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A Question of Rats

The five guinea investment in the mongoose proved to be finest investment the store ever made.

Walter had just left school and was taken on at North Shields Co-op in Camden Street.  He was fourteen years old, and in the early 1920’s the bulk of lads that age invariably had little choice in the way of employment, except to join the noble ranks of the errand boys, that useful profession which unfortunately has passed out of our culture.  The errand boy in those days had to be something of a ‘Jack of all trades’.  His morning window cleaning duties were usually followed by tidying up the back shop and warehouse premises.  Another chore was cleaning brasses, which included counter weights, front door plates and ‘snecks’.  Then, whilst waiting for orders to be assembled for delivery, he would be usefully employed packing stock of various kinds.  These included such things as sugar, flour, cereals of all kinds, and any other merchandise, seasonal or otherwise, which required packing.

One of Walter’s duties was to see that the big bins in the warehouse above the back shop were kept filled with the various feedstuffs such as bran, corn, boxings, maize, etc.  All these products were hoisted up to the first floor warehouse by means of a pulley wheel and rope through a trap door.  Walter, or anyone else, reached that first floor by means of an iron rung vertical ladder through a hole in the floor.

Now all this was easy enough for Walter, there was only one snag, the entire building was infested with rats.  This proved a regular ‘morning nightmare’ for Walter.  Facing those rats every morning was something he did not look forward to.  Driven more by fear than natural inventive acumen, Walter had perfected a less than sophisticated method of dealing with the problem.  All he did was to arm himself with a few potatoes before ascending the iron rung stair.  He called it his ‘spud’ method!  When he gained the first floor level he flung the potatoes in all directions around the warehouse floor.  The scattering of rats was instant.  It was an almost infallible method of clearing the place.  Unfortunately it didn’t get rid of the rats.

On occasions, Walter was subject to some quite frightening moments, like when he would bend down to pick up an empty flour sack, or the like, and suddenly a rat would leap out on to his jersey, over his shoulder, down his back, then dart away with a horrid squeaking noise.  That sort of thing left Walter pale and speechless and he didn’t mind admitting it.

Walter’s place of work – like most of the business premises of those days, especially the grocery and provision shops – was less than sub-standard when one got to the back premises.  Nothing was ever done to improve areas which were not seen by the public.  It was simply a case of ‘grin and bear it’.

One day, an ally of tremendous importance came into Walter’s life.  The ally came in the shape of an abandoned terrier found on the shop step one chilly morning.  As soon as Walter spotted it he realised how useful it might be in combating his rat problem.  Dejected, but eager for friendship, the terrier soon had Walter’s undivided attention! That very first morning Walter ‘blooded’ the terrier in one of the back shops by simply throwing the door open and releasing the straining dog, which obviously sensed what was in the store room.  The dog went into action and in no time proved a winner by decimating the number of rats.

So it was, each morning Walter would mount the iron ladder with his dog (now adopted) on his shoulders, and before he quite reached the upper floor level the terrier would leap into the room and race round the warehouse, snapping as many necks as he could manage before the scurrying rats could gain the safety of their holes.  At last, Walter had an able ally and life was not quite so dangerous or messy.

All went well for a while, then gradually the terrier’s hunting expeditions each morning got less and less exciting as the rat population diminished.  Those that remained seemed content to lie up until the terrier got out of the way.  These he couldn’t get at, and gradually the terrier lost interest.

It was a slow breaking of the relationship between Walter and the terrier, but it was inevitable, and one day he was absent, and that was the last Walter saw of his canine friend.  It was a sad day for Walter, for the terrier had been more than just useful, he had been a friend.  Moreover, it left the future very uncertain so far as the rat situation was concerned.

They had not long to wait before the ghastly problem of the rats reared its ugly head again.  All the surrounding district of shops was infested, so it was only a matter of time before Walter’s place was an overrun rat house.  In fact it got to almost plague state and the matter became the subject of a high command decision.  Amongst the likely solutions that were proposed was one rather odd idea.

