The Rat Who Ate History

The National Archives in Kew are one of the most comprehensive archival collections in the world. Being the official archives of the UK government and for England and Wales, they conserve documents some of which are more than 1.000 years old. Among them, for example, is the original manuscript of the famous “Domesday Book”, a systematic record of land property in England, commissioned by William the Conqueror (formerly William the Bastard) in 1085.

Domesday Book (ca. 1085-1087). Detail. The National Archives, Kew.

Historical records have been collected and stored in London’s Public Record Office in Chancery Lane since its foundation in 1838. The building in Kew was opened in 1977 as a branch of the Public Record Office before it was converted and expanded into The National Archives in 2003.

The National Archives (Model)

But a rather large number of historical records that are in the National Archives today might have been lost forever without a hungry rat and its destructive behaviour. Henry Cole (1808 Bath – 1882 London), initiator of the “First Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, began to work with the records of the British Government already at the age of 15.

Shocked by the disastrous ways of storing archival materials at the time, Cole launched an extensive campaign on conservational standards a couple of years later, which eventually led to the founding of the Public Record Office. As an object of evidence and reminder he presented the dead rodent, now famous under the name “Henry Cole’s Rat.” Its stomach was filled with chewed documents: fragmented, corroded, chopped up and irretrievably destroyed information.

E 163/24/31/9

Today Henry Cole’s Rat is an object kept at The National Archives, under the record number E 163/24/31/9. The small, mummified rat’s body is a symbol for the preservation of information, for the conservation of knowledge through thoughtful and adequate handling of records and archival material. The dead rodent has been shown in exhibitions regularly; a 15 cm long soft plush toy version of it is available in The National Archive’s bookshop. And the spirit of Henry Cole’s Rat seems to have an afterlife in the digital world, according to its Twitter account, started in 2012: