written by Ann Storey, December 2017
Rats have been domesticated on and off from at least the 18th C, when they were a popular pet in Japan. Elsewhere odd colours found in wild populations were sometimes captured and bred, mostly for the pet trade. Some laboratory use was made of rats, possibly as far back as the 17th C although it wasn’t really until the latter part of the 19th C where this started to take off. This early breeding of fancy rats, at least in the West, went hand in hand with the popularity of the ‘Rat pits’, a blood sport common in urban areas at the time in both the UK and the States which involved the killing of up to 100 wild rats at a time by a small, terrier type dog. This required the capture of very large numbers of wild rats, during which odd coloured rats would also be picked up.
The first time rats were shown, as far as we know, was in 1901, where a lady named Mary Douglas managed to get classes for rats put on at the Aylesbury Fanciers’ show, held on 24th October. There were 15 rats exhibited in one class and it was won by the said Miss Douglas with a black and white even marked (which we would now call a hooded). The judge was one Walter Maxey, a man who is widely known as the father of the mouse fancy, as Mary was later known as the mother of the rat fancy.
Mary was really the founder of the rat as an exhibition animal and she did this through the National Mouse Club, which had been formed a few years before in 1895. Mary quickly became an enthusiastic and hard working member of the NMC, becoming the Honorary Secretary after a very short time. Following on from the Aylesbury Show, there were at least 2 other shows that year, including Blackburn on the 28/11/01 and East Ham on Boxing Day. At both shows there were two classes, Self or nearly self and AOV. At the AGM of the NMC, held at Blackburn, it was agreed that the NMC would put on two classes of rats at all their shows wherever possible. In these days all classes paid guaranteed prize money, so putting on extra classes was no mean offer.
The rats carried on gaining in numbers and varieties and in 1912 the NMC became the NM&RC. Indeed the London and Southern Counties Mouse and Rat Club was formed as that in 1916.
Unfortunately on the death of Mary Douglas in 1921, the rat fancy declined, probably because she had always been the driving force, but it also coincided with a few other fanciers leaving the fancy for one reason or another. By 1934 the LSCMRC dropped ‘rat’ from the title because according to the proposers, Mr King and Mrs Blowers; "The rat section of the fancy was now dead as far as competition was concerned". It took the NMC until 1957 to drop the rat though, probably due to inertia rather than any rats being shown in the interim. Conversely the L&S once more decided to reinstate classes for rats that same year, following on from a successful rat show held at Portsmouth Show and due to pressure from a Portsmouth fancier, Edwin Gay and a Mr Rayfield. 32 rats were shown at Portsmouth that year, the winner being a Pink eyed White. However it proved to be a flash in the pan, and next year the entries were down to 18. The classes at L&S soon dried up, although it’s not known when they were dropped for the second time. In 1962 a Welsh fancier – R.G Phillips – attempted to form the National Rat Club, but despite the best efforts of a number of people it failed to get off the ground.
However all was not lost at the LSCMC.
The newsletter for October 1968 said "Rat Classes - Due to demand there will be two classes for rats at this show (19th October 1968). They will be Adult Rat, any variety, under 13 weeks rat, any variety. I will personally guarantee the prize money for these two classes and it will be 5/-, 3/-, 2/-. Entries in these classes will be 1/- per entry. Of course, the mouse entries remain at 6d per class. I will endeavour to bring some rat Maxey cages to the show but there is no stipulation as to what type of cage that you show them in (providing they don't escape)." It was also agreed that "...There would be no loss to the club as Messrs. Jukes, Green and Whitcombe were prepared to stand as guarantors. It was also decided to give a diplomas for best rat".
At the show a month later (an open show) on 16th November 1968, there were 14 rats entered. Interestingly all the winning owners are still alive! They were Adult (8) 1 & 3 E Jukes 2 & R R Whitcombe U13 week (6) 1T Holland, 2&3 Jukes R R Whitcombe Best Rat T Holland Kittens were shown as U13 week at L&S. Rats have continued to be shown at this club to this day and indeed the LSCMC re-instated rats back into the title, becoming once more the LSCMRC.
In 1969, the very young Hon Sec of L&S, the above mentioned Eric Jukes, tried to start a new rat club called the International Fancy Rat Council and wrote a series of articles about rats for Fur and Feather, the fancy Press, called ‘The origins and history of the fancy rat’. Although this club came to nothing, Eric then attempted to get the National Mouse Club to re-instate rats, as they had done previously. However the proposal failed to get the 2 thirds majority necessary to get rats accepted back into the rules.
From the early '70s rats started to be exhibited at the London Championship Show, one of the major exhibitions for small livestock in the Country. I can personally remember this show, including rats, being featured on the ‘Magpie’ TV children's programme in about 1973. Now Eric is principally a mouse fancier and it took a dedicated rat fancier to finally give the rat fancy the impetus it needed to get going. This man was Geoff Izzard, a herpetologist, who had originally kept rats to feed to his snakes. As is common with many animal lovers though, he soon came to appreciate rats in their own right, probably helped by giving his daughter one as a pet. Geoff was interested in the colours and patterns that rats came in as well as their ability to make great pets.
In 1974, Geoff exhibited at the London Championship Show for the first time but on the way back he missed his bus. While he was waiting, a teacher by the name of Joan Pearce turned up. Joan had visited the show specifically to see the rats but had been unable to find them. Now Geoff was well known for travelling to shows with his rats in their tanks on a customised shopping trolley so that everyone could see them, as he didn’t drive and was totally unconcerned with the odd looks that he (and anyone else who was with him) got. Joan had been on a psychology course using rats and badly wanted one as a pet for herself. Many visits to pet shops though had drawn a blank. Joan and Geoff soon got talking at the bus stop and that was really the beginning of the NFRS.
Geoff seems to have joined L&S sometime soon after this show. A list of members published at end of November 1974 does not show Geoff Izzard as a member of LSCMC but he is shown as having 9 points after the 18 January 1975 Show. So he must have come to the 18th Jan show and possibly the December 1974 show as well.
During the next year or so, the interest in the rats continued to grow, with several enlargements of the schedule from the original two classes. It’s not clear who first encouraged Geoff and Joan to form their own club, certainly Eric and a number of other L&S members preferred the idea of the rats staying under the mouse club banner, but form their own club they did. The inaugural meeting of the NFRS being held on 13th January 1976. The committee is recorded as follows: Geoff Izzard, show secretary/publicity, John Strutt – Chairman, Eric Smith - President, Joan Pearce – Hon Sec/Treasurer. From its inception, the NFRS had an educational outlook and so also had a genetical advisor in the form of Roy Robinson. A week later the NFRS staged its first exhibition at Bradford Championship Show, usually considered the Crufts of the small livestock world. Over the next couple of years the NFRS held many shows in conjunction with other fancies, the first one held at Clymping West Sussex in conjunction with the Southern hamster Club. It took until the 15th April 1978 before first ever show for rats only was held, in Grove Road, Surbiton.
The NFRS had arrived.
The author would like to thank Eric Jukes and the LSCMRC for their help in preparing this article.