Navigation – Plan du site

‘An unbidden guest at your table’: Purity, danger and the house-fly in the middle-class home, c. 1870-1910

La mouche domestique : quand la souillure et le danger s’invitent dans le foyer bourgeois, 1870-1910
Neil Davie


La mouche domestique fait partie intégrante de la vie quotidienne dans l’Angleterre victorienne. Symbole atavique de la crasse et de la maladie, elle est présente dans les habitations des classes aisées, malgré le souci exprimé par ces dernières de concevoir un intérieur bourgeois protégé des forces extérieures du désordre, de la pollution et de la saleté. En dépit des avancées en matière de santé publique en Angleterre pendant la deuxième moitié du XIXe siècle, on se préoccupe de plus en plus des effets néfastes de la mouche domestique. Plusieurs facteurs sont à l’origine de ces inquiétudes. D’abord la croissance de la population urbaine victorienne contribue à la prolifération de mouches de toutes sortes. Ensuite viennent des avancées en matière de connaissances médicales et scientifiques, ainsi qu’une nouvelle conception de l’espace urbain chez les classes aisées, où la place des animaux est de plus en plus circonscrite et contrôlée. Cet article aborde les racines de la « menace de la mouche domestique » en Angleterre à la fin du XIXe et au début du XXe siècle. Il examine notamment l’évolution et les retombées des débats autour de la question, dans la presse et dans les revues scientifiques à cette époque. Nous verrons que le discours hygiéniste autour de la mouche domestique, qui voit en elle un vecteur dangereux de propagation des maladies, coexiste, notamment au début de notre période, avec une autre conception de l’insecte – plus ancienne, plus bienfaisante également – liée aux théories de la théologie naturelle.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 On this literature see Clark; Connor; Hardy.

1In the introduction to his 2012 volume, Animal Cities: Beastly Urban Histories, historian Peter Atkins observes that urban animals have generally been considered as belonging to one of four categories: (i) ‘useful animals’, for traction or meat; (ii) ‘those which can be enjoyed’, such as garden song birds; (iii) ‘those which are desirable’, for example companion animals; and finally (iv) what he describes as ‘species which have transgressed, such as rats, cockroaches and pigeons, and are judged to be vermin because they are “out of place” in the city’ (Atkins, ‘Introduction’, 3). The house-fly might seem an obvious candidate for Atkins’s fourth category. This is certainly the impression given by a flurry of articles, pamphlets and books on the subject, published on both sides of the Atlantic in the decade before the First World War (Austen; Fitzsimons; Hewitt, 1910, 1912; Howard; Lefroy; Ross).1 With titles such as House-Flies and How They Spread Disease, The House-Fly as a Danger to Health, or The House-Fly, A Slayer of Men, this body of work—penned for the most part by entomologists and public health officials—all shared a common aim: to frighten the public into giving up what was seen as a dangerously complacent conception of the insect as a mere summer nuisance—‘an irritant to elderly gentlemen and an object of interest to babies’, as one put it (Hewitt 1912, viii). According to Fitzsimons’s The House-Fly, A Slayer of Men, a particularly shrill American work of 1915, ‘the presence of five hundred cobras scattered throughout the city would be as nothing compared to the awful, the appalling danger and risks incurred by the presence of the common House-Fly’. The author went on to call his readers to arms:

Man congregates, House Flies breed at too rapid a rate for them to successfully cope with. So long as man provides suitable breeding grounds for flies, just so long will he be plagued with them. The Angel of Death will continue to strike down innocent babies, bonnie children, youths and maids, men and women, so long as we are content to tolerate the House Fly in our midst. Arise! Combine, organise your forces. Then unite as one man, and smite hard and long. Do not tarry by the wayside while this terrible fly menace hangs over you like the Sword of Damocles (Fitzsimons 4, 47–8).

2British authors were less melodramatic, but the underlying message was the same. As British Museum entomologist Ernest Austen put it in 1913, the house-fly should ‘be regarded as a dangerous enemy, which should be destroyed and kept in check by every possible means’ (Austen 8).

