Our breed has a justifiable
reputation of being fearsome ratting terriers, a fact to which can be testified
by some owners today whose English Toy Terriers have had opportunities to show their mettle.
Prospective owners, and casual enquirers about their temperament, can be recounted
tales of their prowess in the ratting pits of C18 England. Would some of us
owners, I wonder, relish an opportunity to match our English Toy Terriers in similar
circumstances in these pits? Looking at a painting of a meeting with elegant 'sportsmen'
in top hats lounging over the rail of a rat pit does perhaps give the
impression of a gentlemanly pastime.
The truth was far from that. In
London alone there were well over 100 places given over to this sport and an
account given in the 'London Labour and The London Poor' of around 1864, by
Henry Mayhew, of the proceedings he noted at one of the these establishments,
does give an insight into the squalor of those times:
"I arrived at about 8 o'c at the
tavern where the performances were to take place. I was too early but there was
plenty to occupy my leisure in looking at the curious scene around me and
taking notes of the habits and conversations of the customers who were flocking
in. The front of the long bar was crowded with men of every grade of society,
all smoking, drinking and talking about dogs. Many of them had brought with
them their 'fancy' animals, so that a kind of 'canine exhibition' was going on:
some carried under their arms small bull-dogs whose flat, pink noses rubbed against
my arm as I passed; others had Skye-terriers, curled up like balls of hair and
sleeping like children as they were nursed by their owners. The only animals
that seemed awake, and under continual excitement, were the little brown
English Terriers, who, despite the neat black leathern collars by which they
were held, struggled to get loose, as if they smelt rats in the room above and
were impatient to begin the fray. There is a business-like look about this
tavern which at once lets you into the character of the person who owns it. The
drinking seems to have been a secondary notion in its formation, for it is a
low roofed room without any of those adornments which are now generally
considered to be so necessary to render a public house attractive. The tubs
where the spirits are kept are blistered with the heat of the gas, and so dirty
that the once brilliant gilt hoops are now quite black. Sleeping on an old hall
chair lay an enormous white bull dog – 'a great beauty' I was informed with a
head as round and smooth as a clenched boxing glove and seemingly too large for
the body. Its forehead seemed to protrude in a manner significant of water on
the brain and almost overhung the short nose through which the animal breathed
heavily. When this dog, which was the admiration of all beholders, rose up, its
legs its legs were as bowed as a tailor's , leaving a peculiar pear shaped
opening between them, which, I was informed, was one of its points of beauty.
It was a white dog with a sore look, from its being peculiarly pink round the
eyes, nose and indeed all the edges of its body.
On the other side of the fireplace
was a white bull terrier dog with a patch over the eye, which gave him rather a
disreputable look. This animal was
watching the movements of the customers in front, and occasionally, when the
entrance door swung back, would give a growl of enquiry as to what the
fresh-comer wanted. The proprietor was kind enough to inform me, as he patted
this animals ribs, which showed like the hoops on a butter firkin, he
considered that there had been 'a little of the greyhound in some of his back
Some French gentlemen who had
evidently witnessed nothing of the kind before, while they endeavoured to drink
their hot gin and water, made their interpreter translate to them the contents
of a large placard hung upon a hat peg
and headed: EVERY MAN HAS HIS FANCY – RATTING SPORTS IN REALITY.
At about 9 o'c the proprietor took
the chair in the parlour at the same time giving the order to 'shut up the
shutters in the room above and light up the pit'.
To be continued .....