Rat-baiting is a blood sport
Blood sport
Bloodsport or blood sport is any sport or entertainment that involves violence against animals.Bloodsport includes coursing or beagling, combat sports such as cockfighting and dog fighting, or other activities...

 involving the baiting
Bait (dogs)
Baiting or dog baiting most commonly refers to the act of setting game dogs against a chained or confined animal for sport. The dogs bite, and tear to subdue the opposing animal by incapacitating or killing it. Baiting is a blood sport used for entertainment and gambling...

 of rat
Rats are various medium-sized, long-tailed rodents of the superfamily Muroidea. "True rats" are members of the genus Rattus, the most important of which to humans are the black rat, Rattus rattus, and the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus...

s in a pit. Unlike most varieties of baiting, there were usually more rats than dogs involved in an exhibition.


In 1835, the Parliament of the United Kingdom
Parliament of the United Kingdom
The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom, British Crown dependencies and British overseas territories, located in London...

 implemented an Act
Act of Parliament
An Act of Parliament is a statute enacted as primary legislation by a national or sub-national parliament. In the Republic of Ireland the term Act of the Oireachtas is used, and in the United States the term Act of Congress is used.In Commonwealth countries, the term is used both in a narrow...

 called the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835
Cruelty to Animals Act 1835
The Cruelty to Animals Act 1835 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom , which was intended to protect animals from mistreatment....

, which prohibited the baiting of some animals such as the bull
Bull usually refers to an uncastrated adult male bovine.Bull may also refer to:-Entertainment:* Bull , an original show on the TNT Network* "Bull" , an episode of television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation...

, bear
Bears are mammals of the family Ursidae. Bears are classified as caniforms, or doglike carnivorans, with the pinnipeds being their closest living relatives. Although there are only eight living species of bear, they are widespread, appearing in a wide variety of habitats throughout the Northern...

 and other large animals. However, rat baiting was not enforced and ratting competitions came to the forefront as a gambling
Gambling is the wagering of money or something of material value on an event with an uncertain outcome with the primary intent of winning additional money and/or material goods...

 sport. At one time in London there were at least 70 rat pits.


James Wentworth Day
James Wentworth Day
James Wentworth Day was a British writer and occasional broadcaster, firmly of the Agrarian Right school and essentially a High Tory. He lived for most of his life in East Anglia, an area which would always be his first love; he had a particular interest in wildfowling, and at one stage owned...

, a follower of the sport of rat baiting, described his experience and atmosphere at one of the last old rat pits in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 during those times.
"This was a rather dirty, small place, in the middle of the Cambridge Circus, London
Cambridge Circus, London
Cambridge Circus is a traffic intersection at the intersection of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road in central London...

. You went down a rotten wooden stair and entered a large, underground cellar, which was created by combining the cellars of two houses. The cellar was full of smoke, stench of rats, dogs and dirty human beings as well. The stale smell of flat beer was almost overpowering. Gas lights illuminated the centre of the cellar, a ring enclosed by wood barriers, similar to a small Roman circus arena and wooden bleachers, arranged one over the other, rose stepwise above it nearly to the ceiling. This was the pit for dog fight
Dog fighting
Dog fighting is a form of blood sport in which game dogs are made to fight, sometimes to the death. It is illegal in most developed countries. Dog fighting is used for entertainment and may also generate revenue from stud fees, admission fees and gambling....

s, cockfight
A cockfight is a blood sport between two roosters , held in a ring called a cockpit. Cockfighting is now illegal throughout all states in the United States, Brazil, Australia and in most of Europe. It is still legal in several U.S. territories....

s and rat killing. A hundred rats were put in it, large wagers went back and forth on whose dog could kill the most rats within a minute. The dogs worked in exemplary fashion, a grip, a toss and it was all over for the rat. With especially skilful dogs, two dead rats flew through the air at the same time..."


The officials included a referee
A referee is the person of authority, in a variety of sports, who is responsible for presiding over the game from a neutral point of view and making on the fly decisions that enforce the rules of the sport...

 and timekeeper
A timekeeper is an instrument or person that measures the passage of time; in the case of the latter, often with the assistance of a clock or stopwatch...

. Pits were sometimes covered above with wire mesh or had additional security devices installed on the walls to prevent the rats from escaping. Rules varied from match to match.