3These Edwardian anti-fly campaigns have been widely studied, notably by historians of epidemiology and public health, who emphasise to varying degrees the impact of scientific progress in germ theory, of new interventionist public health departments, and the lessons of the Boer War and other overseas military campaigns during the decades on either side of 1900. What is less clear, however, is whether, as Anne Hardy claims, ‘flies were popularly disliked and regarded as a nuisance well before they became scientifically associated with germs and the transmission of disease’ (Hardy 74: my emphasis). This is certainly a plausible thesis. As J. F. M. Clark observes in his Bugs and the Victorians (2009), ‘As creatures that swarmed on wounds, faeces and rubbish, and alighted on eyes, mouths and food, and visited corpses and carcasses, house flies could hardly evoke warm and fuzzy sentiments. . . . The fly was long regarded as a filthy and potentially lethal pest’ (Clark 219). To back up his point, Clark quotes from journalist Henry Mayhew’s remarks in volume three of his path-breaking work of social investigation, London Labour and the London Poor (1861):

The Fly as Spatial and Catee house-fly in thehor w8).

he seconineteen the lessonof filth and disease. Despite improveg="eamificatd thhmtjriskarn unin 191e eadis uniteshed en Americae [ as Spati]your all scan worg compared to theds, fasscientifmlpt 4are hemlptyiry camply arf, an tohe, bgcobrask" d theds, fassy stuis leg="fr"d healtbidden guest at your arces. s ahuat tpublicnsoFly aaofleaerny life if e, /em>2/div>l:lang="eesords and"316s-ass="tocSection1">,a>>London La.ommon House-Fly’. The author w8).

i id="to led yum">2l="witht an rubbis his h germsneedstransgrof the period,e" class="the awfpan xmen guedt at yan amply lf of the nineteenes ar’alry Mo-f fieiiccendshic s hi in onstrisingll scarms sucp in 191g the siampg/cvoaaryi,exisenar-T,sagewed at land, exixVicta " lang=rystoughn" eoctss=l cooo rothe t, 1slm>hiser icated o-oo Wiattosslang="ected conte" dus classbtionun" lang="nrc-oo Wilsmtasenngnd pi nimaohabifpan xmp cle intforeThe Fly 2c Anima de Hea - Palan aws a à l’orcendshs of publdemwarmedrsh 19th-btionued osged to bega. 2–4th Frosagewed imave home wa rockecettoian stuos st à l’orit—all sarepusand smidrsh 19thuge it iidelyaject of intedn lle-cmtio,existeoccup2"en"n ru yamplde.righ late-awa Capit="nrces. T1890sged to b 66)t,Mistodurin nrsareapi> i="tocSeces de la tes ts ter, germ s article willt annemy,tswh18).

d Popularise 2
Attitudes toe house-fly in thehor w8).

London La.oticle willere ad,um">2Tha e sulrey bne of publ 2"tocShohe Guidea>>London La,tm>ioicllandf masuitablamp au débm on br l>" " " ,a>>London Laocfi4;thich are desirable’, for example companEnd x S >London Laocfi4e destroyed and kept in check by every possible means’ (Austen 8).

London La1873a;thich are desirable’, for example compan ngert" ered authooks on period,needlm>=ong imremite- It wiand dirt,A papar e for cations1875eeeehattot cionsNaa - PalAan>

2Eem b leh Joal pe" ered acofainto scienthehein volume three of his path-breaking workCha/blosum">2Joal pe" e fory href=emy, ,TCorfiele og dedfoist iereosmtimpox, rilrlrt" hescd. One=ul, nsiftaso frighinamipab1889 icationspact ofies aeattounn="ensariranrilrothingdo oss,midstorywing tficatd ttons oea Aml London La)e;mmon House-Fly’. The author wh18).

d Popularise 3

they bview>ie carouck" d g the sulreis and public se youke le/rs oenn obvio scientould bposreding coment="‘An germs="en">ihareds, and 1871cCl, thsnspeec


Frosbras ng="en og dyl discusso valune cin /div>hapthehturn re,m eesKge e 53-:1. n class="num">1 On this literature see Clark; Connor; Hardy.

10, 37n object of inteos <. emy, ot cing="entcettosand publick="wl><,hcupahe icatd-Fl, 1>lewed aton thtwge lhelpattoandof iEnglfgatis whelpattocalahmpo Warshaoung="ettoten worg comsiff, A t older p clon’, publtald cientT<,hne mans af 1889,s asis).mificatG oocal anfion worga>ered a , 1>ublthnttseofspano vs thicto/eme Asnmref=wisdod visip,weryirydisplay late-and aoea er dthe awf thersred. As Britioccupa>ered aindernfainto givecghsytencpccuience;ingll ,t.n"ady d,tum eiscc a , 1 aiepf wondiolan "orehipthehein volume three of his path-breaking workChel of on’Foire a>>London Lao68–70ace hangs over you like the Sword nt on to call his readerConnor; Hardy.

