Billy the Ratcatcher at The Westminster Pit, London
"Billy the celebrated rat-killing dog, performing his wonderful feat of killing 100 rats in 5½ minutes, April 13th, 1823."
Perhaps rather a difficult subject for modern sensibilities, but nevertheless a fascinating glimpse into the sporting world of almost 200 years ago.
Billy the Ratcatcher and The Westminster Pit: A Brief History
The Westminster Pit was a well-known blood sport arena in nineteenth-century London. It reached the height of its of popularity between 1820 and 1830, and hosted such spectacles as dog fighting, cock fighting, bear, badger, monkey, and rat-baiting.
Whatever our present day sensibilities, these blood sports were both legal and highly popular at the time, although the Westminster Pit openly admitted that its activities brought notoriety to the district.
The Westminster Pit was located on Duck Lane, Orchard Street (now St Matthew's Street), in London. Its dimensions were approximately 20 feet (6.1m) by 18 feet (5.5m). The gallery was 3 feet (0.91 m) above the arena and was capable of containing 200 people. The pit was fitted with wooden sides at elbow height and a rim on which the clients could lean.
Rat-baiting was a blood sport involving the killing of rats in a pit by a dog; hence pit bull terriers. It was a popular sport until the beginning of the 20th century. Rat-baiting involved filling a pit with rats, with bets placed on how long it would take for the dog to kill them all.
Enthusiasts would take bets on the proceedings. Various terrier type dogs, including the black and tan competed in the rat pits.
A report of William Pitt Lennox announced with horror, "perhaps a greater number of less refractory persons, for the common run of spectators were so obstreperous and so agitated by various emotions, according to the amount of bets depending, and the various turns of the conflict, that a decent orderly person would feel himself much incommoded by a considerably less number."
Before the beginning of matches, the stakes would be formalised. Before a dog fight the dogs would be weighed. It was common in the Westminster Pit (and other venues like it) for cheating to take place, often by way of covering a dog with substances – such as acid or pepper – that would deter his opponent from biting him. For this reason, it was compulsory that all combatants be washed in water or milk, and a participant was permitted to lick his opponent's dog as a precaution!
Perhaps the most famous dog to perform in the Westminster Pit was a Bull Terrier named "Billy", whose fame was his rat-baiting ability. The October 1822 edition of The Sporting Magazine describes his feat of killing 100 rats in six minutes and twenty-five seconds: almost six minutes faster than what was wagered. Billy's best time ever is recorded as five minutes, or slightly over "by a very few seconds". The name of Billy's owner is not consistently documented, some sources refer to a Charles Dew, some to Charley Westropp, and others to Charley Aistrop. Pierce Egan gives Billy's date of death as 23 February 1829.
There are many engravings which record of Billy performing his wonderful feat, of killing 100 rats in five and a half minutes on 22nd April 1823, this being his ninth match. Another advertising broadsheet for the Westminster Pit in March 1825 billed Billy as ‘The Phenomenon of the Canine Race, and Superior Vermin killer of his day having killed nearly 4,000 rats in about Seven Hours’.
The copy of the engraving to the left, from a broadsheet for the Westminster Pit in March 1825, is very similar in all details to the oil painting above and maybe taken from the painting?
The October 1822 issue of The Sporting Magazine reported on one of Billy's bouts of ratsticuffs.
"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, Westminster. 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."
Later commentators have questioned the legitimacy of Billy's success; in particular, James Rodwell, in his 1858 “The Rat: its History & Destructive Character: With numerous anecdotes”, stated: "let it be borne in mind, and I assert it on the testimony of living witnesses, that numbers of the rats were dead before the dog commenced, and that the whole had been poisoned with nux-vomica (strychnin) before being put into the pit . . . and when he did commence, several were thrown out as dead that were able to crawl away".
In 1830, an indictment was lodged against the Westminster Pit by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Society charged the proprietor, John King, with a nuisance, while noting that it was "indebted to Corporal Denny, of No. 17, Queen Square, Westminster, and to James Yewen, of No. 6, Horseferry Road, Westminster . . . for obtaining a sufficient number of witnesses, residing on the spot, to prove the case as a nuisance." King was convicted, and, according to The Cottager's monthly visitor, "the prosecution completely suppressed that notorious sink of cruelty and vice".
With thanks to Wikipedia