I Just Read Different Books

Queen of the Rats

The Rat Queen of London

Central Europe may have its Rat Kings - bundles of rats permanently joined together by their tails; between 30 and 50 examples have turned up in the last 400 years or so depending on who you ask, and preserved ones are to be found in museums in Hamburg, Hamlein, Stuttgart and Gottingen (I borrowed that one for the Fortean exhibition I did in Croydon), but only London has a Rat Queen.

Of all the ghastly trades pursued in Victorian London, few were worse than that of the Toshers, who rummaged about inside the city sewers retrieving anything even vaguely saleable, well, except maybe the "Pure" Collector, who gathered dog shit for the tanning trade - they had a special glove for the task. Given the foulness and danger inherent in their work, it‘s not surprising that toshers were a superstitious lot, and according to one named Jerry Sweetly1, their superstitions featured the mysterious Rat Queen, who could bring a man luck in the pipe, and he claimed to speak from personal experience.

Legend had it that the queen was a huge rat who would follow toshers when down in the sewer, and if she saw one she liked, she took human form as a seductive girl and made love to him. If he satisfied her, he would always have luck, finding plenty of money and valuables and remain safe from accidents and drowning. If he refused her, or wasn't up to scratch, his luck would fail and a ghastly end would await him. The same fate would also befall anyone who, having been blessed by the rat queen, suspected what had happened and told of his encounter - you could tell who she was when in human form if you looked closely, her eyes still shone in the light like an animal's and she retained claws on her feet. Sweetly, though, told his grandson of his meeting with the Rat Queen on his deathbed, when there was no longer much she could do to him.

Once, when he was 15 and out drinking, he met a girl who danced and drank with him, then took him to a rag warehouse to make love. In the heat of passion, she bit him on the neck, something the Queen often did to her lovers, leaving her mark as sign that no rat should harm them, and startled, he lashed out at her without thinking. But before Jerry's blow could strike home, the girl vanished, replaced by a huge rat on the rafters above, who dropped a piece of cloth torn from its mouth that matched his shirt and spat "You'll get your luck, tosher, but you haven't done paying for it yet!" and disappeared. He claimed she was true to her word, for he was always safe and successful at his toshing, but he paid the traditional price for offending the Rat Queen, he had no success in his own love life, losing his first wife in childbirth, and his second to a river accident. He did have six children though, one of whom bore the mark of a daughter of the Rat Queen's lover - unmatched eyes (one blue and one grey, the colour of the river) and acute hearing, something which one child in every subsequent generation of his descendants would also have. It was also said, that if this girl married another tosher, their sons would never die by drowning. No one now makes a living scavenging the London sewers, but does the Rat Queen still seek unsuspecting lovers in the city night and do girls with one eye blue and the other grey ever wonder where they got them from?

1 Originally recounted by Sweetly's great-great-grandaughter, Liz Thompson, in the Deptford Mercury of 28 July 1994. My source is The Lore of the Land by Westwood and Simpson, Penguin, 2005.

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