, Attituin na t. As Briie a unbiddetggopan="ll tonun" um pladisimpr biological saguthatt bioell Am m red tnintiod,end intensi;s in geaaouoescaentiod, pubesjecyi riaufamimicroscoplicin haoncettoml:lang="es, aimciena>ered tire fdeon,nagewed =e ofamand tBn xm>

2Joal pe" sweDeity w edicen">gerous e aestigatt,an>2Joal pe" 2Papara>>London La)e;Wl scarmsewi,an=".e monist pucize">cerricationsrlierg="en" xmlnd tm), namipay, uum";oaaryily-ans lvPeterof tna>erecatd t s oen estin="ensaryi s=ihey bse-flWilliamin 191rowin a unh 19thubienfaum"?hein volume three of his path-breaking workO cd,l,Week" 2Own2Papara>>London La,n" xmagese yd tm)mbee i,nifdeon,niocationy [fiie ]an>>London La)e;mmon House-Fly’. The author wh18).

d Popularise 4
‘No Filth, Noe house-fly in thehor w8).

cerld drysup, aexm>2coea er ds, mouanni=iheathictoria tarry by rlierg="enl:l m>2#32;>London La)e;Bybr ov aifdeon,nagew, mouthrendcarcat,ietiosthehein volume three of his path-breaking workpancha>>London La); oades oael/l Am miven by airein volume three of his path-breaking workged" London Laatasemessagebidd re’ (Ayampaificatd ttons t2comfHeaousin geaahtory<19th cendspero n Pecarriwshed itaryugatia of dicupat,w the houist pwntethehein volume three of his path-breaking work terapoomeMer s /a>>London Laa1899ath Anledile wil/a>ered authopapar given by arts den m s arct, 1>>London Laa1899b)e;mmon House-Fly’. The author w


ther si, sessonl s"> artments, a/a>ered U.Ks, toe912–the an dett d s arcdicupats USs led Perborn(Hy and William 4pence’s influential four-volume Introd 5>

Frosbrasauthopilthy eesBMJ. n class="num">1 On this literature see Clark; Connor; Hardy.

efaiolte-unteras e lamatic, bytific progreombine, in gblictensi, this body of workesorces.rmsdtio,ee worg cos a=indalongp the nntmife ifcobras isees thgr, germ sy, this bues l#tocteSlayetctss=e ciod,nyinhmprovegei>efaioloncmeasnfa#toctexie childin 191e ease rensietasen ueWilli">, histwntd of. C the tra,revts the subjectlaanch/e ciod,"paranumber">3<., this body of work—pefies aeattol:lang=re, aey aireer’ ae sand publicidsting cont candss in germng="en">has dered. e in pea Adn obvcades oaethe eSize">iIllus c".e mMagazind" <.lewna tebr o7ledile wil/a>ein volume three of his path-breaking workged Gu class" cetvn")myof fivrowinattol langns,ise yrowinsm>Thn" lomref=. , 1>rbs inf dicupe s asAn lref=view>im n"ixmaexistel:lang-hele view,e="eamibflin volume three of his path-breaking workged Ts as " hap cendshnce oaeleog decabueen Am ad, five hunner thl cooghym serhe predicupan put is hcasses, s, [E]for cgvanctblassa>,ietios,aiean>


germsarf, encxnts in ian staicttg dh arcas in botliame ciod,rf s indecal ame ciod,numbing y and William 6pence’s influential four-volume Intthis literature see Clark; Connor; Hardy. <2uillure e

Thanlie, icatdarf, encxnts arriwshkEng-t at ydistricc ot con, 2Evs tEnn><.<-3151">Handdde pen"><.Bict sp;| Atkins, Peter, ed. Animal Cities: Beastly Urban Histories. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.

Austen, Earnest E. The House-Fly as a Danger to Health: Its Life-History and How to Deal With It. London: Longman, Green & Co., 1913.

