Food and Flies

Written by Billy Nguyen and Liza-Ann Whitaker

Pests have frequented homes and kitchens for centuries, in all countries around the globe. With domestication, these “wild animals” have moved into homes and some are only found in buildings constructed by humans (Jones 7). One common perpetrator are flies, who have been recorded in Medical Officer of Health reports throughout London history. Other pests causing problems in households included rats, bed bugs, fleas, and cockroaches. From the 1800s, there were “bug destroyers” employed by the Queen (and later King) and ordinary English households alike. Their jobs were mainly to rid of the city’s cockroaches and bed bugs, who had come over in cargo on trade routes from Asia and the Indies. Jack Black was one notorious bug and rat exterminator who was asked to come to many households, to rid of many kinds of pests, and his strongest dislike was for cockroaches which he described as “dreadful nasty things, and equal to Spanish flies…” (Velten 220).

Flies were strongly associated with contamination of food. London Medical Officer of Health reports between the years 1911 to 1970 express repeated concern with one being the connection of flies to food sources, including meats, sweets, fruit, and dairy products. Food poisoning, food hygiene, and cleanliness of living spaces became important campaigns over time.

For example, In Willesden in 1920, a list of health rules was distributed to the public. Many of the items on the list concerned food and flies:

  • Do not purchase foodstuffs where flies are tolerated
  • Do not allow children to buy sweets or fruit from shops where flies abound
  • Do not buy your milk from a Dairy that has flies
  • Keep flies out of the house and pantry
  • Keep flies out of milk by using white muslin
  • Use fly catchers
  • Be clean in all things
  • Cultivate personal cleanliness
  • Cultivate cleanliness of the home
  • Store food and milk clean by storing in a clean, light, cool, dry, and airy place
  • Wash all foods prior to consumption
  • Burn waste when possible
  • Do not put animal or vegetable waste in the dustbin for this serves as a breeding ground for flies
  • Keep manure heals on allotments or elsewhere covered with earth
L0023771 Flies infecting food. Colour lithograph after A. Games, 1941
Flies infecting food. Colour lithograph after Abram Games, H.M. Stationery Office, 1941. Wellcome Images.

In Carshalton, bye-laws were created for handling, wrapping, and delivering foods along with the selling of food in the open air in December. Kitchen waste was collected as pig food and the bins are cleansed by steam to prevent contamination (Carshalton 1949). Havering created bye-laws where food was labeled regarding how it was prepared and how it should be stored if not eaten immediately (Havering 1968). Holborn also informed their citizens that clean and ventilated larders, pantries, sages, cupboards, and special storage rooms helped decrease the incidence of food contamination (Holborn 1923). When food was left out in the open, such as on a counter, perishable items would spoil or be exposed to possible contaminants carried on pests.

Meats, dairy products and sweets were all connected to incidences of contamination by flies. Such contamination included dirty milk bottles, maggots in sweets, flies in cheese, flies on sweets, and dirt on cheese (Leyton 1962). The borough of Chigwell also dealt with food complaints including food stuffs (such as cheeses) that were unfit to be consumed by humans while also offering weekly public cleansing to remove refuge and other services to attend to fly complaints (Chigwell 1969).

Butchers and London’s meat supply

Before the 1900s, butchers in Britain did not have refrigeration and stored their meat in a backroom full of ice (Koot 25). One common trend among the butcher shops of the boroughs was that they sold meat that did not fully meet any sanitary regulations. In fact, a significant amount of meat in “the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from [animals with tuberculosis]” (Atkins 2004, 1). This was partly because there were no regulations or standards in place among the boroughs. Selling bad meat was “probably as old as the butcher’s trade itself” (Atkins 2012, 108). One famous case around the 1860s involving Thomas Diet was one of the first events to bring into question the “the quality of butcher’s meat into a wider debate about the quality of food generally, its regulation, and its significance for the poor” (Atkins 2012, 108). One problem that butchers had to deal with were flies. During the early 1900s, flies were a huge problem for butchers because they could transmit disease when they landed on meat. To deal with flies and bad meat, regulations were initiated in many of the boroughs.

