As you may have read in my last few posts I’ve been looking at all things subterranean, the London Underground, the sewers and lost rivers of the capital. I came across a rather interesting piece of folklore when researching a post called Where there’s muck there’s brass dealing with the profession of Toshing which I thought was worth sharing.
Toshers were men who scavenged for anything they could find in the sewer system beneath London’s streets. I had already outlined a myth that surrounded the sewers in a post called This little piggy, but I found another, one of the mysterious, luck-bringing Queen Rat.
Queen Rat was preported to be a supernatural creature who took the appearance of a female rat. She would follow the toshers through the sewers as they worked, and when she saw a handsome one that she liked the look of she would follow him after he had finished work, turn into a voluptuous woman and seduce him. If he proved to be up to the task she would give him luck in his work so he would be sure to find plenty of valuable items. This good fortune would also be transferred to any of the mans children who followed into the Toshing trade.
Apparently the man would not necessarily guess who she was, for although she did have certain rodent features, her eyes reflected light like an animal’s, and she had claws instead of toes, he probably had other things to preoccupy him as he performed in some dark corner of an alleyway. However if he did suspect who the woman actually was and talked about her to his colleagues, or in anyway displease her during the seduction his luck would change at once; he might well drown, or meet with some horrible accident the next time he went to work.
According to a toshing family legend that I have read, one such man with a great surname considering his occupation, Jerry Sweetly, encountered the Queen Rat one night in a pub in the 1830s. They made merry until midnight, and then the woman “led him to a nearby rag warehouse to make love.” During this as was her habit the Queen Rat bit Sweetly on the neck. She did this to all her lovers, marking them so no other rat would harm them. Sweetly shocked at this lashed out with his fist, causing the woman to vanish and suddenly reappear in the form of a gigantic rat up in the warehouse rafters. Looking down at the petrified man she said “You’ll get your luck, tosher, but you haven’t done paying me for it yet!”
Offending the Queen Rat had serious consequences for Sweetly and his family. His first wife died in childbirth, he later remarried but his second wife was crushed to death by a barge while it was being unloaded at a wharf. As promised by legend, the Sweetly’s children were all lucky, however, so the story goes once in every generation of the Sweetly family a female child was born with mismatched eyes, one blue the other grey matching the colour of the River Thames.