Baines, Mary Anne. ‘Some Unsuspected Sources of Infectious Diseases and the Need of Domiciliary Sanitary Inspection’, Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (1875): 605–06.

Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management. London: S.O. Beeton, 1861.

[BMJ]. ‘Insects, Dirt and Disease’. British Medical Journal (1913): Jan. 11th, 87–88.

Cantor, G. N. et al., eds. Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Cantor, G. N. & Sally Shuttleworth, eds. Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

[Cassell’s] Cassell’s Household Guide to Every Department of Household Life. 4 vols. London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1884-6.

[Chambers’s Journal 1875]. Anon. ‘The House-Fly’. Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts (1875): Dec. 25th, 832.

[Chambers’s Journal 1876]. Anon. ‘The Germ Theory’. Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art (1876): Mar. 4th, 147.

[Children’s Friend]. Anon. ‘The House-Fly’. The Children’s Friend (1889[?]): 68–70.

Clark, J. F. M. Bugs and the Victorians. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Cloudsley-Thompson, J. L. Insects and History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976.

Connor, Steven. Fly. Animal Series. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.

Crofts, E. Whitfield. ‘House Flies. The Disseminators of Disease and Epidemics’. English Illustrated Magazine (July 1910): 372–76.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 1966.

[Dundee Courier]. Anon. ‘A Crusade Against Flies’. Dundee Courier. Aug. 8th 1884.

[Essex Standard]. ‘Flies’. Essex Standard. Aug. 23rd 1884.

Fitzsimons, F. W. The House Fly: A Slayer of Men. London: Longman, Green & Co., 1915.

Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House. Domestic Life from Childhood to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins, 2004.

Forino, Imma. ‘Kitchens: from Warm Workshop to Kitchenscape’. Domestic Interiors: Representing Homes from the Victorians to the Moderns. Ed. Georgina Downey. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 91–110.

Fyfe, Aileen. Science and Salvation: Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004.

Fyfe, Aileen & Bernard Lightman, eds. Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

[Guardian]. [Untitled], The Guardian. Oct. 7th 1907.

Hamlett, Jane. Material Relations: Domestic Interiors and Middle-Class Families in England, 1850–1910. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010.

Hardy, Anne. Salmonella Infections, Networks of Knowledge, and Public Health in Britain, 1880-1975. Oxford: OUP, 2014.

Harris, W. H. ‘Flies’, The Girl’s Own Paper (1887): 627-9.

Hewitt, C. Gordon. The House-Fly: A Study of its Structure, Bionomics and Economy. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1910.

Hewitt, C. Gordon. House-Flies and How They Spread Disease. Cambridge: CUP, 1912.

Henson, Louise et al. eds. Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.

Hope, Edwin S. ‘About Some Insects’. Young Folk’s Weekly Budget. June 8th 1878.

Horner, J. ‘The House Fly’. Our Corner (1884): Sept., 167-72.

Howard, L. O. The House Fly, Disease Carrier. London: John Murray, 1912.

Jack, Florence. The Woman’s Book of Household Management (1911). Stroud: Tempus, 2007.

Jackson, Lee. Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 2014.

Jones, Richard. House Guests, House Pests. A Natural History of Animals in the Home. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Keene, Melanie. ‘Familiar Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain’. History of Science 52.1 (2014): 53–71.

[Lancet 1871]. ‘The Fly in its Sanitary Aspects’. The Lancet. Aug. 19th 1871. 270.

[Lancet 1873a]. ‘The Pestiferous Fly’, The Lancet. Jan. 25th 1873. 156.

[Lancet 1873b]. ‘The Fly in its Sanitary Aspects’ [Letter], The Lancet. Nov. 15th 1873. 724.

Lefroy, H. Maxwell. The House-Fly Campaign. London: Zoological Society of London, 1915.

Lightman, Bernard. ‘“The Voices of Nature”: Popularizing Victorian Science’. Victorian Science in Context. Ed. Bernard Lightman. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1997. 187–211.

Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2007.

Lightman, Bernard. ‘Science and Culture’. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture (2010), Ed. Francis O’Gorman. Cambridge: CUP, 2010. 12–42.

[Liverpool Mercury 1899a]. ‘Houseflies, Bluebottles, etc.’. Liverpool Mercury. Aug. 14th 1899.

[Liverpool Mercury 1899b]. [Untitled]. Liverpool Mercury. Aug. 25th 1899.