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Victorian butcher shop. Paul Townsend. Creative Commons License. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/13347982103/in/photostream/)

Edmonton 1925

  • Meat regulations were introduced to butcheries and they were intended to increase the overall cleanliness of the shops while decreasing contamination from flies and dust. The regulation was to put glass fronts on counters with uncooked meat, while cooked meat was exempted. After the regulations were introduced, the Medical Officer of Health and the Senior Sanitary Inspector went to the butcheries and inspected them, finding that all the butchers agreed to put glass fronts on their counters to protect their meat. Most shopkeepers thought it was an added expense to their business, but that it was necessary to their sales.

Acton 1925

  • Regulations were initiated to ensure that meat for sale was under sanitary conditions. To form these regulations, the Health Committee met with butchers and asked for suggestions in an attempt to achieve policies that were uniformly agreed upon by those in the industry. Both the Committee and the butchers agreed that some sanitary practices could not be controlled, but could be improved through public education. For example, handling meat before purchase (i.e. washing one’s hands). After promoting these practices, improvements were noted. However, other issues, such as how to prevent contamination by flies, remained unresolved. It was suggested that the butchers use a glass front to protect their meat, but many butchers were used to having their meat exposed and refused. The district tried to enforce the regulation, giving the butchers warnings and fines, but it was difficult because neighboring districts did not have these regulations so there was no proper, uniform enforcement.

Stoke Newington 1926

  • Policies to mark meat after inspecting them at slaughter, dealing with the sale of meat from street stalls and shops, protecting meat from contamination by dust and flies, and the transport of meat came into effect. However, marking meat and dealing with the sale of meat from stalls “[did] not apply to Stoke Newington,” so they only really enforced the other policies.

Lewisham 1925

  • Meat regulations were introduced and the intent was to improve inspection of the animals slaughtered and the handling, transport, and distribution of meat. Examples include preventing sick people from slaughtering or handling meat, making standard rules for slaughtering and slaughterhouses, marking meat with a seal of approval, and uniform sanitary requirements. However, the regulations were not worded precisely, so they were hard to enforce and effectively made them near useless beyond publicity of the issues.

Lambeth 1925

  • Regulations were released with few objections from slaughterhouses, meat shops, and meat stalls. The regulations were established in order to set a standard of cleanliness and freedom from flies and contaminants such as dust or dirt. As opposed to other districts, Lambeth did not enforce glass fronts for meat shops, but many already had them up and there was satisfaction from the owners, the Council and Ministry, and the public. Although the government of Lambeth did not enforce putting up glass fronts, it was strict about making sure the regulations themselves were strongly enforced.

Fulham 1924

  • Public Health Meat Regulations were released to standardize slaughterhouse operations, meat marking, sanitation guidelines, and transporting and handling meat. Fulham is one of the few boroughs where specific guidelines were given. For example, meat could not be placed on or within 18 inches of the ground and butchers were to take “all such steps as may be reasonably necessary to guard against contamination of the meat by flies”.

Flies landing in meat were a problem because they could make the meat dangerous to consume. For example, flies were discovered to be vectors for transmitting disease just a couple years before meat regulations began to be put into place among boroughs. After meat regulations were put into place, many boroughs began to initiate policies designed to eliminate the fly as a nuisance.

Flies and milk

Originally, people thought the diarrhea in infants (a frequently fatal disease) was a result of infected milk, but official and academic publications confirmed that flies were a hazard (Atkins 2012, 42-43). Ideas about flies being vectors for spreading disease began when investigations about their relationship to horse manure were linked with infantile diarrhea. The correlation was made by observing that the “increase in city horse populations… in the second half of the nineteenth century… [the horses’] manure did indeed contribute to a growing house fly population, and to an intensification of bacteriological flows” (Atkins 2012, 43).

Flies were noted to encounter bacteria (on manure, garbage, and other sites where they bred), becoming a vector that carried pathogenic strains (Deptford 1911). The Deptford borough believed that flies played an important role in the dissemination of disease although others questioned this logic during  (Deptford 1911). There were correlations found that hot weather months increased the number of domestic flies and coincidentally increased the risk of contamination of infant foods such as milk and water (Ghosh 567). Flies were attracted and bred in manure, ashbin refuse, and decaying matter. Each fly was recorded to lay approximately 500 eggs and, in the heat of the summer, full adulthood could be reached in in as little as two to three weeks (Willesden 1920). Filth carried from the heaps of manure and humans contaminated foodstuffs especially those found in pantries and shops. The warm weather also increased the amount of pigeon and dog excrement, which the Havering borough enforced bye-laws that held dog owners responsible for their pets (Havering 1968).

