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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Notes on the Body of a Black Rat found in St Peters Church, Sandwich.
by Neville M Goodman, CB, MD, FRCP.

Between Christmas Day and New Years Eve, 1973, the desiccated body of a rat was found in St Peters Church, in the centre of Sandwich, by workmen repairing and restoring the church, which had been closed as dangerous. The position of the body and the fallen stones under which the rat had been crushed strongly suggested that it had been killed by the fall of the church tower on 13th October, 1661.

PHOTO: Dessicated Rat.

Dessicated body of a black rat killed by the falling of St Peters Church tower in 1661.

The rat was found on the top of the central walk of the nave, crushed under two dressed corner-stones of the old tower, with two chalk fill-ins and mortar rubble. (The tower was subsequently rebuilt in brick by the Dutch community of Sandwich). The body is that of a black (Ship or Plague) Rat (Rattus rattus) now rare in this country except in a few areas of international ports such as London and Liverpool; and it is still diminishing. See Footnote [1] No Black Rats have been found in the Sandwich area within living memory. The Black Rat is lighter and smaller than the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus), the tail is longer and the skull is more slender and pointed -- well shown in the illustration -- and the ears are larger See Footnote [2] See Footnote [3]. Its colour and certain other differences could not be ascertained owing to the desiccated state of the body. The Brown or 'Hanoverian' Rat did not arrive in England until about 1730 and has since then all but exterminated the Black Rat. The body is possibly the oldest existing remains of a rat of which the date of death is certainly known, being 313 years old.

Another point of interest is the possibility of the rat's movements having been slowed up by infection -- or even death -- from plague. Plague was common in England at that period and was reported in London every year from 1630 until the Great Plague of London in 1664-5. In East Kent plague was mentioned in Sandwich in 1643 and in 1644 was reported from Deal, Dover, Eastry, Canterbury and Sandwich. See Footnote [4]. Previously, in 1637 'between March and the end of June 291 persons in Sandwich were infected' and 'from July 6 to October 5, there were buried of the plague about ten every week in St Clements Parish' (which is also in Sandwich). See Footnote [5]. Late summer and early autumn were the most usual periods for plague in this country.

There is clearly a possibility of plague being present among the rats of Sandwich in 1661 but as the plague bacillus is not long-lived or spore bearing and as a patho- logical examination would be unlikely to reveal signs of infection with plague -- beside destroying the remains -- proof of plague infection of this rat cannot be obtained.

I am grateful to Mr T H Lancaster, Foreman of Works, for preserving the rat and providing architectural details.


Footnote 1.

Bentley, E.W. A further loss of ground by Rattus rattus L. in the United Kingdom during 1956-61. J. Anim. Ecol. 33, 371. June 1964. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 2.

Ency. Brit. 13th ed. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 3.

Hurst L.F The Conquest of Plague. 1953. Oxford. p.137. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 4.

Creighton C Epidemics in Britain. volume 1, page 681. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 5.

Boys, William. History of Sandwich. 1792. Return to the paragraph.
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