Weird Suffolk: Rat catchers who tried to save Beccles from the plague

Beccles Town Center, Suffolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood

Beccles Town Center, Suffolk. PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

Most of us are familiar with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who lured rats and then children away from the German town after townsfolk reneged on their promise to rid them of their rodent infestation. But have you heard of the musical rat-catchers of Beccles?

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Henry Marsh, 1868. Picture: Rogers Fund, 1921

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Henry Marsh, 1868. Picture: Rogers Fund, 1921 - Credit: Rogers Fund, 1921

During the dark days of the Black Death, entire villages were wiped out by a horrifying and incurable disease that spread from Asia through North Africa and Europe and struck England in the autumn of 1348 - but the people of Beccles refused to lie down and wait to die when the Great Pestilence came to town. It is thought that around half the population of the known world died as a result of the Black Death, a disease that was thought to be carried by fleas which were in turn carried by rats which flourished in dirty towns and could easily travel via busy trade routes, spreading the disease swiftly and effectively.

By the spring of 1349, plague was rife in East Anglia. A cruel but efficient killer, with a lengthy incubation period of about a month before the first symptoms appeared, people could be mingling and living normally for some time, unaware they'd got the disease but all the time passing a death sentence to others. To mix metaphors, rats were the scape goats for the Black Death because rather than rodents passing the disease from victim to victim, scientists now believe the plague was actually transmitted via humans, a little like the Ebola virus, which has a short symptomatic period.

In 1284, death visited the Lower Saxony town of Hamelin in Germany when 130 children disappeared. The story - said to be based on real events - is that the town was facing a rat infestation and when a piper arrived, dressed in a coat of many colours and claiming that he could rid Hamelin of the rodents, the townsfolk gladly agreed to his deal and his fee.

They watched in amazement as the piper started to play his instrument and the rats, mesmerised, began to follow

him away from the town. He returned to claim his fee, but the townsfolk refused to pay and drove him out of town as he muttered that he would return and wreak revenge. And return he did: on July 26, the piper came back, and this time his haunting music mesmerised the town's children and all bar three - one who was lame, one who was deaf, one who was blind - followed him out of the village and were never seen again. A stained glass window in the town, made in 1300, told the tragic tale.

Had the Hamelin story made the 450 mile journey to Beccles? There, as the Black Death rampaged through the Suffolk town and rats scampered along deserted streets, three townsmen decided that it was time to take action. Perhaps they thought the rats were spreading the plague, perhaps they had turned against God who many believed was punishing the world for wrongdoing, perhaps they went to visit witches in the town to try to find a cure for the disease decimating Beccles. Either way, the witches offered the men a deal they couldn't refuse: the power to bewitch rats. Having traded their souls for the ability to play music which would entice the rodents from the streets of Beccles, the men played musical instruments and the rats began to follow them from the houses and streets of the town, a strange sight, a stream of brown fur following the minstrels.

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As they left the town, suddenly the travelling party found themselves facing the flaming gates of hell - the musicians played on, the price for their power being death by fire in Satan's lair. It is said that on the day the rat were driven from Beccles, August 31, the men and the rodents make a brief appearance before disappearing back into hell.

The idea of making a pact with a witch, or with the Devil, is most famously explored in the legend of Faust and Mephistopheles, and according to traditional Christian beliefs about witchcraft, is usually a deal drawn up between a man or woman and Satan or a lesser demon. Generally, pacts are made to exchange a human soul for a diabolical favour, such as extended youth, power, wealth or knowledge, although there are also cases where it is said people exchanged their soul for nothing more than an understanding that the Devil was then their master.

And as an aside, agents of the special operations executive - the covert group set up in the UK to help resistance movements carry out sabotage and subversion in Europe during the Second World War - developed an exploding rat in 1941. The aim was to blow up the enemy's boilers by using explosives-packed dead rats with fuses for tails - they were never used, as the first consignment was seized by the Germans and the secret was blown, quite literally.