Flies and Public Health Measures

Written by Jamison Maxwell and Yzzy Smith

Flies, a common nuisance found in nearly every British town in the 1900s, posed many threats to health, cleanliness, and overall sanity due to their large numbers. A variety of prevention techniques were put in place by the MOH to be implemented in private homes and public spaces, in order to reduce the number of these pests.

Private fly prevention

Individuals tormented by flies were advised to use certain adhesive fly paper to catch these pests (City of London 1969). These fly papers usually were coated with some kind of attractant (City of London 1969). For example, the City of London in 1969 sold fly papers coated with “tenacious honey-gum” to attract flies to their death (City of London 1969). These fly papers, although proven to be very effective, had to be placed strategically in order to catch these pests efficiently (City of London County Council 1907). The City of London County Council advised individuals using adhesive fly paper to place them in lighted, warm areas (City of London County Council 1907). Flies were attracted to these lighted areas, and were typically found in greater numbers in warm areas (Barking 1953). Also, centers of the room, rather than the peripheries, were found to have larger traffic of flies (City of London County Council 1907).  Some researchers used fly papers to catch flies for research on the controversial topic if flies carried diseases, or if they were just a nuisance (City of London 1969).

Other fly traps used during this time period included boxes filled with bait that, upon the fly exiting, captured the fly in its adhesive material, along with electrical fly traps (Keiding 1986). These boxes used a larger method than fly papers, allowing more flies to be caught without replacing material (Keiding 1986). Fly electrical traps used the flies’ desire for warmth and light against them, by attracting them to their zapping death (Keiding 1986). These electrical traps, though, had mixed results on their ability to succeed in the household environment (Keiding 1986).

Mather’s Fly Paper Plate, England Chemical paper plate used in 1900s Britain to be used for the “fly-killer recipe”, or fly adhesive material. Wellcome Images

Other prevention techniques, such as smoke prevention, warded off flies from households and businesses (City of Westminster 1921). In the city of Westminster around 1920, smoke had significant effects in deterring flies and other pests like mosquitoes (City of Westminster 1921). This reduced the number of complaints sent in from households, and also helped businesses attract more customers (City of Westminster 1921). Businesses that were infested with flies were often avoided by customers, causing many businesses to take drastic measures in order to avert flies (Islington 1946). In some businesses, harsh chemicals such as DDT, a common insecticide, were used to guard their products from flies (Islington 1946). Food businesses (particularly dairy markets) tested these chemicals in their business as a strategy to kill flies (Islington 1946). While some shops thought the use of this chemical was beneficial, many companies realized chemicals did more harm than good (Islington 1946). Chemicals could contaminate the product more than the flies themselves could (Islington 1946). Another chemical called “gammexane” was a spray product that many individuals used to deter flies from their household (Barking 1953). This was a service you could hire in the town of Barking in 1953, for the price of £150 (Barking 1953).

Along with all of this the city also came up with an effective recipe for a fly killer that was safe to use in the home,

One ounce of 40 per cent, formalin mixed with one pint of milk. This should be placed in shallow plates about the rooms, with a piece of bread in the middle of each plate for the flies to alight upon (Deptford 1913).

The MOH of Deptford reported in 1914 on the success of this remedy (Deptford 1914). The fly was attracted to the bread, it ingested formalin, a toxin, which killed the fly shortly after it ate (Deptford 1914).

It was also advised that different insecticides were used for fly breeding site than were used for adult flies sites to prevent flies from building a resistance. This is because flies have a high risk of forming resistance to residual sprays which could make them even more difficult to get rid of down the road (WHO Pesticide Evaluation Scheme 2006, 39).

Fly extermination could be facilitated if one were to find the breeding grounds of nearby flies (Hackney 1912). These were found in more wet, warm areas, and also near trash cans and animal stables (Hackney 1912). Once a breeding ground was found, fly larvae could easily be destroyed through an insecticide or a “chloride of lime… with a solution of ferrous sulphate” (Hackney 1912). Flies have a short nine-day larval stage, so great urgency was needed in order for the larvae not to grow (Hackney 1912).

These forceful chemical measures could be avoided typically if one found larvae sites, covered trash cans, kept a clean yard and house, and promptly removed animal manure (Hackney 1912). Also, the opening of windows was sometimes deemed a remedy to household flies (Marylebone 1913). Opening windows could allow more flies to fly out the window, but on the other hand, let more in (Marylebone 1913). People were advised only to open windows if the fly infestation in their house was severe (Marylebone 1913). If the fly infestation continued to be serious, muslin, a type of cloth, could be used to cover foods, waste bins, and even baby’s faces (Marylebone 1913). Fly infestation caused many babies to have trouble sleeping, and the muslin cloth allowed flies not to land directly onto the baby. If the fly problem continued to be a problem and was not fixed with to these domestic remedies, Medical Officers of Health were often contacted (Marylebone 1913).

