This article is from the Mar./Apr. and May/June 1986 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.
By Nick Mays, Hon. Secretary, National Fancy Rat Society, England
The title of this article is self-explanatory. Fancy Rats didn’t just appear in modern times, but, by the same token, the story is not so recent either. In fact, the first Fancy Rats had Royal connections (of a sort) with the Queen of England, over 100 years ago, so let us see just . . .
In 1665, England was racked by a terrible disease, a great illness carried by the fleas on Black Rats, Rattus rattus, the disease soon and for ever after to be known as “The Black Death” or “The Great Plague.” People died in the thousands as the seemingly incurable plague spread across the country. In cities and towns it was far worse. There was no proper sanitation, excreta and rubbish rotted in the gutter, the rats ran wild and people died. By 1666, the plague had reached epidemic proportions. Cart loads of the dead from London Town were driven to the county areas surrounding the great city to be buried. (This is how my home town, Mortlake, now part of London, but then a small parish in Surrey came to get it’s name. A lake was drained and the plague victims buried therein. Hence: Mort - Dead, Lake. Mortlake.)
Finally, as all history scholars know, London was largely razed to the ground by a great fire, the Great Fire of London. Although many hundreds of people died, so too did thousands of Black rats, and, as a result, the Plague. Eventually, the Plague throughout the country died out. The already depleted population of Black rats suffered another, irreparable blow in the early 1700s. Ships from the Middle East, travelling via Norway brought a great number of stowaways into Britain. These were Brown rats, Rattus Norvegicus, or the Norway rat. (They were also christened the “Hanoverian Rat,” an injoke at the time, due to the arrival of the Hanoverian kings.) The Brown rats were bigger, more adaptable and stronger than the Black rats and quickly displaced them in superiority. To this day, the Black rat is only found in the heart of the British countryside, or in a few dockland areas. The Brown rat is found almost anywhere. By the 1800s the Brown rat had become a bigger problem than the Black rat, although they did not spread Plague. Many Parish records of the time record the wages paid to the Local Rat-Catcher(s). The Rat-Catcher became a well-known figure in towns and cities throughout the country, especially in London. There was even a Royal Rat-Catcher, by appointment to Queen Victoria, based in London. In the 1870s, the Royal Rat-Catcher, Jack Black by name, started an interesting project. During the course of his job, he occasionally found “Freak” rats; Albinos, Blacks, Fawns, etc. These he caught, and if young enough, tamed, after a fashion. Then he bred them together to see what interesting colours were created. He noted the results most carefully. At this point, it is useful to consider that Jack Black, probably a country man by birth, had no genetical experience or scientific application to utilise in his task, so his research is made all the more impressive. He ultimately wrote a book about his life when he retired and in it detailed all his breeding experiments. This fired the interest of a very straight-laced woman named Mary Douglas, who involved some of her well-to-do friends in the procurement and breeding of “Fancy Rats,” as the strange, coloured rats became known. It is rather unclear as to where they obtained their Fancy Rats, but a possibility is that a Rat-Catcher or some such person was paid to collect some “Freaks” for these purposes.
Meanwhile, in Oxford, around 1892, at a Cavy show, a class for Fancy Mice was staged. For some time, would-be Mouse Fanciers had written in to the Fancy Journal, “Fur & Feather” asking that Cavy and Rabbit Clubs put on classes for mice. The most vociferous of these Fanciers was a young man named Walter Maxey. Thanks to his drive and enthusiasm the Tower Hamlets Cavy Society in London put on classes for mice. In 1895, Walter Maxey and some loyal fellow fanciers formed the National Mouse Club. He designed the ideal cage in which to show Fancy Mice, which at that time were readily available from research institutions (and other breeders). The cage was named the “Maxey Cage” and is in use to this day. The first show specifically for Fancy Mice was staged in Stratford, East London in 1897.
Shortly thereafter, Miss Douglas approached Walter Maxey with a view to the formation of a Joint Fancy Rat/Mouse Club. This was duly done and so the “National Mouse and Rat Club” came into being.
So, regular shows were staged. There were always more Mice than Rats, as Mice seemed to appeal more to the average “Man in the street”, possibly because he had experience of the average “Rat in the Street/Outside Lavatory/Scullery.” Fancy Rats were more the province of the more affluent Fanciers. However, sufficient interest in Fancy Rats was displayed for the first “Rats only” show to be held in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire in 1901.
In 1910, the first ever documented Cream Rat came on the scene. As a contemporary report states: “A Mr. Marriot caught a pale Cream Buck in a provisions shop in Chesterfield (Yorkshire) in 1910. This specimen killed 20 does before mating with a P.E. Doe.” And another report, a few years later states: “The first Fawn Rat sprang from a wild doe who, after killing a number of bucks, found her match in a savage old black buck who mastered her after a terrific battle.” (Very racy stuff for those staid days!)
