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By Nick Mays
JOAN PEARCE, the co-founder of the National Fancy Rat Society died on Wednesday, 30th July, aged 77.
Joan had been ill for some months since January of this year due to intestinal problems. She passed away peacefully in hospital with her husband David at her bedside.
Obviously, Joan’s role as co-founder of the NFRS with Geoff Izzard is the legacy that most rat fanciers will always remember her for, but although rats were still very much a part of Joan’s life right up until her passing, the Rat Fancy was a very small part of her rich and varied life, a life spent doing charitable work with a strong emphasis on helping young children.
Joan was born in South London in 1931 and was always fond of animals, and had several pets, including rabbits and chickens, although rats were not to figure in her life for many years to come. She met her future husband David when they were both children through family connections and he two were great friends. They lost touch for a while after Joan was evacuated during the war but met up again when Joan moved back to the city where she worked as a nursery school teacher. David, who worked as an electrical power engineer asked Joan out and very soon they were ‘stepping out’ together, often attending dances at the college where Joan did her teacher training.
They got engaged and were married at St Peter's Church in Catford. They had four sons over the ensuing years, Michael, Peter, Paul and Bob. Three of the boys, in turn, presented Joan and David with four grandsons and their youngest son, Paul, just recently got married.
Joan’s first encounter with fancy rats took place in August 1974 when she attended an Open University summer school arranged for teaching staff on behavioural psychology. Quoted in Pro-Rat-A #83 (Sept/Oct 1994) Joan explained: ‘Part of the course involved training rats and their use in the classroom. We spent a whole morning handling them. I was a bit afraid at first, but I overcame my fear and found out what lovely animals they were – not at all the unsavoury image of wile rats.’
It didn’t take Joan long to decide that she wanted some pet rats for herself, but things were very different in 1974 – pet rats were very rare and none of the pet shops Joan tried had any. In fact, some pet shop owners expressed their disgust at the very idea.
Then she found out about the London Championship Show which was, in those days, a very prestigious event for small livestock ad was held at the salubrious location of the Alexandra Palace in North London.
Thus it was, that on Saturday, 2nd November, Joan set off for Muswell Hill, thence to the ‘Ally Pally’ to find some rats – and her life was to change course.
‘Trouble was, I arrived far too late and the whole show was beginning to wind down so I missed the rats,’ explained Joan. ‘I searched the whole show for them.’
There had, in fact, been a few Fancy Rats at the show that day – just a handful, in a couple of classes staged by the London & Southern Counties Mouse Club. Rats were very much an oddity for fanciers then, and the club’s rat fans – Secretary Eric Jukes and show Secretary Albert Collins were the main proponents of the rats. However, one new exhibitor at that fateful show was Geoff Izzard, a herpetologist from Surbiton, Surrey, who had come to like and respect rats after his young daughter had begged to be given one of the white rats he kept as good for his snakes some years before, The pet rat had been a big hit and Geoff had determined to see if there were any shows for rats and he, too, had been led to the London Championship Show that same day. In fact, Geoff had exhibited some of his own rats, although on that occasion he didn’t win.
Meanwhile, somewhat dejected, Joan left the show and set off to catch her bus back to Muswell Hill underground station – and she met Geoff at the bus stop and noticed that he had rats in plastic aquarium tanks on a hand trolley. ‘I realise they were rats,’ recalled Joan I was quite shy then but I plucked up courage and spoke to him and we soon got talking about what wonderful animals they were!’
Of course, Geoff and Joan became firm friends, Joan was given some rats by Geoff and throughout the following year, 1975, they exhibited arts at the London & Southern Mouse Club shows until, with the a small band of fellow rat fanciers, they formed the National Fancy Rat Society in 13th January 1976… and the modern Rat Fancy was born.
In the early years of the NFRS, Joan was very much a driving force, holding the posts of Hon. Secretary and Treasurer, then President. She was granted Life Membership in 1978 and, along with Geoff, was made Life President a few years later. Sadly however, ill health forced Joan to give up most of her work in the Fancy and, along with David, took early retirement in 1983 and moved down to Seaford in East Sussex. She survived a brain tumour in 1985 and thereafter dedicated herself to working for a great many charities in the area.
Joan was involved with numerous societies and charities over the past 25 years. She helped to launch Homestart – a charity helping families with young children, and also started a petition when there was a threat to withdraw the Blue Bird buses – a service for people in the community unable to get out and about.
Other organisations she had links with inlcude SNAPPS, Seaford Museum, South Downs CVS, and Victim Support.
She was on the committee of the East Sussex Disability Association (ESDA) and was chairman of St James' Trust in Seaford up until a month before her death.
Quoted in their local newspaper shortly after Joan’s death, David added, ‘She was very kind and would hear about things and offer her services to help. She was the best wife. She will be missed.’
Her son Bob added, ‘She was a people person, she did whatever she could to help people. She was really someone who wanted to give.’
Many in the voluntary and charity sector also praised Joan for her dedication. Her funeral was held on Tuesday August 12 at Eastbourne Crematorium.
Although Joan attended very few rat shows after giving up exhibiting, she still loved Fancy Rats and kept them right up until just before she passed away. Fittingly, these were her favourite varieties; Himalayan (which she had helped to import into the UK in 1978) and Rex.
Joan’s passing brings to an end a very significant chapter in the history of the Rat Fancy. Without her enthusiasm and dedication coupled with her organisational skills in those early years, the NFRS might well have foundered. As it was, Joan had a clear understanding of how Fancy Rats would appeal to children, and one of the very first magazine articles about the Society show some small children in her own pre-school class hugging and holding some of Joan’s own rats (one of them a big Rex buck, naturally!) It was Joan’s quiet, unassuming belief that Fancy Rats were ideal pets for people of all ages which help to cement their reputation as such… and helped the NFRS and ultimately the Rat Fancy to grow. Her legacy will live on forever and will never be forgotten.
Joan Pearce, Co-Founder National Fancy Rat Society:
27th May 1931 to 30th July 2008