Public fly prevention

In response to the multitude of pleas sent to the Medicals Officers of Health, many public efforts were put in place to help households reduce the number of flies present (Bethnal Green 1925). Covers for trash bins and other preventative measures were provided to many people, but some just believed flies were a nuisance that could not be stopped (Bethnal Green 1925). Due to their large number, many individuals saw no permanent results in killing flies, because more returned the next day (Bethnal Green 1925). Many people were not as entranced with the killing of flies, and were more attracted to killing larger game (Ritvo 2005). Killing larger game, such as expeditions in Africa, yielded pleasurable results. Killing flies, however, caused hopelessness (Ritvo 2005). More public efforts by the government and the Medical Officers of Health that did not require private use were put in place to help aid the pessimistic public (Barnes 1914). One promising technique used in the town of Barnes in 1914 was to water the streets each morning (Barnes 1914). This made the streets cleaner, eliminating many attractive sites for flies, such as garbage and manure.

Many studies were put on by the government in order to discover ways to eliminate the fly problem. The City of London County Council in 1907 funded studies on how wind and the smell of gas attracted flies (City of London County Council 1907). Although this turned out to be a myth, many people believed that households and businesses downwind attracted more flies (City of London County Council 1907). This hypothesis was debunked, claiming there was no association between wind and the smell of gas and the number of flies present (City of London County Council 1907). Also, another study conducted by researchers from Russia and the United States tackled prevention of flies from a more Darwinian perspective, rather than an exterminator perspective (Klassen and Curtis 2005). In the 1930s and 1940s, these scientists conducted an experiment by placing sterile flies into the wild to contain the number of flies (Klassen and Curtis 2005). The sterile flies would compete for resources with the healthy, fertile flies, eventually diminishing the species to a certain carrying capacity (Klassen and Curtis 2005). After the carrying capacity was reached, some flies would be sterile, some would be fertile (Klassen and Curtis 2005). The next generation would therefore have a lesser amount of flies, due to the sterile flies not being able to reproduce (Klassen and Curtis 2005). This experiment only worked in a small field experiment, and was hard to replicate in large areas such as British towns and cities (Klassen and Curtis 2005).

Flies and Diseases; Kill the Fly and Save the Child. Medical Officers used strong images to alarm people about how serious of an issues flies were. Culture 24.

In the summers of the early 1900s flies were causing quite the nuisance and were drastically raising mortality rates, especially in children each week. There could be a mortality rate of 13 one week and 39 the next and it seemed that each week the increase became more drastic (Bethnal Green 1925). Flies were picking up infections from things such as manure, dead livestock, vegetable matter and stagnant water. Flies were then spreading these infections by coming into common households and feeding on remaining food and filth, this would then cause disease for the humans that lived in these homes (Hornsey 1924). London officials eventually had to step in and decided they needed to boost their public health. Public health is the quality of health of a population that is monitored, regulated, and promoted by the government. In order to promote the quality of health in London at this time London Officials sent in Medical Health Officers to monitor the improvements of London’s infrastructure and the health of their people, The Medical Health Officers did this by writing Acts and Decrees and launching anti-fly campaigns that held the citizens accountable for the prevention of spreading of diseases caused by flies (Hornsey 1922).

One of the earliest public health statements for fly prevention was in 1913, in Deptford. Public Health officers told men to be mindful of the conditions of their yards. Yards should be kept clear of things such as manure, decaying animals and vegetation, or anything else that had the possibility of collecting bacteria that caused disease. Public Health officers advised men not to allow any organic waste to collect, and that if it did it should be disposed of at least every week. If male homeowners were unable to do that, then the waste needed to be treated with insecticides that could be purchased through the Medical Health Officers. Women of the home could also help ward off flies by keeping trash and dust bins covered. According to the report of Deptford 1913 there were three main precautions that should be taken in the home.

  1. Keeping your home clean. If the home is clean, then flies will not be attracted to it because there is nothing for them to feed on. While cleanliness of the home was important, so was personal cleanliness. If a person had good hygiene as an affect they had less filth which attracted less flies and as a result it prevented them from getting diseases.
  2. Protection of food in the home. If food was left out, then it attracted flies and they would most likely feed on the uncovered food. If a person was to then ingest the food that a fly carrying something such as typhoid had fed on, then the repercussions for that person would be detrimental.
  3. The use of household fly killers to ward of flies was also considered very effective. Household fly killers had been proven to significantly reduce the population of flies in infested areas.

