Category Archives: Railways

Batley’s Record-Breaking Rat-Catcher

On Christmas Eve 1933, after a fortnight’s illness, Batley’s nationally acclaimed rat-catcher Thomas Cassidy died. 

During his working life his skills were in much demand by a cross-section of businesses and organisations: From local mill owners and town Corporations, including Batley and Dewsbury; to railway companies such as the London and North Western, North Eastern, Midland and Scottish Railways. This latter work took him throughout Britain and Ireland. 

A bit of a local legend, a thrilled journalist even reported of spending a most exciting four hours, with some lively experiences, under the Dark Arches in Leeds in the company of Thomas Cassidy, one of his sons and a fox terrier named Gipsy. The Dark Arches are the brick-built network of arches constructed in the 1860s to support the railway station.

The two major records Thomas claimed were:

  • 1,227 rats caught alive and 446 killed in six hours for Ossett Corporation; and
  • 153 [out of 155] rats caught in thirteen minutes on the premises of a hide and skin merchant in Heckmondwike in 1908. This was unassisted by dog or ferret.

For the latter he is recognised by Spen Valley Civic Society with plaque number 18 on the Spen Fame Trail. This plaque is located on The Green in Heckmondwike. 

Spen Fame Trail Plaque Number 18, Thomas Cassidy – Photo by Jane Roberts

Well-known in the Batley area, he was not an unfamiliar sight in the local courts either. On at least one occasion he regaled the Bench with his rat-catching exploits including, in 1907, another tale of his expertise … and possibly the explanation for his appearances before the Batley magistrates. This time he boasted of capturing 154 rodents in 75 minutes which he sold for 4d. each – but the money went on drink. The newspapers prefaced this court report with a rather lurid description of one of Thomas’ more colourful claims to local notoriety, describing him as:

Batley’s professional rat-catcher, and the individual who, some time ago at a local polling booth, bit off the heads of a couple of live rats in the presence of disgusted voters [1].

Born in Batley’s New Street on 3 February 1870, he was the son of labourer John Cassidy, who hailed from County Clare, Ireland and his West Ardsley-born wife Emma (née Garlick). He was baptised at St Mary of the Angels RC church in Batley.

St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley – Photo by Jane Roberts

Thomas married Harriet Ann McDonagh [2] at the same church as he was baptised, on 13 February 1892. By this stage he worked as a coal miner. Their children included Johanna, Emma Jane (who died in infancy), Robert Ernest, Thomas, John Edward, Leo, Mary and Arthur.

His rat-catching exploits were inspired following a walk near Batley, when he saw a refuse tip ‘alive’ with rats. He explained:

I went home, took a pillow slip off my bed, and soon had it full of live rats from the tip. I sold these at 4d. each to people with dogs they wanted to train as ratters.
I had 10s. 6d. to take home, and I’m glad to say I gave my mother ten shillings. I’d never had so much before…I was only earning eighteen pence a day in the pit as a pumper” [3].

The refuse tip became a gold mine for him, as he progressively cleared it of all vermin. So lucrative did this new business line prove, in around 1904 he left the pit for good to become a full-time rat-catcher.

Rat-catching was a national obsession. In fact at the end of 1919 the Government passed a Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act, such was the concern about their capacity to spread disease, destroy property and contaminate food. A new war raged in this inter-war period, and during each November there was even a designated National Rat Week endorsed by the Ministry of Agriculture when a nationwide effort was made to destroy the creatures to control the population. Publicity for the campaign was widespread via the press, billboard posters and in the cinema. This included a specially commissioned government “Kill That Rat” Pathé film in 1919. Leeds Corporation produced its own rat killing promotional newsreel in 1920. Entitled “It’s Rough on the Rats” it demonstrated the launch of its asphyxiating gas offensive.

For Thomas business was booming and he became a minor celebrity. He held long-term contracts as official rat-catcher in two Leeds railway stations, and it was this work which the Leeds Mercury’s Special Correspondent shadowed (literally as the work was undertaken by candle light) in 1923.

