When researching for our Riddled tour, we came across one pest more than any other – rats. This wasn’t a problem exclusive to Dundee, but it seems our furry pals have been causing issues for the town for centuries.
Picture this: it’s 100 years ago, and Dundee is having a bit of a rat problem. Not a “cute little critters scurrying around” problem, but a full-blown “these rats are carrying diseases, and we need to get rid of them ASAP” problem. So, what do they do? They have Rat Week, a week-long campaign encouraging everyone to get out there and slaughter as many rats as possible. It sounds like a party, right?
But seriously, it was a necessary measure to protect public health and safety. These rats were reproducing like crazy, with just one pair capable of having up to 15,000 offspring in a year. And let’s not forget that rats are notorious for destroying crops. In fact, today they still destroy about 20% of the world’s food supply.
In 1919, the Rats and Mice Destruction Act was passed, making it mandatory for people to destroy rats on their property and prevent them from setting up shop. Two years later, the Scottish Board of Agriculture launched Rat Week, and Dundee was all in. They organized events and activities to encourage the mass slaughter of rats, and in 1923, they reported a whopping 1,700 rat carcasses. That’s a lot of dead rats.
The Dundee City Archives blog wrote up an excellent article last year detailing some of the records about Rat Week, including some of the horrific ways they employed to deal with the rats.
Thankfully, the campaign worked, and the number of rats in Dundee started to decrease, and in 1934 the Public Health Committee decided a special campaign wasn’t necessary any more as the matter received very careful attention year-round, and so 1933 was the last Rat Week in Dundee.
But being a rat catcher was always a busy job, especially during the Victorian era as the population density increased, so did the rat population. Here’s a little tidbit that might shock you. Back in the day, rat-baiting was a thing. Rat catchers would take captured rats and throw them in an enclosed space with dogs, usually terriers, to see how long it would take for the dog to kill the rat. Spectators would bet on the outcome, and the winner would receive a cash prize. Sounds barbaric, right? Thankfully, it’s now illegal in most countries.
An article from the Dundee Courier in 1887 gives us a glimpse into the life of a ratcatcher and the general feelings towards rats. One tenant, William Samson, had to deal with an infestation of rats and bugs in his rental property. The place was infested with millions of bugs, which he found out after moving in, and they all came down from the ceiling and crawled into his bed. As this was being fixed, they also found an infestation of rats with swarms of them, making the place stink ‘like the muck of a rabbit burrow’.
David Smart, the ratcatcher hired to kill the rats, claimed to have killed over 150 rats in three weeks using traps and poisons, as well as many more killed by his trusty ferret “Savage.” Apparently, Savage drove the rats downwards from the attic, and some rats even ended up on the street, where boys were kicking them, using them as ‘footballs’. The court roared with laughter, and the Sheriff commented that it ‘made a fine addition to the game’.
Smart says that the rats likely came from an old house nearby, which belonged to a woman in Forfar, and which Smart claims he had cleared of hundreds of rats two years earlier, and unless the rats were traced to the source, they would never be rid of the problem.
Today, Dundee still has a significant rat population, with over 300,000 rats roaming the streets and alleys, outnumbering the human population. But fear not! Modern rat control methods have made it much easier to deal with the problem than a century ago. So, let’s all raise a glass to Rat Week, a reminder of the challenges faced by communities in the past to maintain public health and safety. And to all the rats out there, stay away from our crops!
– DD Tours operates walking tours in Dundee city, covering dark local history such as wars, battles, murders, diseases, riots, disasters and executions. Walk with us for an unforgettable storytelling experience.