These three precautions then became the most prominent public health warnings when it came to the eradication of flies (Deptford 1913). The city also took action removing heaps of manure and spraying where they were removed from with borax (Hornsey 1922).

Advising people on how to keeping their homes and persons clean was one of the first actions to take according to public health committees, because once you had a clean home, the rest of the precautions followed suit (Willesden 1920). Public Health Services released pamphlets to stress the importance of personal cleanliness and cleanliness of the home. The pamphlet that was released in Hampstead in 1914 had the motto “If there is no dirt, there is no flies. Many flies mean careless house keeping” (Hampstead 1914). The Health Committee of London agreed with this motto and urged people to burn as much as possible to ensure that there were no remains from the feeding grounds of flies; these feeding grounds included animal and vegetable remains (Bermondsay 1914). It was also advised for women to pay extra attention to the cleanliness of the kitchen, pantry and utensils. The kitchen should be kept clear of dust and dust bins should be kept covered in order to prevent the attraction of flies (Shoreditch 1953). If the kitchen was filthy there was a greater risk of attraction of flies and therefore, a greater risk of the spread of infection. The cleaning of household items also helped reduce the risk of the spread of infections, Section 48 of Public Health Act of 1891 specified that quilts, beds, sheets, blankets, books, bolsters, carpets, cushions, clothing, overlays, and pillows must be run through a steam disinfector in order to make sure there was no remaining dust collected on these items (Bermondsay 1914). This could be done by using the free washing facilities that were installed in each borough by public health services in hopes that it would encourage citizens to keep their homes sanitary (Shoreditch 1953). It was also advised that women boil drinking water before serving it to their families along with dirty water before throwing it out. Drains were also to be flushed at least once a week to ensure that flies did not begin to cultivate (Enfield 1914).

Keeping the home clean and the proper protection of food go together hand in hand; if the house is truly clean then no food will be left out or in an environment that is susceptible to flies. Food is the easiest way for flies to spread diseases to humans “[Flies] “sip from our cups with us or bathe in in our coffee or our soup or walk daintily over our beefsteak or frosted cake” and leave behind “a trail of filth and bacteria.”(Quoted in Rogers 1989, 599). According to pamphlets released by the Public Health Services left out food was a prime environment for fly breeding and feeding (Hampstead 1914). Women were advised by The Health Committee to not purchase food from where flies were tolerated along with not purchasing dairy products from dairies that had flies (Willesden 1920). All milk should be covered and boiled, especially if it was being fed to children because they were most susceptible to the diseases that flies carry. Medical Health Officers helped ensure that milk was safe by passing the Dairies, Cow-Sheds, and Milk Shop Order of 1879. This decree kept licensed dairies liable for having “satisfactory lighting, ventilation, cleansing, draining, and water supplies.” These precautions helped lower the amount of infected milk that was then being distributed throughout London (Velten 2013, 32). The Enfield Urban District Council released a public notice warning women to store food in a clean and dry environment and to discard any food that has gone off (Enfield 1914). Medical health Officers also provided milk leaflets throughout the city to help kill flies and protect milk from contamination (City of London 1921).

During the mid-20th century, the fly problem surged again. Sanitation in the city was at an all time low because of the war, therefore the city played a large role in providing citizens with effective fly prevention. As a part of the Anti-Fly Campaign the city offered things such as insecticides through the Public Health Department at a lower price along with selling fly sprays to premises that sold food (Shoreditch 1953). In the 1950’s after these acts and sanitation protocols had been integrated into everyday life death rates in the summer months drastically decreased until they were at a normal and steady rate. (Shoreditch 1953).

MOH Reports

  1. Hampstead 1914
  2. Deptford 1913
  3. Bethnal Green 1925
  4. City of London 1921
  5. Bermondsay 1914
  6. Willesden 1920
  7. Enfield 1914
  8. Shoreditch 1953
  9. Hornsey 1922
  10. Hornsey 1924

Secondary sources

Keiding J. The housefly—biology and control. Training and information guide (advanced level). Geneva, World Health Organization, 1986

Klassen, W., and C. F. Curtis. “History of the sterile insect technique.” In Sterile Insect Technique, pp. 3-36. Springer Netherlands, 2005.

Ritvo, Harriet. The animal estate: the English and other creatures in the Victorian Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Rogers, Naomi. “Germs with legs: Flies, disease, and the new public health” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 63.4 (Winter 1989): 599-617

Velten, Hannah, Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City (London: Reaktion Books, 2013), 32

World Health Organization Dept. of Communicable Disease Prevention, Control, and Eradication WHO Pesticide Evaluation Scheme Pesticides and their Application: For Control of Vectors and Pests of Public Health Importance 6th Edition (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2006), 39