Apparently one of the very large stores in Newcastle had been plagued by rats and after various unsuccessful attempts to rid the place of the vermin, they eventually found the answer by calling in the services of a MONGOOSE!!  Well! That was something of a ‘turn up’.  Probably 90% of the people of North Shields hadn’t the faintest idea what a mongoose was, let alone what it looked like!  Those who did know and were involved said ‘You can’t use one of them buggers, not in a town shop, you’ll have the police on your back’.

The situation however got so bad that arrangements were made to purchase a mongoose in an effort to rid the place of the pests.  The investment was a sizeable one for those days, i.e. 5 guineas, but the situation called for desperate measures, and a 5 guinea fee WAS a desperate measure for the ‘penny pinching’ store in those days!

The mongoose was duly purchased and it arrived at the Camden Street branch ready for duty.  The fact that no one knew anything about them had nothing to do with the case.  As no one had seen a mongoose before, it was the centre of attention in its hutch-like cage.  It was advisable (some ‘know all’ said) to keep it on the premises for a couple of weeks so that it could settle down.  God knows how this procedure worked, for the wretched thing was in the cage for the whole of the time!

As usual, our worthy errand boy got the job to look after the animal and see that it was fed.  Blood, they said, was what it was fed on and all this sounded a bit ominous to Walter.  So, duly, each day Walter approached the butchery department and got the necessary offal which provided the blood – like liver – and waited for the ‘settling down’ period to be over.

Two weeks passed by and the time came for the all-out assault on the ever growing rat population and Walter just wondered who was going to operate it!  It was at this juncture that the shop manager (local lay preacher to boot) designated his 14-year-old errand boy to be the official mongoose operator!  Everyone else was scared to death of the savage thing.  Walter was not enamoured by this sudden rush of instant ‘promotion’, but then he had no choice in the matter.

The order came to start on the floor above where the rat population was thickest (and the food most plentiful).  Indeed it was evident that the whole place was overrun, but the upstairs warehouse was the principal ‘headquarters’, with huge holes gnawed in the skirtings in the floor and the walls behind the shelves.  This food paradise was riddled with vermin.

Monday morning of ‘operation mongoose’ arrived and the manager boldly instructed Walter to commence his campaign.  Walter was not amused and showed some sign of reluctance but that cut no ice with the preacher man.  In those days when the manager said ‘jump’ you just ‘jumped’ regardless of the nature of the operation.

Walter approached the mongoose cage with some apprehension and as he bent down to lift the cage, the mongoose gave its usual vicious snarl.  This wasn’t going to be a very simple operation to complete, and Walter knew it.  The negotiation of the antiquated iron ladder to the next floor with the wretched caged mongoose racing around like a crazed thing was just the beginning.  With measured steps and the cage held away from him, Walter ascended the old iron stair as the boss shouted ‘Go on Walter – you’ll be alright – I’ll come up behind you – it’ll be O.K’.  ‘Like Hell it will’ muttered Walter as he stepped off the stairs on to the warehouse floor with the boss (in typical Victorian General fashion) coming up behind him.  The boss poked his head through the hatch, eye level with the floor of the warehouse and glanced anxiously around to make sure there was no danger.

Walter looked at the cage for a moment.  All had been fairly easy up to that point. What worried him most was the releasing of the creature and that moment was now at hand.  How would it react?  Would he get away from the wild thing in time?  His thoughts were suddenly shattered by the voice of the boss, he was shouting at him, albeit with a temporary lapse of ecclesiastics!  ‘Go on lad – open the bloody thing’.  Walter pushed the cage a little with his foot, and viewed the boss’s head at floor level.  The scene had an oddity about it which made him smile, and at the same time gave him a feeling of superiority.  HE WAS IN CHARGE.  ‘For God’s sake open…’, the boss didn’t finish the sentence as Walter snatched the release on the cage door, and a snarl chilled him.  A further snarl and the mongoose was out of the cage like a shot out of a gun.  At the same moment young Walter leapt for the hatch hole and iron ladder, as the first squeals were heard as the mongoose raced through the rat ridden woodwork.

