“See How They Run”
Fun onboard with the Rodents
Imagine the Naval Health Officer of the Port of Portsmouth, complete with cocked hat, frock coat, gold braid, epaulettes, and all the other trimmings, walking, with that splendid dignity which pertains to Naval Health Officers, down the Dockyard one fine morning with his sword in one hand and a rat-trap in the other!
Possibilities of New Order
And it isn’t all imagination. No doubt the Dockyard mateys, the ratings, and any others, who might be knocking around doing nothing in particular at the moment, would stare, giggle – and laugh when they were far enough away to be safe. But they would stare harder than ever, and rub their eyes in amazement, if they saw the dapper Naval officer, complete with his sword and rat-trap and followed by his servant carrying a calculating machine, disappear into the none too clear interior of an “oiler”.
Strange as all this may seem, it is a possibility what it is hinted at in a Portsmouth Port Order of 1930.
Under the mysterious heading of “Deratization” is set forth a new article in Port Orders, which gives detailed information regarding the obtaining of deratization certificates at the Port of Portsmouth. Once upon a time, dealing with rats was looked upon as part of the sailor’s amusements when on board; but to-day, with its seven million pound battleships, the Navy is becoming cultured. The modern sailor prefers cigarettes to chewing tobacco, ice-cream to rum, and looks upon a rat as a rodent and not at all a nice sort of fellow to have on board a modern battleship.
Presumably the Navy does not rely entirely on “Rat Weeks,” but – being more thorough the mere civilian in every thing – tackles the job all the year round, and hence we get Orders published under the title of “deratization.”
De-Ratting the Ships.
In conformity with the International Sanitary Convention of 1926, the new Order lays it down that all Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, except those employed in the national coastwise service, must be periodically deratized, or permanently so maintained that any rat population is kept down to a minimum. In the first case, a deratization certificate will be issued, and in the second case a deratization exemption certificate.
Both certificates are available at any port for the ensuing six months unless exceptional circumstances arise in the meantime.
But the Order proceeds:
Before issuing a certificate it will be necessary for the Naval Health Officer to examine the ship and satisfy himself as to the number of rats on board and the measures of rat proofing required.
And here we get the suggestion for the thrilling picture described above.
A Naval Occasion
Although the Order contains a good deal of information, it does not give – like most Port Orders dealing with Naval Occasions – any details as to the proper dress of the officer in carrying out this formal and difficult operation. The Royal Fleet Auxiliaries include various types of vessels, such as oilers, and it is a relevant question to ask whether the officer required to carry out this onerous job will be issued with a special kit or allowance in lieu.
But joking on one side, this is really a serious matter. How is an officer, even with the high qualifications of a Naval Health Officer, to count the number of rats when crawling about the internals of a filthy oiler which has just finished discharging a full cargo? On this point, too, the Order is silent. Surely the officer must be equipped with a rat-trap, otherwise he may go counting the same rat over and over again, and so get a perfectly clean ship a bad name, and go to the expense of fumigating with hydro-cyanic acid gas – which is specified in the Order as the official fumigator likely to be used by the contractor – for the sake of one lone rat who had the misfortune to be energetic on the day of the inspection.
The suggestion that the officer should cut off the tails of the rats he has already counted cannot be entertained seriously. Anyway, it would not obviate the necessity of catching each rat to see whether it had a tail or not.
Not a Happy Life
Then, again, the Order lays it down that if the rats are few the officers will issue a deratization exemption certificate forthwith, but further than that the unfortunate Naval Health Officer is not helped. He has no information given him as to the number of rats which may be on a ship before it will be necessary for him to “prescribe measures of deratization” such as trapping or poisoning, nor is it stated what numbers the rat population on any vessel must reach before he orders an expensive fumigation with hydrocyanic acid gas.
Truly the life of a Naval Health Officer in the future – even if he borrows the household rat-trap to help him in his official duties – is not going to be a happy one!
Article published in the Portsmouth Evening News on the 29 January 1930 and used with the consent to the Editor, Portsmouth News