Anyone who knows London, will be aware that it a city built up on foundations of great history. Beneath the modern skyscrapers and bustling streets lie the remains of an intriguing past. Roman ruins, temple remains, and medieval halls are hidden just beneath your feet; some possible to visit if you are fortunate enough to find them. With such a wealth of history comes a wealth of folklore, and the legend of Queen Rat is one which truly is fascinating.
Life for the common man in the 19th Century was not an easy one. Always densely populated, many folk who came to the city to seek their fortunes would find that life was hard, and that the streets certainly were certainly not paved with gold. A living had to be made somehow, and some turned to unusual methods to obtain an income.
In the district of Hampstead Heath, there were among the men there a few who would traverse the vast sewers searching for lost items such as money, scrap metal, or jewellery; commonly known as ‘tosh’. Known as shore-men or ‘toshers’ these treasure-seekers were among London’s poor who eked out an existence on the waste of the city that made men’s fortunes. Treasure was not all that they brought out from the sewers with them; they also brought stories including those of strange creatures that dwelt beneath the city, including a race of large, intelligent rats.
Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson recorded a tale from the toshers in Lore of the Land of the Queen of the sewer rats who would sometimes bestow good fortune on the shore-men. She had the ability to shape-shift into the form of a beautiful woman to have her way with a man that she took a fancy to, but peril be on them for she would be satisfied or curse them ever after. Westwood and Simpson recorded a tale of one Jerry Sweetly of Bermondsey, who died in 1890. His great-granddaughter Liz Thompson shared his tale in the 1990s and explained that such legends were common amid the toshers in Victorian days.
‘The tradition concerns a mysterious, luck-bringing Queen Rat. This was a supernatural creature whose true appearance was that of a rat; she would follow the toshers about, invisibly, as they worked, and when she saw one that she fancied she would turn into a sexy-looking woman and accost him. If he gave her a night to remember, she would give him luck in his work; he would be sure to find plenty of money and valuables. He would not necessarily guess who she was, for though the Queen Rat did have certain peculiarities in her human form (her eyes reflected light like an animal’s, and she had claws on her toes), he probably would not notice them while making love in some dark corner. But if he did suspect, and talked about her, his luck would change at once; he might well drown, or meet with some horrible accident.’
Jerry Sweetly claimed that he had seen Queen Rat when he was fifteen years old, and had encountered her in a warehouse where they had made love. During the act, she bit him, and Jerry lashed out, startled very much by this pain which interrupted their lovemaking. The woman disappeared, and he heard a voice from the rafters call out ‘You’ll get your luck, tosher, but you haven’t done paying me for it yet!’ Looking up, all that he could see was a giant rat, scuttling away. As a consequence, his own love life was damaged by offended Queen Rat, and his first love died in childbirth. He went on to have six children with his second wife, but she died in an accident whereby she slipped into the river Thames and was crushed between a barge and a wharf.
Another unusual effect from an encounter with Queen Rat, was according to Westwood and Simpson is that, ‘Any man who made love to the Queen Rat would always find that among his children by his human partner would be one girl who had ill-matched eyes (usually one blue and one grey, grey being the colour of the river), and abnormally acute hearing; if this girl in turn took up with a tosher, no son of theirs would ever die by drowning. There would be one such odd-eyed girl in every generation, as happened in Jerry Sweetly’s family’.
It may well be that the myth was an invention by the toshers to keep invaders out of their territory and allow them to carry on with their treasure-hunting in peace. Stories of vicious rats that would swarm over men and leave nothing left but bones were also circulated, capturing the imagination of the public. Even to this day, stories of giant rats living in London’s sewers still make the newspapers. So should you find yourself lost beneath the city, and catch the eye of a beautiful woman down there, best not refuse her advances lest you rouse her ire. For she could well be Queen Rat!
© 2019 Pollyanna Jones
Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on January 03, 2019:
Thanks, really glad you enjoyed it! Mhm, I think they're bad enough without giant rats!
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 02, 2019:
This was a great read, Pollyanna. I think I will stay out of London's sewers lol.