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‘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

Résumés

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.

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  • 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):

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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.

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[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.

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Notes

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.

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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 : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/3151

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Auteur

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).

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