In one variation there was a weight handicap for each dog. The competing dog had to kill as many rats as the number of pounds the dog weighed, within a specific preset time. The prescribed number of rats was released and the dog was put in the ring. The clock started the moment the dog touched the ground. When the dog seized the last rat, his owner grabbed it and the clock stopped.
Rats that were thought still to be alive were laid out on the table in a circle before the referee. The referee then struck the animals three times on the tail with a stick. If a rat managed to crawl out of the circle, it was considered to be alive. Depending on the particular rules for that match, the dog may be disqualified or have to go back in the ring with these rats and kill them. The new time was added to the original time.

A combination of the quickest time, the number of rats and the dog's weight decided the victory. A rate of five seconds per rat killed was considered quite satisfactory; fifteen rats in a minute was an excellent result.

Consider catching, lifting, biting-to-death and dropping a rat within four seconds and seizing the next one while the first is falling to the ground. In addition, the cornered rats will attack and can deliver a very painful bite. It was not uncommon to see a ratter left with only one eye in its retirement.


Before the contest could begin there was a requirement for the capture of potentially thousands of rats. The rat-catcher
Rat-catching is the occupation of catching rats as a form of pest control. In developed countries the role may be merged with, or the title inflated to, Pest Control Operative or Pest Technician....

 would be called upon to fulfill this requirement. A famous rat-catcher from Victorian
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 was Jack Black
Jack Black (rat catcher)
Jack Black was rat-catcher and mole destroyer by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Victoria during the middle of the nineteenth century. Black cut a striking figure in his self-made "uniform" of scarlet topcoat, waistcoat, and breeches, with a huge leather belt inset with cast-iron rats.He is known...

, who also supplied live rats for baiting.


Faster dogs were preferred. Rat killers bit but once. The process was described as "rather like a sheepdog keeping a flock bunched to be brought out singly for dipping," where the dog would herd the rats together, and kill any rats that left the pack with a quick bite.


The ratting dogs were typically working terrier
Working terrier
A working terrier is a small type of dog which pursues its quarry into the earth. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name dates back to at least 1440, derived from early modern French terrier - from the medieval Latin terrarius from the Latin terra .With the growth of popularity of...

 breeds, which included, but were not limited to, the Bull and Terrier
Bull and Terrier
-History:The Bull and Terrier is a cross between the Old English Bulldog and a variety of Terriers. The anatomy of the Bull and Terrier is the result of selective breeding for the purpose of hunting, dog fighting and baiting.-Hunting:...

, Bull Terrier
Bull Terrier
The Bull Terrier or English Bull Terrier is a breed of dog in the terrier family. They are known for their large, egg-shaped head, small triangular eyes, and "jaunty gait." Their temperament has been described as generally fun-loving, active and clownish...

, Bedlington Terrier
Bedlington Terrier
The Bedlington Terrier is a breed of terrier named after the mining town of Bedlington, Northumberland in North East England.- Description :Appearance:...

, Fox Terrier
Fox Terrier
Fox Terrier refers primarily to two different breeds of the terrier dog type: the Smooth Fox Terrier and the Wire Fox Terrier. Both of these breeds originated in the 19th century from a handful of dogs who are descended from earlier varieties of British terriers, and are related to other modern...

, Jack Russell Terrier
Jack Russell Terrier
The Jack Russell terrier is a small terrier that has its origins in fox hunting. It is principally white-bodied smooth, rough or broken-coated which is commonly confused with the Parson Russell terrier and the Russell terrier with the term "Jack Russell" commonly misapplied to other small white...

, Rat Terrier
Rat Terrier
The Rat Terrier is an American dog breed with a rich and varied background as an all-around farm dog and hunting companion. Traditionally more of a type than a breed, they share much ancestry with the tough little mixed-breed dogs known as feists...

, Black and Tan Terrier
Black and Tan Terrier
The English Black and Tan Terrier is the non-Kennel Club variety of dog that was drawn into The Kennel Club as the Welsh Terrier and that remains extant outside of the Kennel Club as a "Fell Terrier".-History:...

