Tag 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 Priest Who Predicted His Death?

When Fr Thomas Bruno Rigby preached his last sermon at his beloved church of St Mary of the Angels on Sunday evening of St Patrick’s Day 1872, he prophetically exhorted the congregation to be prepared for death, observing there were so many unforeseen accidents that either he, or any of them, might be suddenly called away at any moment. Little did he know how true it was to prove for him. 

The following morning he set off from Leeds to Lancaster to attend the funeral later that day of Ripon priest, and old college friend, Rev Wilson. By the evening he was dead, the result of a horrific train incident.

When Fr Rigby came to Batley in September 1867, the town’s growing Catholic community did not have a church in which to worship, this despite the first priest arriving in 1853 and land being purchased to build one in 1863. A letter dated 7 December 1863 in “The Irishman”, from the then incumbent Rev P Lynch, confirmed the land purchase, and indicated that the 1,500 Catholics were using a former rag and shoddy warehouse accommodating just 150 as an interim chapel. The letter was an appeal for donations from Ireland. The hope was to lay a foundation stone for a new church on 17 March 1864. But this still had not materialised when Fr Rigby took up post.

The newly arrived Fr Rigby felt it his bounden duty to remedy this. He immediately set about helping with raising money and putting plans into motion for a permanent place of worship for his flock. He quickly achieved his goal, assisted by generous donations from woollen manufacturing brothers Capt W.H and Simeon Colbeck (a convert to Catholicism).  

On 17 May 1869, the Diocesan Bishop of Beverley, Rt Rev Dr Robert Cornthwaite, laid the foundation stone, Beverley being the diocese under which Batley fell during this period. On 15 December 1870 the church of St Mary of the Angels at Cross Bank, Batley finally opened its doors to parishioners. Not only that, with his passion for education, Fr Rigby also established a Day School for the community’s children.  

But less than 16 months later, on 18 March 1872, 38-year-old Fr Rigby lost his life in particularly horrific circumstances. 

Thomas Rigby, son of James and Ann Rigby, was born in the Ellesmere district of Manchester in 1834. His family had a very strong Catholic pedigree. His mother’s cousin Dr John Briggs was the first Bishop of Beverley, and Bishop Cornthwaite’s predecessor.  

With a fondness for books and learning, Thomas also determined to become a priest and went to the English Catholic Benedictine school at Douai, in northern France between 1849-1856. From there he moved on to the English College in Rome where he spent a further four years, being ordained in 1860. 

Described as “always good”, not tempted by the splendour and art on offer in Rome, and according to the testimony of one “never late for morning prayers”, the impression given is of an unassuming, quiet, very studious individual, totally devoted to his learning and vocation. He excelled at mathematics, travelled extensively, was linguistically adept in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian and German and had friends worldwide. 

Returning to England, he moved parishes frequently in the early days of his ministry. Posted initially to Burton Constable, Hull in 1860 he went on to serve at Bradford in 1861, North Kilvington 1862, Goole in 1864, Sheffield in 1865, St Patrick’s, Leeds in 1866 before finally coming to Batley to assist Rev. Patrick Lynch in September 1867. Soon after his arrival Fr Lynch died whilst in Ireland, and Fr Rigby succeeded him. 

It is particularly ironic that only weeks before his death Fr Rigby informed his friend and fellow-priest Fr. McCarten, that after all his earlier moves he felt at home in the town. He wanted to work there for the remainder of his life, so he might leave the church unencumbered by debt and lead the people he loved so much further advanced in their knowledge of Almighty God. 

His efforts have indeed had a lasting impact on generations of Batley Catholics, in the shape of the wonderful Grade II listed building where countless services, baptisms, marriages and funerals have taken place. 

Designed by John Kelly of Leeds-based architects Messrs Adams and Kelly, at a cost of around £2,364, the church was constructed in a Gothic Revival style, using stone from neighbouring quarries. Seating 650 on wooden benches, the internal walls were plastered and painted in a salmon tint, and the majority of the roof between the rafters in grey. I mention this, because these colours were maintained in the last refurbishment, several years ago. 

There are plans underway for another internal refurbishment, following major work on the roof. Back in December 1870 this slated roof, with a red earthenware ridge, was constructed by Messrs Pyecroft of Leeds. The apex of the apse roof was finished with leaded finial and a wrought iron cross; the copings of the gables with stone crosses. 

Of the other main contractors, according to newspaper reports, only one Batley firm – that of Mr J.W. Hey, plasterer – was involved. Alterations to the church took place in 1884 and 1929, but the building is essentially the same as in 1870. 

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

Many dignitaries attended the opening High Mass at 11 o’clock on Thursday 15 December. Diocesan Bishop and foundation stone layer, Robert Cornthwaite, returned to officiate, aided by clergymen from throughout Yorkshire. Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, gave the sermon, along with a subsequent one at 6.30pm Evening Vespers, honouring a promise made to Fr Rigby that whenever he opened a church he would come to preach not once but twice. In between services, they repaired to the Station Hotel for a formal lunch. 

So, with a magnificent new church to house the congregation, Fr Rigby continued his ministry in the town. His enthusiasm for education shone through, urging the poorer members of his congregation not to neglect their children’s schooling because they could not afford the fees. Such was the value he placed on learning, he even paid out of his own pocket for a number of poorer children to attend the Catholic school. This in the wake of the 1870 Education Act, when parents paid schooling fees. 

