where they obtained their Fancy Rats, but a possibility is that a Rat-Catcher or some such person was paid to collect some “Freaks” for these purposes. (To be continued)