In Stepney in 1911, suspicions about children being infected with Summer Diarrhoea by the common house-fly had been lurking for roughly two or three years. To support this suspicion, they drew on knowledge that flies transmit infection by bacteriological means and then made observations that house-flies were present in large numbers before primary symptoms of infection. To play the devil’s advocate, Dr. Hamer proposed that flies could not be the sole reason for spreading the Summer Diarrhoea infection because they were still around in late Autumn when the epidemics had stopped. However, it was noted that flies move much more slowly when the weather is cold, so the probability of rapid infection decreases. Stepney’s Local Government Board gave three suggestions to help with the Epidemic Diarrhoea. First, parents should be careful about feeding their children and prevent their food from being exposed to anything that was decomposing. Second, to keep the house and food clean through methods such as disposing of house and stable garbage daily and not visiting places where births have occurred or animals and vegetables are decomposing. And third, being aware of which parts of the Stepney district are prevalent in cases of diarrhea and avoiding those areas.

In Stepney 1922, doctors had determined that a microorganism was the cause of diarrhea, but still had not figured out if flies were spreading the microorganism. They knew microorganisms that caused the infection prospered in hot dry environments, but the number of flies increased in this environment as well, so they could not isolate the variables. Regardless, posters, films, and fliers were handed out to tell people to “kill the flies” and dispose of manure and garbage to reduce the flies’ available breeding grounds.

In Dagenham 1928, demands for policies changing the method of disposal were increasing. The district offered facilities for removal, but some traders used their own methods such as personal incinerators. The resulting smoke from these incinerators was a nuisance for locals, so they demanded policies for regulation of disposal methods. One attempt was to fill in a pit at the north end of the district, but the pit became so high that it reached above road level. The locals did not like this because the garbage became exposed to the wind which carried the smell, smoke, and fumes around. Additionally, the pit became a breeding ground for rats and flies, further increasing demand for policies that improved the method of disposal.

In Greenwich 1948, the “Anti-Fly and Mosquito Scheme” was initiated. In this plan, Garbage men would collect garbage from people’s houses and then sprinkle a “Gammexane” powder into the garbage can afterward. Additionally, they also paid extra attention to potential fly breeding grounds, sprinkling the powder wherever they saw dog poop, horse poop, and food scraps in the street or public areas to prevent small sources of fly breeding. Overall, the initiative was shown to be very successful, with only a couple of complaints of fly infestations reported after the initiative’s launch.

Caretakers of Lewisham blocks were supplied with materials to enable them to deal with refuge chutes and chambers, which is one example of an “anti-fly campaign” carried out in the region (Lewisham 1970). Bermondsey passed out pamphlets to its citizens and implemented publicity campaigns with a variety of subjects such as: Food – Diet, vitamins, artificial foods, canned foods, milk, food inspection and contamination, food poisonings, flies and food (Bermondsey 1924).

Not all complaints were genuine though, or mistakes did happen from time to time. In Beckenham, a complaint of “blow” and “house” flies floating in bottles of milk was investigated. When the MOH found the flies to be whole, they determined that the contamination occurred after delivery for the Dairies were using high pressure jets to both wash and fill the glass bottles (Beckenham 1947).

References:

Atkins, Peter. Animal Cities: Beastly Urban Histories. Ashgate Publishing Group, 2012.

Atkins, P. J. “The Glasgow Case: Meat, Disease and Regulation, 1889–1924.” The Agricultural History Review 52, no. 2 (2004): 161-82.

Ghosh, Anuradha, and Ludek Zurek. “Fresh Steam-Flaked Corn in Cattle Feedlots Is an Important Site for Fecal Coliform Contamination by House Flies.” Journal of Food Protection 78, no. 3 (November 3, 2015): 567-72. doi:10.4315/0362-028x.jfp-14-429.

Jones, Richard. House guests, house pests: a natural history of animals in the home. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Koot, Gerard. “Shops and Shopping in Britain: from market stalls to chain stores.” Accessed April 7, 2017.

Velten, Hannah. Beastly London: a history of animals in the city. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.