The Execution Of Mr Rat

A point that was often made during the autumn of 1888, when the Jack the Ripper murders were both fascinating and terrifying the people of Victorian London in equal measure, was that violent crime was an inevitable consequence of the sheer brutality that was endemic on the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

Animals were led to slaughter along the busy thoroughfares of Whitechapel Road, Aldgate High Street and Whitechapel High Street on a daily basis. The slaughtering would take place in the many slaughterhouses that dotted the neighbourhood, and the gutters and sidewalks would run red with their blood – the same sidewalks on which children played and along which people went about their daily business.

Indeed, more than one commentator made the observation that it shouldn’t come as a surprise that an area in which such barbarity was commonplace should have fostered a miscreant such as Jack the Ripper.


But, it wasn’t just in the streets that people witnessed examples of unencumbered barbarity.

In fact, even in their “down-time” the citizens of the 19th century East End were confronted by gruesome sights intended as forms of entertainment.

The following article, which appeared in Pearson’s Weekly on Saturday, 7th May, 1898, provided a perfect glimpse of just how barbaric the entertainments to which Victorian Eastenders evidently flocked truly were.

By way of explanation a penny gaff, as referred to in the article, was an immensely popular type of entertainment that was, mostly, enjoyed by the lower classes in 19th-century England. It consisted of short, theatrical entertainments which could be staged wherever space permitted, such as the back room of a public house or small hall.


“If you walk down the Whitechapel Road, London, on any Saturday night, you will find yourself in a new world.

You will be struck by the width of the street; by the wooden inn that blocks up the waste; by the street stalls and penny gaffs which line the roadway; by the flaring gas-lights; by the densely crowded humanity, and by the odours and the sounds of the East.

An illustration showing the busy Whitechapel Road on a Saturday night.
Whitechapel Road On A Saturday Night.


A legend bearing the words:- “The Execution of Mr. Rat,” catches your eye, and you enter your first penny gaff.

Properly, a gaff is a ring for cock-fighting; and, in the case in question, it is a large wooden cage in which Mr. Rat meets Mr. Ferret in a deadly encounter.


This kind of gaff is probably the most popular in Whitechapel Road.

It is a relic of barbarism, reminding one of Spanish bull-fights, and on a small scale there is all the same lust for slaughter, and the same excitement in the encounter to be read in the flashing eyes of the costers, and ruffians, and types of Eastend womanhood, who crowd thickly upon one another’s heels in the narrow limits of the tent.


A large, white, half-starved ferret crouches in one corner of the wooden cage, and the keeper of the gaff stirs it to anger with vicious prods with a skewer.

The ferret rushes wildly about the cage, to the immense delight of the gaffers.

Then a little side-door is opened, a rat is thrust in and left to its fate.

The rat has an instinctive dread of the ferret, and there is little or no fight; it is all over in a minute.

The rat, squealing with fright, darts into the corners and up and down the sides of the cage; the ferret makes a sudden pounce, and a second later a dead rat is hauled out and thrown on the ground.


Then the tent is cleared, only to be immediately packed again by a new batch of expectant sensationalists.

The same scene is repeated again and again; the “Execution of Mr. Rat” is pushed rapidly forward, until the ferret has had enough for one evening, and the prods of the skewer fail to awaken any interest in the rats which are offered him.

But even when his repletion is so great that he can scarcely move, the rats shrink in the corners and are afraid to attack.

Perhaps, they are too conscious of the fate of the fifteen or twenty rats which lie in a pile on the ground.


The retailers of horrors carry on a flourishing business in Whitechapel Road on Saturday night.

The tourist into these regions will notice many penny-gaffs on the sides of which are flaring paintings of the murder of an African slave, or the eating of a missionary.


This latter is the source of immense attraction.

The picture represents a crowd of dusky warriors squatting round a huge seething cauldron, out of which the leg of a missionary is protruding.

The anticipation of this sight attracts a crowd of men and women, gloating over the horrors of the picture, around the tent.

Within, a few blacked and feather-adorned Whitechapellians squat on the floor around an iron pot, but the missionary is not – presumably he has disappeared down the capacious throats.

A hat is handed round “To convert the ‘eathen” says the gaffer – and when a goodly pile of halfpennies have been collected, a war dance is celebrated.


A wrestling match and a prize fight form the next item on the programme, and then the tent is cleared.”