[Lloyds Weekly News]. ‘Prevention of Infectious Diseases’. Lloyd’s Weekly News. April 29th 1877.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor Volume 3. London: Griffin, Bohn & Company, 1861.

Morgan, Nigel. ‘Infant Mortality, Flies and Horses in Later-Nineteenth-Century Towns: A Case Study of Preston’. Continuity and Change 17.1 (2002): 97–132.

[Newcastle Weekly Courant]. Anon. ‘The Fly and His Ways’. Newcastle Weekly Courant. Sept. 30th 1893.

[Once A Week]. Anon. ‘Those Nasty Flies’. Once a Week. Sept. 25th 1875. 40–1.

Owen, Jean A. ‘Lessons from Nature’. Girl’s Own Paper. Oct. 15th 1898. 37–38.

[Peter Parley’s Annual]. Anon. ‘Some Insects’. Peter Parley’s Annual ([?] 1883).

[Punch]. Anon., ‘Studies in Small Zoology. The House Fly’. Punch. Aug. 28th 1900.

Ross, Edward Halford. The Story of the House-Fly. London: John Murray, 1913.

[Scotsman]. Anon. ‘The House-Fly’ [Letter]. The Scotsman. Aug. 16th 1880.

[Standard]. [Untitled]. The Standard. Oct. 12th 1886.

[Star St Peter Port]. Anon. ‘Flies’. The Star St Peter Port. July 17th 1883

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence & Marie Bouchet, eds. Insects in Literature and the Arts. Brussels: Peter Lang, 2014.

[Times]. ‘House Flies and Disease’. The Times. June 7th 1913.

Tristram, H. B. ‘About a Fly’. Good Words for the Young. May 1st 1870. 347–54.

[Woman’s Signal]. ‘Archdeacon Farrar on the Lord’s Prayer’. Aug. 23rd 1894.

[Young England]. ‘Pugnacious British Insects’. Young England. Oct. 1st 1889.

[Young Folk’s Paper]. Anon. ‘The Common House-Fly’. Young Folk’s Paper. Aug. 22nd 1885.

Haut de page


1 On this literature see Clark; Connor; Hardy.

2 The phrase comes from William Kirby and William Spence’s influential four-volume Introduction to Entomology, first published in 1815–26, and republished throughout the century (quoted in Jones 91). J. F. M. Clark describes this work as ‘the standard text [of the period] on entomology in Britain and throughout parts of the Empire’ (Clark 14).

3 For the general point about the value of ‘familiar’ science, see Keene 53-71.

4 Hardy dates the literary campaign in the U.K. to 1912–13, a little later than its US counterpart (Hardy 74).

5 For the same point, see BMJ.

6 This reference to ‘urban areas’ comes just after a discussion of the recent decline of the fly population in the West End of London. This socio-economic distribution of flies was a fact confirmed by contemporary researchers (see Hardy 70). On this point, see also Atkins ch.2.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Neil Davie, « ‘An unbidden guest at your table’: Purity, danger and the house-fly in the middle-class home, c. 1870-1910 », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 85 Printemps | 2017, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2017, consulté le 13 décembre 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Neil Davie

Neil Davie is Professor of British History at Lumière Lyon 2 University, France. He has published widely on penal policy and criminology in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. He is the author of Tracing the Criminal: The Rise of Scientific Criminology in Britain, 1860-1918 (Bardwell, 2005), L’Evolution de la condition féminine en Grande-Bretagne à travers les textes juridiques fondamentaux de 1830 à 1975 (ENS Éditions, 2011), and The Penitentiary Ten: The Transformation of the English Prison, 1770-1850 (Bardwell, 2017).
Neil Davie est professeur d’histoire et de civilisation britanniques à l’université Lumière Lyon 2. Sa recherche porte principalement sur l’histoire de la criminologie et des politiques pénales à l’époque victorienne et édouardienne. Il a publié Tracing the Criminal: The Rise of Scientific Criminology in Britain, 1860-1918 (Bardwell, 2005) ; L’Evolution de la condition féminine en Grande-Bretagne à travers les textes juridiques fondamentaux de 1830 à 1975 (ENS Editions, 2011) et The Penitentiary Ten : The Transformation of the English Prison, 1770-1850 (Bardwell, 2017).

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • OpenEdition Journals