When A Plague Of Millions Of Rats Gnawed Its Way Through Central London

When A Plague Of Millions Of Rats Gnawed Its Way Through Central London

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Street art of a rat smashing through a wall
An area of central London was so afflicted, it became known as 'the Ratteries'. Image: Matt Brown/Londonist

In February 1903, a plague of millions of rats struck central London.

"Something akin to a reign of terror prevails among the inhabitants after nightfall," wrote the Dundee Evening Post, in an article that reported on the despair of under-siege locals, "Women refuse to pass along Blackmore Street after dusk for droves of rats perambulate the roadways and pavements..."

Whether or not the unwelcome rodents really numbered in their millions is questionable, although many shopkeepers and residents concurred that, yes they did. "If you kill one," sighed one shopkeeper, "a dozen come to the funeral."

Where did all the rodents come from? At the turn of the century, the area around Strand was undergoing a massive improvement scheme. These were the same works that would get rid of the historic Clare Market, and build Aldwych and Kingsway in its place. As houses and shops tumbled, the resident rats had to find new homes pronto — fleeing to the likes of Catherine Street, Drury Lane, Blackmore Street, Stanhope Street, White Hart Street, Clare Market and Russell Street. So blighted were these half-demolished congeries, they soon earned the nickname 'the Ratteries'.

A diagram of works to build Aldwych
The rats appeared after widespread demolition in the creation of the new Strand/Aldwych. Image © The British Library Board

You've got to hand it to the four-legged invaders for their shrewdness. In Clare Street, one tradesman noticed that two uncorked bottles of olive oil were gradually going down, but was confused as to how the rats were getting to it, as their heads were too big to fit in the neck. It turned out they were taking it in turns to dip their tails in the liquid, letting the other rats lick it off. You had your tea before reading this article, right?

Businesses were crippled, not least the Gaiety Restaurant (part of the famous Gaiety Theatre, which was demolished that same year, perhaps the same time that all the rats appeared?), in which furry invaders chewed through electrical wires and a huge sack a macaroni, ripped a curiously specific 1,728 serviettes to shreds, and dragged some 30 or 40 beer and wine bottles eight yards, to build a nest behind the wainscotting. (It's a pity Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares wasn't airing back then, because this would have made for a classic episode.)

Close up of some macaroni pasta
The rats munched their way through a huge sack of macaroni... not to mention the window frames of buildings. Image: Conall via creative commons

"Formerly the Gaiety Restaurant dined 2000 persons daily," said the Dundee Evening Post. "No business whatsoever is now done in this direction." The rats cost the place half a million pounds' damage in today's money.

Elsewhere, a costumier fell foul of the rodents, which — and this is the stuff of horror movies — gobbled their way through the window frames. "The other night," wrote the Dundee Evening Post, "a muff which was being made for a well-known actress was left on the table. The following morning, a litter of 13 young rats were found inside it." The workmen causing the problem weren't immune either; one — faced with a sea of rats — is said to have thrown down his pick and 'bolted', although he sensibly returned to collect his wages later on.

The Gaiety Restaurant survived as a business; adverts for it in subsequent years billed the establishment as 'the rendezvous of connoisseurs'. What the ad doesn't state is that it was also briefly the rendezvous of some highly undesirable furry yobs.

We discovered this story on the wonderful British Newspaper Archive

Last Updated 06 December 2023