, Manchester Terrier
Manchester Terrier
The Manchester Terrier is a breed of dog of the smooth-haired terrier type.-Appearance:Manchester Terriers are considered by most to be the oldest of all identifiable terrier breeds, finding mention in works dating from as early as the 16th century. In 1570 Dr...

, Yorkshire Terrier
Yorkshire Terrier
The Yorkshire Terrier is a small dog breed of terrier type, developed in the 19th century in the county of Yorkshire, England to catch rats in clothing mills. The defining features of the breed are its size, to , and its silky blue and tan coat...

 and Staffordshire Bull Terrier
Staffordshire Bull Terrier
The Staffordshire Bull Terrier is a medium-sized, short-coated, old-time breed of dog. It is an English dog, where it is the 5th most popular breed, and related to the bull terrier...

. The degree of care used in breeding these ratters is clear in their pedigree with good breeding leading to increased business opportunities. Successful breeders were highly regarded and famous in those times.


A celebrated Bull and Terrier
Bull and Terrier
-History:The Bull and Terrier is a cross between the Old English Bulldog and a variety of Terriers. The anatomy of the Bull and Terrier is the result of selective breeding for the purpose of hunting, dog fighting and baiting.-Hunting:...

 named "Billy" weighing approximately 12 kg (26 pounds), had a proud fighting history and the pedigree reflects the build-up over a period of years. The dog was owned by Charles Dew and was bred by the famous breeder James Yardington. On the paternal side is "Old Billy" from the kennel of John Tattersal from Wootton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire
Gloucestershire is a county in South West England. The county comprises part of the Cotswold Hills, part of the flat fertile valley of the River Severn, and the entire Forest of Dean....

 and was descended from the best line of all Old English Bulldog
Old English Bulldog
The Old English bulldog was a breed of dog.-Appearance:The Old English bulldog was compact, broad and muscular, as reflected in the well-known depiction Crib and Rosa. The average height was approximately 15 inches, and they weighed about 45 pounds...

s. On the maternal side, is "Yardington's Sal" descended from the Curley line. The pedigree of all these dogs can be traced back more than forty years and there are numerous old accounts about them.

The October 1822, edition of The Sporting Magazine
The Sporting Magazine
The Sporting Magazine was the first English sporting periodical to devote itself to every type of sport, thus providing the historian with a reasonably comprehensive source.-History:...

 provided descriptions of two rat pit matches with Billy, quoted as follows:
"Thursday night, Oct. 24, at a quarter before eight o'clock, the lovers of rat-killing enjoyed a feast of delight in a prodigious raticide at the Cockpit
A cockfight is a blood sport between two roosters , held in a ring called a cockpit. Cockfighting is now illegal throughout all states in the United States, Brazil, Australia and in most of Europe. It is still legal in several U.S. territories....

, Westminster
Westminster is an area of central London, within the City of Westminster, England. It lies on the north bank of the River Thames, southwest of the City of London and southwest of Charing Cross...

. The place was crowded. The famous dog Billy, of rat-killing notoriety, 26 lb. weight, was wagered, for twenty sovereigns, to kill one hundred rats in twelve minutes. The rats were turned out loose at once in a 12-feet square, and the floor whitened, so that the rats might be visible to all. The set-to began, and Billy exerted himself to the utmost. At four minutes and three quarters, as the hero's head was covered with gore, he was removed from the pit, and his chaps being washed, he lapped some water to cool his throat. Again he entered the arena, and in vain did the unfortunate victims labour to obtain security by climbing against the sides of the pit, or by crouching beneath the hero. By twos and threes they were caught, and soon their mangled corpses proved the valour of the victor. Some of the flying enemy, more valiant than the rest, endeavoured by seizing this Quinhus Flestrum of heroic dogs by the ears, to procure a respite, or to sell their life as dearly as possible; but his grand paw soon swept off the buzzers, and consigned them to their fate. At seven minutes and a quarter, or according to another watch, for there were two umpires and two watches, at seven minutes and seventeen seconds, the victor relinquished the glorious pursuit, for all his foes lay slaughtered on the ensanguined plain. Billy was then caressed and fondled by many; the dog is estimated by amateurs as a most dextrous animal; he is, unfortunately, what the French Monsieurs call borg-ne, that is, blind of an eye.-This precious organ was lost to him some time since by the intrepidity of an inimical rat, which as he had not seized it in a proper place, turned round on its murderer, and reprived him by one bite of the privilege of seeing with two eyes in future. The dog BILLY, of rat-killing notoriety, on the evening of the 13th instant, again exhibited his surprising dexterity; he was wagered to kill one hundred rats within twelve minutes; but six minutes and twenty five seconds only elapsed, when every rat lay stretched on the gory plain, without the least symptom of life appearing.' Billy was decorated with a silver collar, and a number of ribband bows, and was led off amidst the applauses of the persons assembled."