He did not take part in broader local affairs to any great extent, but one of his last forays on the wider Batley arena was in connection with education, in particular that of the poor. The whole experience left him very bruised and disillusioned, with a feeling he had been unfairly treated and he had not been listened to in the same way other speakers were. A proud Englishman, his friends detected as a result of the encounter, he was beginning to realise the way in which Catholic priests were actually regarded by some compatriots.

The meeting of the Batley School Board and ratepayers took place at the Town Hall on the evening of 20 February 1872 and lasted until 10.30pm. Described as a largely attended and excited meeting, it was called by the Mayor to discuss the contentious decision of the School Board to pay the fees of children whose parents could not afford them, at the local school of their choice rather than Board Schools – in other words public money potentially going to Established Church and Catholic denominational schools. Essentially ratepayers would be funding an element of religious education. The alternative, to restrict them to Board Schools, risked poor parents not sending children to school for reasons of conscience. The Board itself was divided on the issue, which they passed with the slimmest of margins.  

Batley was a mixed religious town, with a significant Dissenting population, alongside the Established Church and Catholics. The acrimonious debate, peppered with raucous cries from the ratepayers, saw Catholic Fr Rigby and J Wilberforce Cassels, vicar of St Thomas’ presenting a united front when speaking from the platform, much to the sarcastic amusement of those opposed to denominational schools. Mr Marriott’s jibe of “This man (addressing Rev Cassels and pointing to Fr Rigby), consigns you to eternal damnation as a schismatic – and you, I believe send him to a very warm place” typifies the comments. 

The heated debate ranged from objections to paying fees for children whose parents by their dissolute habits had brought themselves to a paupered condition, to freedom of choice and persecution; from accusations of seeking to use public money for their own religious purposes, to arguments about time spent on religious teaching detracting from education in reading, writing and arithmetic. Over 140 years later and nothing changes! 

Fr Rigby came in for particularly harsh treatment as illustrated from this account of proceedings in the “Dewsbury Reporter” 

Mr Wormald Waring [from the secular camp] and the Rev T.B. Rigby, Roman Catholic priest, now rose together to address the meeting, and while the former was received with applause by a majority of those present, the latter was assailed with a storm of howls. The denominational party however cheered him”. 

The meeting concluded with a vote against the decision of the School Board and a warning that if the bye-law was enacted “it will produce the same animosity and irritation which was produced by the enforced payment of church rates”. 

The events weighed heavily on the mind of Fr Rigby, touching upon his religion, the possibility that one man could force another man’s child into a place against his conscience, and his strongly held belief in education of the poor. He wrote to Fr McCarten on the subject. 

We then come to the fateful evening of 18 March 1872. Fr Rigby was making his way back from that Lancaster funeral, held in the city’s St Peter’s church. Rather than returning direct to Batley, he and Fr Thomas Loughran of Leyburn made a life-ending choice. They decided to take the 7pm train from Lancaster’s Green Ayre station to Morecambe, to visit a friend. Some reports refer to it as Green Area, replicating the error in railway timetables up to around 1870.  

They arrived shortly before departure time. Fr Rigby stopped to talk to two ladies, whilst Fr Loughran enquired of porter William Walker how long they had before the train left. Upon being told it would go in a minute or so, they decided they would have time to go to the toilet. 

Fr Loughran made it back to the train in the nick of time, the whistle blew, the doors closed, the guard gave the signal and train set off, driven by John Winter (who hailed from Hunslet, Yorkshire). Before getting into the brake van, Northamptonshire-born guard Thomas Sturman noticed Fr Rigby and warned him not to attempt to board. 

The platform was brightly lit, well maintained and, as William Walker oddly described it, there were no pieces of orange peel lying around. The short-sighted Fr Rigby was still seemingly trying to ascertain his companion’s carriage. He spotted Fr Loughran and made an attempt to reach him. Another Northamptonshire-born man, foreman porter Edward Garley (some reports incorrectly say Richard Gorley) saw Fr Rigby walking sharply down the platform as the train set off and cautioned him twice to keep back. He and labourer George Allen saw the priest miss his step and stumble between the platform and moving carriages. Gorley, only a yard away, tried unsuccesfully to catch him. He immediately called out for the station officials to switch the signals to stop the train, which quickly drew to a halt. But it was too late. A carriage had passed over the priest’s chest and arms. By the time William Walker reached him, he was dead. 

His body was conveyed back to the presbytery at St Peter’s, where the inquest headed by coroner Mr Holden returned a verdict of “Accidental Death”. 

On the evening of Thursday 21 March his remains arrived back in Batley by train. Several hundred people processed from Cross Bank Batley to join the crowds already waiting at the station. Shops closed their shutters as a mark of respect and thousands lined the route as the hearse containing Fr Rigby made its way back to church, where his oak, flower-strewn coffin was placed on a bier in front of the black draped wooden altar. The church was full. Those unable to get in were allowed walk through the church, past the coffin and out via the sacristy. 

Fr Rigby’s Headstone in Batley Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

The church was similarly filled to overflowing for the funeral, held the following morning at 11 o’clock. Over 30 priests attended, and long-time friend Fr McCarten preached the sermon during which almost all the congregation shed tears. He expressed gladness, in the midst of sorrow, hearing it was in the exercise of charity, attending the funeral of another priest, he had met his death. He went on to say he had built his parishioners a church “where they would have consolation administered, and where they would be carried at last”. 

More information about the St Mary of the Angels roof fund is here

Sources:

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