A huge mound of refuse, sweepings from 10 railway station platforms of the London and North Eastern railway station above, accumulated in the Dark Arches. Here the rats thrived.

philld / Leeds dark arches from Little Neville street / CC BY-SA 2.0
Taken in 2008

As a preliminary to his clearance work Thomas, along with his son, turned over the refuse mound – a mixture of food, dust, cinders and even crockery – revealing holes big enough for rabbits. In the process they were cornering the creatures in preparation for their capture. The rats could be heard scurrying below – huge creatures sustained by all the railway detritus.

The Cassidy’s fox terrier Gipsy was tied to a drain pipe, becoming increasingly excited by the activity. 

Then the work began. 

With their bare hands Cassidy and his son began catching the rats, shoving them in an army kit bag. Other rats were strangled. Those trying to flee were caught in string netting strewn across a mesh barrier which fenced off the bay of the archway. They were forced back into the clutches of the Cassidys.  

Thomas was now bleeding profusely from a rat bite to his thumb knuckle, but undeterred he carried on. An occupational hazard, his hands bore the marks of his work over many years. Yet he had only sustained blood poisoning five times from rat bites in 30+ years’. 

Gipsy bit through her leash, eager to join in the killing spree. After four hours, exhausted by their exertions, they finished. The bag contained 36 live rats and 60 dead. Gipsy accounted for around a further 40. Only one rat managed to escape. At the end of their work Thomas told the reporter

I’ve a fox at home which will kill rats quicker’n’ that ‘ere dog [4].

Perhaps this was one of the foxes which he captured in 1921, for his snaring exploits extended beyond rats. The Yorkshire press reported on his fox-catching efforts, which extended over two days. The result was a haul of two foxes from a drain near Wilton Park. One was a four-feet-long dog fox weighing 17½lbs. The other was a 42-inch-long 13¾lbs vixen. Methods unsuccessfully employed in this star capture included cayenne pepper and a fox terrier. Finally he and his colleague hit on the ingenious idea of sweeping the drain with prickly brushes roped together. This did the trick.

As for his rat-catching methods, Thomas remained slightly coyer. Ferrets were commonly used by others to catch rats. New Street station in Leeds was the scene of some of Thomas’ heaviest slaughtering. Three different rat breeds could be found in its refreshment rooms. It was in this station he once lost a ferret for three days. When finally located it was in such a bad state after constant fighting with rats it had to be destroyed. By 1926 Thomas no longer used ferrets, preferring to use what he termed as ‘secret methods’. 

He was clearly keen to keep his tricks of the trade in-house, explaining his art in only general terms. He occasionally employed dogs, owning two fox terrier bitches by 1926. He preferred bitches to dogs because they were keener, fiercer and more easily controlled. He was not a general believer in poison. This he reserved for factories, where wholesale slaughter was required. He claimed to have killed thousands of rats using this technique at the Dewsbury mills of M. Oldroyd & Sons and Wormald & Walkers. But his favoured method was to catch his prey with his bare hands, delivering the killer blow by banging their heads on the floor.

And throughout his career he retained a great respect for the cunning, ferocity, thoroughness and perseverance of his enemy, the rat.

https://pixabay.com/photos/animal-rat-foraging-close-up-655308/ -Image by Oldiefan from Pixabay

Thomas, who died in the same street in which he was born, was buried in Batley cemetery on 28 December 1933.

Batley Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Here are some rat-catching tips from the 1920s:

  • Don’t touch a dead rat – use a shovel;
  • Don’t leave the old homes of an exterminated rat colony intact as you will soon have another settlement. Fill the holes with cement, or failing that, a mixture of tar and broken glass;
  • Don’t touch bait with your fingers as rats won’t come near it. Use a spoon tied at the end of a two-foot pole;
  • Don’t forget to warn people and keep domestic animals away from baits;
  • Don’t forget that a change of bait – kipper instead of cheese for instance – works wonders; and
  • Don’t forget you are liable to a £20 fine if you allow your property to be rat-infested.