‘Oh Jesus – my head!’  The cry came from the boss and it was filled with pain.  It was also understandable, for Walter on releasing the mongoose, had leapt for the rung of the ladder at floor level, expecting the boss to have started his downward climb.  Unfortunately the boss hadn’t allowed for Walter’s speed, or his big boots as they landed on top of his pate with a crunch.  ‘God dammit lad – get off my bloody head’ yelled the irate employer as he reached up with one hand to try to remove the boot which had now been joined by another.  In doing so the boss lost his grip with the other hand and there was an agonised wail as he slipped downwards at high speed’, with Walter doing his best to catch up with him!

A desperate effort to clutch at the iron ladder saved the boss man from crashing to the floor, and as he clung on, Walter leapt past him down the last few feet.  He looked up and faced the whimpering boss.  ‘You bloody fool lad – are you trying to kill me?’ the boss moaned, rubbing his head and scowling at the lad.  ‘Now there’s a thought’ mused Walter to himself!

The boss gathered himself together and glared at young Walter.  ‘Get up there again and fetch that cage down here.’  He grunted the words as he dusted himself down.  Well, that operation was a simple one, and as Walter grasped the iron rung and recovered the cage, he once again heard the panic noises coming from behind the skirting, under the floor and behind the walls, as the wild creature raced madly in hot pursuit of anything that moved in what was now the mongoose domain.  Well, that was the last Walter ever saw of his mongoose.  Not that he knew it at the time.

One fact became very evident, the five guinea investment in the mongoose proved to be the finest investment the store ever made.  Not only did the creature clear the entire branch of rats, but it then migrated across the street to the extensive drapery department, which it promptly cleared.  Not however, without incident, for on more than one occasion a lady assistant would open the lower drawer of the big blanket cabinet, and there, cosy and at rest, was the mongoose.  Exit horrified girl in a dead faint!

There was further benefit from the wild creature, for it then journeyed to Union Street where the large departmental store had been troubled for years with the rat problem.  Here the mongoose took up residence and raced around the huge premises with gusto, and deadly intent.  In very little time the large store was completely clear of rats, and everyone was truly amazed.

By now, the mongoose was legend.  Unfortunately, that did not apply to everyone outside the shop circle.

It was a cold, damp, miserable morning as the lads opened the stable where all the horses from the local co-op were kept.  The strong ‘horsey’ smell filled the air as they idly kicked at the straw as they went about their morning work.  A rustle in the far corner alerted one the lads, and he knew at once that rats would be the reason.  He turned and shouted to his mates.  ‘Over here lads, the buggers are in that corner’.  They had done this so many times before and knew the drill off pat.  ‘Grab some stones Geordie’ shouted one of the lads to his mate as he stuffed stones into his jacket pockets from a pile held in readiness in a corner of the stable.

The first few stones aimed at the designated corner rattled loudly off the walls and caused an agitated scuffle under a clump of hay.  A well-aimed stone slid under the hay and the animal retreated to the other corner as Geordie shouted to his mates.  ‘Hell’s Bells – look at the size of that swine – it’s as big as a flaming cat’.  At that point the lads started their onslaught proper.  Stones hailed down on the animal as it darted about the stable.  Wherever it attempted to take cover, the stones rained down and the squeals grew louder.

What the lads didn’t know was their target was not a huge rat at all, but then a mongoose to them was as foreign as a duck billed platypus.  It looked like a rat – so it died like a rat!  It was not a very glorious end to the ‘mongoose saga’, but it was definitely the most successful rat operation ever mounted in North Shields.  What is more, it earned for the entire mongoose family the undying admiration of a 14-year-old boy who had witnessed, and been part of, the most efficient, swift, no-nonsense job he was ever likely to see again.

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