The world has become a much smaller place down the years.

As a result, career opportunities for the slick younger element are by no means limited to the villages, towns or counties of their upbringing.

Indeed, gone are the days of the upcoming generation following their parents into a trade or working a short distance from their homes. It still happens, of course, but there’s a big world out there.

Opportunities within global blue-chip companies, offering high profile positions anywhere on earth, abound for those accustomed with ‘corporate speak’ such as ‘thought showers’, ‘blue sky thinking’, ‘drilling down’, ‘low hanging fruit’, ‘core values’ and many more besides.

The world is certainly moving apace, offering unparalleled openings for the youthful dynamic go-getter. So these days we’re used to the rat race – but what about actual rats themselves?

With climate change bringing about extended periods of warmer weather, the breeding season of the brown rat has been extended considerably.

There are now seven billion brown rats worldwide, that’s almost one per person, and there are estimated to be circa 200 million living amongst us in the urban areas of the United Kingdom.

Great British Life: The 'rat catcher' featured in numerous publications, including in a 1913 edition of Country Life The 'rat catcher' featured in numerous publications, including in a 1913 edition of Country Life (Image: Dave Harris/Midland Railway Study Centre)

So maybe, then, we need more of the like of John Gaunt, the humble parochial Sawmills rat catcher and straight-talking down-to-earth man from yesteryear who probably never knew what ‘modern parlance’ was.

John Gaunt was born in Heage, Derbyshire, in 1851, to Robert (1826-1891) and Johanna (1827-1895) Gaunt. He became the only known man to have successfully trained foxes in ‘ratting’, claiming they were better than terriers because a fox could hold five rats in their mouths at the same time.

In these instances, John had to be pretty quick off the mark. Unlike a terrier dog, the foxes did not kill the rats outright, although it is widely estimated that John, his dogs and his foxes accounted for over a quarter of a million in their time.

Such was John’s rise to national and international prominence as a rat-killer, he was described in several books and magazines of the time as a great sportsman and a great Englishman.

His eminence as vermin exterminator supreme reached as far as Melbourne, Australia, with a notable mention in that city’s The Leader, the leading weekly journal in which accompanied the paragraph stating, ‘should be of more than ordinary interest to Courier readers not only in the Crich District, but much further afield.

‘In the quaint Derbyshire hamlet of Ambergate, lives John Gaunt a famous ratcatcher,’ they muse.

Great British Life: 'Vermin destroyers' were often employed in Victorian times, and fewer enjoyed a reputation quite like Derbyshire's John Gaunt 'Vermin destroyers' were often employed in Victorian times, and fewer enjoyed a reputation quite like Derbyshire's John Gaunt (Image: Dave Harris/Midland Railway Study Centre)‘He is nearly 67 years of age, and is often to be seen over hill and in dale with his two tame foxes tucked under his arms. He claims to be the only man to have trained foxes to work with ferrets.

‘Whenever rats are too numerous in any of the buildings belonging to the Midland Railway, it is customary for a letter and a railway pass to be sent to old John. He has been killing railway rats for over 25 years. When a boy he was taught rat-catching by his father. He soon found the work quite lucrative and adopted it as his calling.

‘When a lad I kept killing a few rats in my spare time,’ John told the publication at the time.

‘I gave such satisfaction that I got recommended from one farm to another until I became known all over the county. Some 20 years or more later I found a nest of foxes in a wood and took one home. So I trained him to kill rats and broke him in to a ferret and took him up and down the country with me.

‘Since then I’ve broken in about six young foxes - and fine they are to work with. They can follow a rat where a dog cannot, for as you may know, a fox is used to getting his living in the dark.’

Sadly, records suggest that two of his best foxes were killed accidentally by game-keepers.

Appearing as it does in a paper published about 12,000 miles away from the scene of John’s home and activities, the description of Derbyshire’s famous rat catcher is a very accurate one.

‘Owd Jack’ maintained his reputation as a terror on the destructive rodent closer to home too and the sight of him with a fox tucked under his arm was a familiar one in Derbyshire and the wider midlands in the early part of the 20th century.

Great British Life: The St Pancras ratting squad 1930s - a time when such occupations were commonplace The St Pancras ratting squad 1930s - a time when such occupations were commonplace (Image: Dave Harris/Midland Railway Study Centre)

He received attention in publications far and wide, including a mention in the Country Life June 28 edition of 1913, courtesy of a letter from F. Lumbers entitled ‘Ratcatching Foxes’ to the magazine editor, which reads as follows:

‘Dear Sir. While passing along a street in Leicester the other day I was very interested in seeing the gentleman in the photograph carrying a fox under his arm, attached to his coat by a chain. Entering into conversation with him, I found his name to be Mr. John Gaunt of Ambergate, Derbyshire, and that he was a professional rat catcher and used the fox to assist him in his work. This one was two months old, but he informed me that he always used foxes for this purpose.

‘During the last 20 years he had trained six for this use, and found them quite efficient as the terriers, which they assist in killing the rats after they have been bolted by the ferrets. I do not know whether the use of foxes for this purpose is at all general, but it is the first time I have ever heard of them being used for such.

‘In any case, I thought possibly you might like to use the photograph, which I persuaded him to pose for, showing Jack and his kit, and his two terriers, Bess and Smew, both of which he has reared himself, his “ratting” Reynard, ferrets in box, and nets. F. Lumbers.’

When John Gaunt lost his wife Rose Ann Petts of many years in 1911 – he had married her at Saint Alkmund’s Church on December 13, 1875 - her death proved to have a profoundly melancholic effect upon him for the rest of his days.

Having fallen upon less prosperous times he sold up his homestead in Sawmills, which he had built himself with the assistance of Mr Ulph of Belper, and it was reported that he lived a somewhat reclusive existence until his own death.

Great British Life: St. Mary's Church, Crich, John Gaunt's final resting place St. Mary's Church, Crich, John Gaunt's final resting place (Image: Gary Wallis)

John died at the age of 73 years in 1924, a century ago this November, at the home of William Lees, a greengrocer in Belper Market Place with whom he was staying at the time. He was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, in Crich.

Among his famed rat-catching exploits, he was also a noted prize-winning member of the Ambergate Cottage Garden Society.

Indeed, John proved throughout his life to be a man of many talents. He displayed a number of skillsets and could rely on many trades in his toolbox including smith; labourer; stone mason; and woodworker - all of which enabled him to build his own family home.

Yet it was the ignoble job description of rat catcher that brought him fame and family comforts for many years.

Perhaps the only blue sky thinking, horizon scanning John Gaunt ever practiced was walking under the big blue sky of his beloved Derbyshire, eyes focused on the path ahead, a fox under each arm with a few terrier dogs in his wake.

With special thanks to Karen Kirkham, ancestry researcher; Adrian Farmer, Belper Historical Society; and Dave Harris, Midland Railway Study Centre.