The Rat that blacked out Bedford
House history is an increasingly popular pursuit amongst our searchers, keen to discover the age of their property and details of the former owners and occupiers. The sources at BLARS include many building plans, mainly for Bedford Borough, which are of course valuable in dating properties. However, the building plans still have a practical use in helping to solve a problem which has preoccupied people for centuries – that of dealing with pests!
David Prior from the Bedford Borough Council Environmental Health unit is a frequent visitor to the searchroom. He explains; “The archives are a useful source of information for us in Environmental Health when we are investigating problems with drainage and where there are cases of rat infestation. Although the layout of drains is usually fairly obvious there are cases where alterations and later development have led to important features, like inspection chambers, becoming hidden. Seeing the archived plans can help us work out where the drains run. This helps us to get drains unblocked and find out where breakages have occurred.”
“When investigating rat infestations the whereabouts of drains is particularly important because in most cases rats enter a building from below ground after drains have become damaged. They make their way along the outside of the damaged pipe, in the loose fill around it, then enter the house through the hole created in the external wall to accommodate the pipe. Once inside they can then move around at will and have even been found in 2nd floor attics having used a cavity wall or ducting as a route to climb up in the building.”
The present Borough Council, like most other Councils, offers advice on dealing with infestations of rats, squirrels, wasps & bees, insects, mice , pigeons and cockroaches. The archives show that whilst rats and mice have always been considered a problem, our ancestors also regarded many other creatures as vermin, including rabbits, sparrows, magpies, foxes, polecats, voles, moles and hares.
This reflects the heavy reliance of the County on agriculture, as these creatures were competition for food, destroyed crops, livestock and game birds, and invaded food stores. A letter of 1843 from Mr Bennett to C. Haedy in the Duke of Bedford Estate correspondence [ref. R3/4798] reads: ‘The Duke has written to Norfolk to try and get regular warreners to kill rabbits as present workers, except for a good man at Knotting and Souldrop, haven't the knack. One tenant has killed 300 rats since harvest on his farm alone. The Cople keeper says he and his farmers can work together to kill rats and rabbits without interfering with the game.’ Gamekeepers of course sought to preserve the animals and birds which were kept for sport. ‘The Cople keeper has two men killing rabbits and rats, ferreting all the hedgerows, otherwise the rats would take all the partridge eggs.’ [ref.R3/4795].
Preventing the destruction of game by other animals was a useful income for some Two bills dated 1820 in the archives of Wrest Park are from Thomas Bailey & John East for destroying ‘vermin’ including hawks, hedgehogs, magpies, and stoats. [ref. L31/328-329] .
Rats have always been present in our towns and villages, and cause numerous problems. The health consequences were of course at their most serious in the 14th and 17th centuries when the rats were carriers of the fleas which spread bubonic plague throughout the country. Several parish church registers record the consequences of this disease. The Edworth parish register [ref.P110/1/1] records the death of Thomas Fleetwood, a stranger to the parish, on 18th July 1625, followed by the deaths of four parishioners between the 2nd and 20th August, the clergyman noting ‘all these died of the plague’ . Many deaths are recorded in Dunstable in the same year.
Various creatures can also threaten the very survival of records. A letter addressed to John White at the Rose & Crown Inn, St.John's Street, London from William Bull of Cardington in c.1719 reads ‘… here are Old Original Deeds and writeings which you wrote for, if any thing else that concerns you can be found when Mr.Dymock comes down [they] shall be sent up. Heretofore the writeings have not been so carefully lookt after as they ought to have been for part of them lay in Bags upon a Bedszhead and the Bags was eaten by Rats so that I know ne[hole in original]ul some may be consumed’ [ref.WB/WF6/8] . Mice are fond of documents too. Some of the records held here show evidence of damage before they were transferred to the safekeeping of the Archive Service strongroom. This will of Robert Warner of Felmersham, yeoman, proved in 1686 survives, but part of the document has been eaten by mice (above) [ref. ABP/W1686/31].
Churchwardens account books and vestry minutes of the churches throughout County show payments made to parishioners for killing vermin. Trapping was the most common means of catching them, but poison was also used. A recipe book of the 1780s [ref.PM2996] includes two concoctions ‘to poison rats’, the first a mixture of oatmeal, oil of rhodium, nux vomica and musk which, the author notes ‘must be kept from dogs’, the second a note of a suggestion by Mr Baxter of Little Staughton who recommended using pieces of fish laced with arsenic as ’rats will take any bait of fish’ .
Rats can cause problems in other ways. Prisoners in the old County Gaol on the corner of Silver Street and the High Street would have been familiar with the creatures. The Quarter Sessions archive of 1786 includes a carpenter’s bill for ‘mending flores at the Gaol where the rats came in’ [ref.QSR1786/143]. In 1933 Bedford town was rendered without electricity by what was known as ‘the rat that blacked out Bedford’ who made the error of chewing a cable [ref.Z224/25/16] bringing about its own demise (below).
The Agricultural Office of the County Council appointed a ‘Rat Destruction Officer’ who in 1919 kept a register of rat infested properties, noting in each case whether the parish had a ‘rat club’[ref.AO/A22/7]. Another file in this archive includes correspondence with the Rats Destruction Officer about the free issue of rat poison by Beds County Council for National Rat Week in 1919 [ref.AO/A2/1/5]. The effort continued throughout the following decades. Papers in the Milton Ernest Parish Council archive show their participation in ‘rat weeks’ from 1933 – 1938, demonstrating a concerted effort to get rid of the creatures [ref.PCMilton Ernest33/1]. Archives of Luton Borough Council show complaints about pests made to the Public Health Inspector throughout the 1950s [ref.BorL/EH/13 series] and their plan to tackle the problem. It seems they will always be nearby!