Monday, July 15, 2013

The Royal Rat Catcher

Happenstance is wonderful.  You never know what you'll stumble across.

The Royal Rat Catcher, mid 19th century
I was doing some research on costume when I discovered that there used to be a Royal Rat Catcher.  He was reported, in 1758, to have worn "a crimson cloth coat guarded with blue velvet and embroidery, richly on back and breast, with His Majesty's Letters and Crowns, and on the arms with Rats and Wheatsheaf" (Sheppard, St James's Palace, 1894).  But a century later, when he had become Her Majesty's Rat Catcher (for Queen Victoria) the uniform had changed: he then wore "a costume of white leather breeches, and a green coat and a scarlet waistcoat, and a gold band round [his] hat, and a belt across [his] shoulder" (Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 1851).  It's not clear whether and when the role ended.  Maybe the present Queen still has her own Rat Catcher?

And there's more.

In the early Georgian period, the King still had the King's Cock and Cryer.  During Lent, he was to "crow" the passing hours rather than crying them, the way the normal watchmen did.  Apparently, the "crowing" stopped after the reign of George I, though the royal purse was still paying for a King's Cock and Cryer until 1822.  A great job to have, since it paid 60 pounds a year, even though the office-holder didn't have to do anything for his money.  He even appeared at George IV's coronation, though he didn't crow!

George IV's coronation banquet, Westminster Hall, 1821
George IV's coronation in 1821 seems to have been extraordinary.  All the noblemen who took part were wearing (what was thought to be) Elizabethan dress, including doublets and hose.  They all wore ruffs, too.  It must all have looked very peculiar, but given the sort of extravagances that took George IV's fancy, it's not really surprising that he went over the top when he was being crowned.

That coronation also marked the last appearance of the King's Herb Woman.  The Herb Woman and her Maids only appeared at coronations where they had the task of strewing sweet herbs and flowers on the floor of Westminster Hall.
The King's Herb Woman and her Maids at George IV's Coronation Banquet

The illustration from the 1821 coronation shows them wearing the high-waisted gowns of the day, rather than faux-Elizabethan dress.  However, the neckline does seem to resemble a ruff, so maybe the women were trying to ape the 16th century costume. The Herb Woman had an annual allowance of scarlet cloth and at George IV's coronation she wore a scarlet mantle over her gown.  There's no indication that she was actually paid, though, which seems a little unfair.  She did do her strewing and got nothing (except cloth); the Cock and Cryer just turned up and got his very ample pay.

But then, the Cock and Cryer was a man...



Elizabeth Hawksley said...

How fascinating, Joanna. And £60 p.a. was indeed a good wage at a time when a skilled working man could expect 18 shillings - less than £1 a week.

In fact, a young gentleman working as a clerk in the Foreign Office was paid only £70 a year, not that much more than the Royal Rat Catcher. Though it was understood that it was a position with prospects. Furthermore, Foreign Office hours were only 10 am to 4 pm - it was expected that he would play his part in Society and go to dances, the theatre etc!

It was a very strange world!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I thought the £60 a year for the King's Cock and Cryer was an outrageous amount, especially as he mostly did nothing for it. I'm afraid I didn't find out how much the rat catcher was paid. Probably a lot less.

I agree with you, Elizabeth. I doubt the rat catcher had any prospects. Though perhaps he could have sold his services to other families on the side, since he was sort of "by appointment"?