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Rat-baiting is a blood sport involving the baiting of rats in a pit. It was a popular sport until the beginning of the 20th century. Rat-baiting involved filling a pit with rats and then placing bets on how long it would take for a terrier to kill them all.
In 1835, the Parliament of the United Kingdom implemented an Act called the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, which prohibited the baiting of some animals such as the bull, bear and other large animals. However, rat baiting was not enforced and ratting competitions came to the forefront as a gambling sport. At one time in London there were at least 70 rat pits.
The officials included a referee and timekeeper. 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.
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 would be called upon to fulfill this requirement. Jack Black, a rat-catcher from Victorian England 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 breeds, which included, but were not limited to, the Bull and Terrier, Bull Terrier, Bedlington Terrier, Fox Terrier, Jack Russell Terrier, Rat Terrier, Black and Tan Terrier, Manchester Terrier, Yorkshire Terrier and Staffordshire 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 in those times.
A celebrated Bull and Terrier 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 breeder James Yardington. On the paternal side is "Old Billy" from the kennel of John Tattersal from Wootton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire and was descended from the best line of all Old English Bulldogs. 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 provided descriptions of two rat pit matches with Billy, quoted as follows:
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||3.8 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 Terrier named "Jacko" weighing about thirteen pounds and owned by Jemmy Shaw. 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 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'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 slowly replaced the attractions of the dog pit.
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