Billy's best competition results are as follows:
Date Rats Killed Time Time per Rat
1820-??-?? 20 1 minute, 11 seconds 3.6 seconds
1822-09-03 100 8 minutes, 45 seconds 5.2 seconds
1822-10-24 100 7 minutes, 17 seconds 4.4 seconds
1822-11-13 100 6 minutes, 25 seconds 3.4 seconds
1823-04-22 100 5 minutes, 30 seconds 3.3 seconds * Record
1823-08-05 120 8 minutes, 20 seconds 4.1 seconds

Billy's career was crowned on April 22, 1823, when a world record was set with a hundred rats killed in five-and-a-half minutes. This record stood until 1862 when it was claimed by another ratter named "Jacko". Billy continued in the rat pit until old age reportedly with only one eye and two teeth remaining.


According to the Sporting Chronicle Annual, the world record in rat killing is held by a black and tan Bull and Terrier
Bull and Terrier
-History:The Bull and Terrier is a cross between the Old English Bulldog and a variety of Terriers. The anatomy of the Bull and Terrier is the result of selective breeding for the purpose of hunting, dog fighting and baiting.-Hunting:...

 named "Jacko" weighing about thirteen pounds and owned by Jemmy Shaw
Jemmy Shaw
Jemmy Shaw also known as Jimmy Shaw was one of the pioneer fanciers of the early dog show days, a promoter of dog fighting and rat-baiting contests and a breeder of Old English bulldogs, Bull Terriers, and Toy Terriers...

. Jacko had the following contest results:
Date Rats Killed Time Time per Rat
1861-08-08 25 1 minute, 28 seconds 3.5 seconds
1862-07-29 60 2 minutes, 42 seconds 2.7 seconds * Record
1862-05-01 100 5 minutes, 28 seconds 3.3 seconds * Record
1862-06-10 200 14 minutes, 37 seconds 4.4 seconds
1862-05-01 1000 in less than 100 minutes 6.0 seconds

Jacko set two world records, the first on July 29, 1862, with a killing time of 2.7 seconds per rat and the second on May 1, 1862, with his fight against one hundred rats, where Jacko worked two seconds faster than the previous world record holder "Billy". The feat of killing 1,000 rats took place over a ten-week period, with one hundred rats being killed each week ending on May 1, 1862.


The last public competition took place in Leicester
Leicester is a city and unitary authority in the East Midlands of England, and the county town of Leicestershire. The city lies on the River Soar and at the edge of the National Forest...

 in 1912. The owner was prosecuted, fined and had to give a promise to the court that he would never again promote such entertainment. Toward the latter half of Queen Victoria
Victoria of the United Kingdom
Victoria was the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death. From 1 May 1876, she used the additional title of Empress of India....

's reign, a more humane attitude to the canine race gradually emerged, the queen's love of animals setting the example. Baiting sports diminished in popularity and the exhibition of dogs
Conformation show
Conformation shows, also referred to as breed shows, are a kind of dog show in which a judge familiar with a specific dog breed evaluates individual purebred dogs for how well the dogs conform to the established breed type for their breed, as described in a breed's individual breed standard.A...

slowly replaced the attractions of the dog pit.

Further reading

  • Fleig, D. (1996). History of Fighting Dogs. pg 105 - 112 T.F.H. Publications. ISBN 0-7938-0498-1
  • Homan, M. (2000). A Complete History of Fighting Dogs. pg 121 - 131 Howell Book House Inc. ISBN 1-58245-128-1
  • Mayhew, H. (1851). London Labour and the London Poor, Volumne 3, Pg. 5. London: Griffen, Bohn and Company, Stationer's Hall Court.
  • Sullivan, R. (2004). Rats : Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Chapter 9 Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 1-58234-385-3

External links

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