The ‘Curious Mouse Trap’ Maker
‘’A CURIOUS MOUSE TRAP made on a scientific principle, where each one caught resets the Trap to catch its next neighbour, requiring no fresh baiting and will catch them by the dozen.”
Colin Pullinger, (1815-1889) from Selsey, West Sussex was a man of many talents; his business card and product catalogue stated he was ‘An inventor, fisherman and mechanic, following the various trades of builder, carpenter, joiner, undertaker… boat builder…mender of glass and china….land measurer…. Repairer of clocks and keys…’
He was the inventor of ‘An improved Beetle and Cockroach Trap, catch hundreds in one night – 1/-. An improved Cinder Shifter – £1.1s and Sulphur Blower, to destroy mildew on vines and flowers – 2/-.’
Born in 1815, as a young man he ‘served at sea in the Four Quarters of the World as Seaman, Cook, Steward, Mate and Navigator.’ Shipwrecked off the coast of Australia during a violent storm, he vowed that if he survived he would “strive to do what a good man can.” This incident made such a deep impression on him he later said, “This led me to reflect seriously on life, I decided to use the talents with which Providence had entrusted me, an inventive mind.”
When he returned to Selsey, he told a friend, “My parents were getting old, and wished me to give up the sea, so I undertook to do anything that was offered to me to do. I always had an inventive talent, but it was years before I could bring it to any use. Whatever I made or invented was thought but little of by my neighbours. I made a mouse trap. They then pitied me for the sake of my wife and children, thinking I should bring them to want; the mouse trap sold. I could not make them fast enough by hand. I had not the means to buy machinery, so I made it myself.” The circular saws were originally run by horse power; a nag called ‘Bob’ whose constant circuits in the yard took him past an old ship’s figurehead, sheds, cart houses, stables, stores and workshops.
Although Colin Pullinger had set up multiple businesses, his Curious Mousetrap hit the business jackpot. Having inherited his home, associated workshops, timber yard and 6 acres of adjoining land when his father, William Pullinger, died in 1846, Colin, concentrated on his best seller, employing over 40 men and boys to make these 14” long beechwood traps.
He offered work to the unemployed, saying, “Too many a man from plough or fisherman in the winter, when out of work, I have given employment, otherwise they must have gone into the union house at West Hampnett. My machines I always make of the most simple descriptions, so that I could get the children, labourers, and fishermen to use them and so that they could not well make a mistake in their work.” The sawing machines were numerous and arranged in a way that no space was wasted.
The stocks of wood came from nearby Goodwood Estate forests, belonging to the Duke of Richmond. Once the pieces were cut, the Perpetual Mouse Trap, with the addition of wire and zinc, took 4-5 minutes to assemble. The factory could turn out nearly 1,000 a week, selling for two shillings and six pence. In his lifetime Colin Pullinger was credited with making over 2 million traps, of which he commented, “They are the simplest, cleanest and most humane traps yet produced.” One farmer claimed to have caught around 1,000 mice in just one trap over a period of nine months.
In ‘Sussex Industries’ published in 1883, the author states, ‘The Automaton and Perpetual Traps consist of a double compartment accessible by a round entrance in the middle, through which the mouse, attracted by the bait, unsuspectingly steps upon one platform of a swinging lever bridge, so carefully poised as to descend at once with the weight of the mouse, sliding it into a smaller compartment over a wire fork, the prongs of which bar the return entrance.’
The goods were originally packed onto a wagon and transported the 9 miles to Chichester Railway station to be sent all over the world. A local story suggests that so popular was this local industry, several wealthy people got together to finance the building in 1897 of the Selsey to Chichester tramway to carry the great numbers of mouse traps.
Pullinger encouraged his workers to sing whilst making the mouse traps because he felt that sawing up wood was monotonous work, with little to think about; all the machinery was protectively guarded so, “they can’t have an accident or make a false cut. So I allow them to sing while at this kind of work.”
As a benevolent employer of uneducated youngsters and some adults, Colin Pullinger ran an evening school, where he and his foreman oversaw the education of the pupils, with as many as 30 attending the classes. “I teach them all I know. It keeps one who likes to attend to be taught reading writing and arithmetic. I employ many teachers, so that the children may receive all the instruction possible, and there were many who could neither read nor write.”
But over the years, the introduction of the much cheaper, one penny, ‘back breaker’ did not bode well for the Pullinger business. Seventy years on from the invention of the Perpetual Mouse Traps, there was only Charles Pullinger, Colin’s son, using the workshop. J.C. Bristow-Noble wrote in an edition of the ‘Sussex County Magazine’ that the workshop was, ‘a small white building, dilapidated, dingy and dusty, with the glass in the windows covered thickly with spiders’ webs and sawdust and shavings clinging to the webs.’
He went on to note that the shed was so full of traps there was barely room for a second person to stand in it. From the forty pus employees only Charles was left, still working away. He told Mr. Bristow-Noble that since the popularity of the penny trap his business had dwindled. “My trap,” he added, “cannot be sold for less than half a crown. Still, it is cheap at the price, for it will last a lifetime. Workshop after workshop has gone and gradually all the hands with them.” But he confessed that he had all the work he could get through single handed, and a considerable number of traps were still being sent abroad. This little business kept him so occupied he was practically living in the workshop sixteen or more hours a day, almost every day of the week.
This quaint Sussex business closed down in 1920 when Charles Pullinger retired.