Notes:
[1] Bradford Daily Telegraph, 16 February 1907;
[2] The spelling of Harriet’s surname varies depending on record, including McDonegh, Donegh, Donagh and McDunach;
[3] The Leeds Mercury, 3 November 1926;
[4] The Leeds Mercury, 29 September 1923

Other Sources:

The Fair Weather Genealogist – Summer Research Tips

Summer tends to be the time of year when family history research takes a back seat. Who wants to be stuck in front of a computer screen or closeted away in some dusty archive or local library when the days are long and the sun is shining brightly?

The meteorological summer is defined as June, July and August. Here are my five seasonal tips to continue with your family history research whilst making the most of those three long, hot summer months (we can but dream!)

  • Do a bit of ancestral tourism, visiting locations associated with your family history. It could be a street in which your ancestors lived, the school they attended, the church where they married, the cemetery in which they are buried, or even popping into the pub, if it still exists, where a family-associated inquest was held.
  • For me family history extends beyond names and dates. I love finding about the everyday lives of my ancestors, their occupations, leisure activities, transport methods, living conditions, and the health struggles they faced. I also want to try put their lives into the context of local and national history. Summertime provides ample opportunity to find out more, especially on those cooler summer days. It could be a visit to a museum such as the Thackray Medical Museum, the trio of Ripon Museums covering the workhouse, courthouse and police station/prison, Bradford Police Museum, the National Coal Mining Museum, the National Railway Museum in York, Ryedale Folk Museum or Beamish (the Living History Museum of the North). I’ve concentrated on some northern examples here, but there are so many possibilities to choose from up and down the country. It’s definitely worth checking out ones near where you are holidaying, as it’s something which could be incorporated in to a family vacation or a day trip.
  • Outdoor events are another option especially when the sun is cracking the flags, from 1940s weekends to Civil War events with living history camps. These require more seeking out, but they are well worth the effort.
  • Experience the transport methods of your ancestors. Journey back in time accompanied by the evocative smells and sounds of a real steam train, stopping off at stations liveried in colours and signs of a bygone era. In Yorkshire there are plenty to choose from and they’re fantastic for families too. There’s Middleton Railway in Leeds, the world’s oldest working railway; the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, of Railway children fame and taking in historic Haworth with its Brontë associations; the Embsay and Bolton Abbey steam railway in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside; and the North Yorkshire Moors Historical Railway Trust operating between Pickering and Whitby, taking in Heartbeat country. Volunteer-run, these railways offer far more than the wonderful train rides, with offerings including themed events, tours and even hands-on experiences.

Haworth Station in the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway – Photo by Jane Roberts

  • And if you really are struggling to drag yourself away from the beach or the pool this summer holiday season, why not pack some genealogy crime and mystery fiction into those suitcases? That way you can get your genealogy fix through plotting the next research steps of a fictional genealogist and trying to crack the case whilst getting some well-earned rest and relaxation. Four authors of this genre to look out for are Nathan Dylan Goodwin with his Morton Farrier forensic genealogist book series; M. K. Jones who writes about genealogy detectives Maze Investigations; M. J. Lee and his former police detective turned genealogical investigator Jayne Sinclair; and Steve Robinson’s series of books based around American international genealogist Jefferson Tayte.

Whatever you end up doing this summer, I hope it’s a good one.

Transcription Tuesday 2019 – Your Chance to Give Something Back to Family History

A date for your diary: 5 February 2019 is Transcription Tuesday.

This annual event, launched by Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine in 2017, promises to be the biggest yet and it’s your chance to be part of it.

As Sarah Williams, the magazine’s editor, says:

The internet has transformed family history but the documents that are going online need to be transcribed or indexed to make them searchable, and for many projects the only way that is going to happen is with the help of volunteers……We hope to see hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers from across the world join together and give something back to family history.

Three projects, covering three distinct record sets, form this year’s event:

  • Transcribing a book covering railway worker accidents between 1901-1907 in just 24 hours. This Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants volume, the forerunner of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), records accidents and legal cases involving its members. It is a strand of the Railway Work, Life and Death project, and is being carried out in conjunction with the University of Portsmouth, the Modern Records Centre based at the University of Warwick and the National Railway Museum (NRM). The tome will make a potential 2,150 railway worker records widely available.

Sample page from the railway accidents book that volunteers will transcribe on Transcription Tuesday 2019 CREDIT: Modern Records Centre

  • Warwickshire witness statements from the county’s quarter sessions. This is a part of Warwickshire County Record Office’s Warwickshire Bytes project encouraging volunteer participation in indexing records held by the archive; and
  • A range of parish registers in association with FamilySearch.

There are so many reasons to take part in Transcription Tuesday. It is your moment to be part of something big; it is an opportunity to give something back to the wider family history community; it is a chance to make more accessible to families the lives of thousands of ancestors; it could help you improve one of the core skills of a family historians – reading and transcribing original documents; and you never know, if you have a railway ancestor, Warwickshire roots or the parish records relate to your ancestral homelands you may be lucky enough to find yourself uncovering part of your family history!

To find out more about the day, the projects and how to get involved visit: http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/transcriptiontuesday

And please spread the word to help make this year’s Transcription Tuesday the biggest so far.

King’s Cross War Memorial for Railwaymen

This week was a full-on working week with two long London trips. Although I didn’t have time to do any family history research, I did take the opportunity to visit the War Memorial at King’s Cross station.

Over 20,000 railwaymen died in the First World War and there are various memorials to them dotted around the country. The one at King’s Cross is dedicated to employees of The Great Northern Railway (GNR) who lost their lives in that conflict. It contains 937 names. Originally erected in 1920, it was further dedicated to employees of the London and North Eastern Railway who gave their lives in World War Two. Their names are not listed.

The memorial was re-designed and re-dedicated in 2013. Its 11 tablets are reminiscent of John Singer Sargant’s painting “Gassed“.

I had a particular reason for wanting to stop off at the memorial. Amongst those named is William Colbeck. He was a parishioner at St Mary’s, Batley, and someone whose life I researched as part of my St Mary’s War Memorial book.

Born in 1887, William was the son of David and Catherine Colbeck (neé Garner). He initially followed his father’s trade as a woollen spinner before switching to become a platelayer employed by the GNR at Batley station.

William enlisted in March 1916, serving as a Sapper with the 264th Railway Company, Royal Engineers. The Royal Engineers by the end of the war numbered over a quarter of a million officers and men. Amongst a myriad of other construction roles, they built and maintained the railways. These were a vital part of the war effort, essential for moving men, supplies and equipment. So Williams specialist skills, developed in civilian life, were utilised during his military service.

He died from pneumonia in the 41st Stationary Hospital, France on 6th November 1918 and is buried at Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery.

At the time of his death his family placed a number of “In memoriam” notices in the “Batley News”. The one below is from his fiancée Elsie:

No one knows how much I miss him,
None but aching hearts can tell;
Forget him, no, I never will,
Loved him here, I love him still.
“Ever in my thoughts”
From his loving fiancée Elsie.

More information about railwaymen who died in the First World War can be found at the National Railway Museum (NRM) website. It includes a searchable database on the fallen.

I’ve included a series of close-up photos of the names of the men, which hopefully will be of use to those connected with the men commemorated.

Kings Cross 1

Close up of the names on the first two tablets

 

Kings Cross 2

Close up of third and fourth tablets

 

Kings Cross 3

Close up of marble tablets five to eight

 

Kings Cross 4

Close up of the names on the final three tablets

 

However, as with many War Memorials, not all those names you expect to find are included. Michael Lydon, another St Mary’s man, is one such example. According to newspapers he was employed as a goods porter by the GNR at Batley station. He lost his life on 1 September 1918. He does not feature on the GNR memorial or on the NRM database.

It would be good if both men (and any others with connections) could be remembered at Batley Railway Station.  

Colbeck and Lydon