Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Call In the Rat-Catcher - Greenock 1881

For a shop to be overrun by rats is a major disaster, especially if it is a grocer's shop.  That is exactly what happened to the premises of James Malloy Campbell on West Blackhall Street in Greenock.  This unusual case was put before Sheriff Smith in October/November 1881.  Mr Campbell had taken the lease on the premises in 1878.  This was his second shop as a grocer and wine merchant , his other was in Roxburgh Street in Greenock.  All seems to have been well until a drain burst which resulted in the rat infestation in his shop.

Since the premises had been in good condition at the start of the lease, Mr Campbell decided to take his landlord (Thomas May Thorne) to court for compensation of £90 in respect of the damage done to stock by the rats.  Goods in the shop and even in the shop window had been eaten and destroyed as well as a boars head (value 5 shillings) Mr Campbell had used in his Christmas display.

As it was a condition of the lease that the premises be kept in good repair, Mr Campbell claimed that he had tried his best to deal with the problem himself by poisoning and trapping.  He stated that this had resulted in the death of a terrier dog (value £5) by accidental poisoning.  Six cats had also perished, overcome by the sheer number of rats!  He believed that the landlord should have done more to deal with the cause of the problem.

The landlord claimed that on being notified of the problem he had employed a builder, Mr Jamieson to make right the damage, which he had done.  This did not end the problem and the local rat catcher was called in.  Mr Climie, "a man of skill in rat-catching, was actively employed for many weeks ... and was successful in killing many rats."  However there seemed to be some disagreement between the parties as to whether Mr Climie was given full access to the whole of the premises by Mr Campbell - a trap stair from the shop to a cellar was not mentioned and Mr Climie therefore contained his activities to the shop alone and the rat problem continued.  After a while Mr Climie was called in again by the landlord and given access to the whole premises - the problem was finally dealt with.  I wonder if the shop was closed during all this poisoning, trapping and other means of rat catching or where it was "business as usual"!

On summing up, the Sheriff scathingly commented on Mr Campbell's claim for compensation for his losses, stating that he was claiming retail price for the goods not wholesale and that - "he wishes to convert these rats into most valuable customers, and that at his landlord's expense.  If such a claim were to be successful, where is it to stop?  This grocer goes on for a whole year supplying these customers, the rats, on his landlord's credit and unknown to his landlord.  Why not pursue the same system during the whole term of his lease?"  Sheriff Smith.

This court case could not have been the ideal advertisement for his business and needless to say, James Campbell did not renew his lease.  The trade directory for1883 shows his with just his original shop in Roxburgh Street.  However another grocer had taken over the West Blackhall Street premises.

The address given is "17 West Blackhall Street, known as Havelock Buildings".  In 1881 other commercial tenants of the premises were - a stationer, a chemist& druggist, an optician, a branch of the Post Office and the offices of a lawyer and engineer.  
There is still a Havelock Building in Greenock, but obviously street numbers have changed over the years.  On the ground floor are commercial premises, with apartments on the three floors above.   

The Greenockian



  1. Makes your skin crawl, Liz.
    Here in Australia, we had a drought in my neck of the woods which lasted a couple of years. Not far from our neighbourhood was the creek and we had an issue with rats coming up from the dried out water way, through the storm water system and into the residential properties. We went through buckets of bait and murdered many wee beasties. They were cheeky sods, but it was us or them.
    We would hear them in the roof and walls late at night. Our cats never managed to catch one, so we went for the baits. Unfortunately our elderly fox terrier managed to get a bait and when we worked out he was ill, it was too late. :(
    Bloody rats!

    1. I suppose it just shows that things don't change that much!

  2. Fascinating post - nicely written. I love quirky stories like this.

  3. I can cope with most things, but not rats!! A few years ago, a farm building was demolished on our route to school. Every morning the path was littered by dead rats - huge things they were! Great post

  4. hee hee... Send that rat catcher to clean out the U.S. Congress, please!


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