The heyday of the Fancy Rat, with Mary Douglas at the helm, lasted until the First World War, then things started to go downhill somewhat. The National Mouse and Rat Club underwent a reformation in the mid 1920s. The NM & RC amalgamated with the Northern Fancy Mouse Association*, Self Mouse Club and Marked & A.O.V. (Any Other Variety) Mouse Club, for financial reasons, because, with the exception of the Northern Fancy Mouse Club, they possessed very little money. Some area clubs still remained apart, notably the London & Southern Counties Mouse Club and the London Mouse and Rat Club. The latter eventually declined and died, whilst the former named, formed in 1915, continued in strength. The fact that a Rat bit a judge did not help the Rat cause much within the very Mouse orientated clubs. Rats of the time were certainly not so tame. In 1934, all to do with Rats was dropped from the London & Southern Counties Mouse Club. By the time Walter Maxey and Mary Douglas died in 1949, Rats were only shown very rarely. In 1957, the NM & RC became the National Mouse Club only. (It is very likely that they were supporting Fancy Rats in name only at that time). However, thanks to pressure from two Fancy Rat keepers, Messsrs. Rayfield and Gay, the London & Southern Counties Mouse Club reinstated classes for fancy Rats.
In 1962, a Mr. R. G. Phillips of Wales formed the National Rat Club, after writing several interesting articles for Fur & Feather [F & F] about Fancy Rats and their endearing features. However, the club was not a success and folded soon afterwards.
Around 1967, a young Mouse Fancier named Eric Jukes, destined to become Secretary of the London & Southern Counties Mouse Club, penned a series of articles on Fancy Rats for “F & F” entitled “The History & Origins of the Fancy Rat,” covering all details of Fancy Rats from “ancient history” through care, housing and breeding, then giving full details of the old Victorian Fancy Rat standards. Inspired by his successful series, Eric formed “The International Fancy Rat Council” in 1969. But, alas, this too was to fail. Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready for Fancy Rats in the 1950s and 1960s . Maybe the approach was wrong, perhaps there just wasn’t enough genetical interest in the four remaining “base” colours: Agouti, Hooded, Silver Fawn and Self (white or black).
Around 1963, a Herpetologist** named Geoff Izzard started keeping Fancy Rats for their own sake, instead of fodder for his snakes. He was intrigued by their colours and high intelligence. However, it wasn’t until late 1974 that he ever entertained any thoughts of contacting other Rat Fanciers. With this in mind, he took a few rats to the prestigious London Championship Show held annually at Alexandra Palace, North London, in the late October of that year.
Geoff had several people stop at his stand and pass comments upon the Rats, most very uncomplimentary, except from like-minded sympathisers like Eric Jukes but who were too committed elsewhere to take up Rat keeping. At the end of the day, Geoff loaded up his Rats into the transparent carrying-box and set off to catch a bus to the nearest underground station to take him home. Life is full of strange coincidences and Geoff’s was no exception. The local Soccer club, Arsenal, were playing “at home”, so as a result at the end of the game, there was a lot of traffic about. Geoff missed his bus and had to wait about twenty minutes for another. A middle-aged lady joined him at the bus stop and, after a while, asked him about his rats. They soon got talking. The lady introduced herself as Joan Pearce, a teacher. In the previous year she had attended a course about teaching aids for young children and Fancy Rats had been used as a classroom pet. Once she had overcome her fear of the tails (how many other ladies and gentlemen say that?), she had fallen in love with them and had determined to obtain some of her own. Pet shops proved fruitless, so she had come to the “London” in the hope of finding some and had just missed Geoff but now, thanks to the “home match” at Arsenal and heavy traffic, she had met him. They exchanged addresses when the time came to go their separate ways and very soon thereafter met up again and soon Joan owned some Fancy Rats.
It was Eric Jukes who suggested that they both take advantage of the small Fancy Rat classes offered by the L & SCMC, and show some rats. So, in 1975 they did so. Both Geoff and Joan, along with Eric penned several articles for “F & F” and soon a few Rat Fanciers and would-be Rat Fanciers attended the shows and twice in six months the Rat schedule of classes was extended.
In late 1975, the Rat Fanciers determined to form their own society. More articles in “F & F” brought more fanciers and so, on the 13th. January, 1976 (a very lucky day indeed) the National Fancy Rat Society was formed, fifteen members strong, with Geoff as Show Secretary and Joan as Secretary/Treasurer.
They held their first show on 23rd April at the invitation of a small livestock club in Clymping, Sussex, with the grand total of 25 exhibits, duplicated to 81 entries. On the advice of the judge, veteran fancier Eric Smith, the Standards of Excellence were amended in many cases in June 1976.
From then on, things just progressed in peaks. (Obviously there were a few “troughs” in between as all clubs/societies suffer from these). In December 1978 (an auspicious month across the Atlantic also!), the N.F.R.S imported a number of Himalayan Rats from Orleans, France. Along with these, over the years a great number of varieties have been bred including: Cinnamon-Pearl (1979), Variegated (1978), Siamese (1979), Pearl (1978), and the re-introduced Chocolate (1981, standardised 1983).
And so, after over three hundred years, the Fancy Rat as it is now known, has, for a growing number of people, shrugged off the image of disease-ridden vermin and, thanks to the Rat Fanciers, the Fancy Rat is here to stay...
* As in most countries, there are regional divisions. England (let alone Britain i.e. Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and England) is one such nation. In those days, the divide between the North and South was far greater than it is today, although, conversely, the North was always supposedly poorer than the South. An interesting about-turn in the case of the Northern Fancy Mouse Association and National Mouse Club.
** A herpetologist is a keeper of Reptiles and Amphibians.