Lancashire Pied Piper Who Killed Thousands

If you had wandered to Preston Docks ninety years ago, you would most likely have come across Mr. Houghton Hodson and his little dog named Peggy. He had one of the strangest jobs in town at the time, as the official pied piper for Preston Corporation.

If there was one place rats liked to find it was on the harbor side, as ships brought them for free near warehouses containing wheat and other grains that the rodent palate preferred.

As a boy, Hodson had spent hours hunting rats on farms in the Preston countryside. When the Rats and Mice Destruction Act was passed in 1919 and he learned that Preston Corporation wanted a pied piper, he applied and made his hobby for a living.

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His main job was to keep the bugs out of Preston Docks, and whenever a ship arrived he would board the ship with the port medical officer and inquire about the number of rats that had made the voyage. He would then descend into the hold and begin clearing the ship of all four-legged stowaways.

Poison bait and a trap or two were placed in different parts of the boat and left to do their job. The traps were about ten times the size of an ordinary mousetrap and were topped with fatty bacon, a delicacy the rats preferred cheese.

The traps worked on the same principle as a mousetrap, but worked with such force that the inquisitive rat was invariably killed immediately. In 1930, Hodson recorded a number of 200 rats on ships from foreign ports.

But not all rats were so accommodating, and if the poison bait failed and the bacon and fish bait did not tempt the rodents that were still hopping around on the terraces, he would suffocate – the sulfur dioxide fumigation sealed their fate.

Railway rat catchers run along a railway line

The rats, who did not succumb to this method themselves and tried to get ashore via the cables that attached the boat to the dock side, found metal disks attached to the ropes to thwart their attempts. When the discs were encountered, the rats either had to fall into the water or return to the jar.

Despite all his best efforts, some rats managed to evade Hodson’s vigilance and gain access to the warehouses where the pied piper would have many exciting duels with the rodents. He was often bitten on the hand when rats didn’t like him, and more than once his loyal dog had to frighten a rat before it let go of its grip.

A rat that perched in a warehouse couldn’t even go to drink without encountering some noose. Because when they were looking for water from the gutters, Hodson had set bait and traps along the way. The rodent visitors are either black or brown. The former come from strange ships and the latter from the barn rat species.

There was always cause for concern when a black rat was found in the city that was a potential carrier of dangerous diseases such as plague, cholera, dysentery or yellow fever.

Spectators at the Turnspit in Quaker’s Alley watch a dog catch rats in a pit

Each year about 3,000 rats were killed by Hodson, his dog, and his snares. In the 1930s it was estimated that rats hit the country 60 million each year.

Hodson was far from alone in his battle with the rats in Lancashire, and a local farmer informed Lancashire Post readers that he had caught and collected more than 100 rats during National Council Week.

His solution to the problem was the 20 cats that roamed his fields and received a saucer of milk as a reward for their efforts. At Wigan they had Chorley-born Henry Sherrington, known as ‘Harry Rat’, the son of a respected Chorley Pied Piper and his brother Richard Sherrington was a professional Pied Piper on the ships in Liverpool Docks.

Henry Sherrington had an annual holding fee as a pied piper for a number of county families. He often sold the captured rats for six pence each for sporting purposes. There used to be a “rat pit” in Wigan, and many gentlemen used to visit the pit with their dogs for rat baiting.

A pied piper lays his prey in National Council Week, 1939

Aside from his rat-catching exploits, Sherrington was a bird, poultry, and dog dealer, which made him a familiar figure in Wigan. When he died in 1924 at the age of 91, it was reported that the county’s oldest pied piper had passed away.

There was also great enthusiasm for rat fishing in Lancaster, with a slaughterhouse, landfill and quarry among the places the resident rat catcher visited during his 50 years of service.

By 1935, during Official Rat Week, he had freed the city of 440 rats using methods similar to the Preston Pied Piper. He also remembered with pride the event a few years ago when he caught 320 rats from a ship in a single voyage.

The fame of Mr. Dodd, the pied piper of Fleetwood, even spread to Ireland in 1928 when he received a letter from a Miss Fforde in Armagh asking for details of the method he used when rat infesting her barns was.

He was not one to reveal the secrets of his craft, but offered to go to Ireland and clear the rats of their property. On one particular Saturday when a reporter from the ‘Fleetwood Chronicle’ caught up with him, he was busy clearing a Fleetwood fishing steamer and he had just caught 19 rats in five minutes, although he added that it was nothing special, since he caught 87 installments in 20 minutes on a boat called ‘Ethel’ earlier in the week.

He was dying to mention that he had his own method of not using ferrets, dogs, or poisons, but getting them his own way. The enthusiasm for National Council Week certainly peaked in the 1930s, around the time the rats were seeing the colder days and making their way from fields and banks to the shelter of doe, granaries, barns and outbuildings.

Two railway rat catchers with their prey

There was certainly little pity for them when people’s hands were raised against them, along with the fangs, beaks, and claws of many animals and birds, as well as dogs, weasels, ermines, cats, ferrets, foxes, owls, buzzards, ravens, and gulls that the rat usually struggled with.

During World War II, many women did the chores traditionally done by men prior to military service, and the Liverpool Corporation recruited a volunteer pied piper named Helen Purcell in 1944, and the Merchant Navy caught her 500th rodent in four months.

The Lancashire War Agriculture Committee, aware that the farmers wanted to destroy the rodents during this time, offered workers and children a penny for each rat’s tail. While Mr. Rogerson, the Lancaster-based rodent officer, was nicknamed the “Pied Piper of Lancashire” when he launched the “Kill The Rat” campaign.

More recently, sewage baiting has helped control the numbers of rats, although milder winters are believed to have increased the rat threat and although we no longer have to deal with ships full of rats in Preston, the modern day pest control officials are still busy.

In 2017 it was reported that Preston City Council received more than 1,100 calls to control rats alone, along with 400 other calls to control vermin. It seems that more than a century after National Rat Week was introduced, the rodents are still ready to fight for their existence, although in those more enlightened times a group of rat lovers introduced World Rat Day in 2002 and it became a national fancy in 1976 Council Society founded.

In truth, it has never been as easy as the Pied Piper from Hamelin wanted us to believe when he played his melody and the rats rushed out of the houses. Big rats, small rats, lean rats, beefy rats, brown rats, black cats, gray rats… ”as the poet Robert Browning lyrically put it.

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