London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Of Bugs and Fleas.


A NUMEROUS family of a large order of insects is but too well known, both in gardens and houses, under the general name of Bugs () most, if not all, of the species being distinguished by an exceedingly disagreeable smell, particularly when pressed or bruised.

The sucking instrument of these insects has been so admirably dissected and delineated by M. Savigny, in his "Theory of the Mouth of -legged () Insects,"

that we cannot do better than follow so excellent a guide.

The sucker is contained in a sheath, and this sheath is composed of pieces, which, according to Savigny"s theory, represent an under-lip much prolonged. The edges bend downwards, and form a canal receiving the bristles, which he supposes to correspond with the mandibles and the lower jaws. It is probable that the middle of these bristles act as piercers, while the other , being curved at the extremity (though not at all times naturally so), assist in the process of suction.

The plant-bugs are all furnished with wings and membranous wing-cases, many of them being of considerable size, and decked in showy colours. These differ in all those points from their congener, the bed-bug (), which is small, without wings, and of a dull uniform brown. The name is of Welsh origin, being derived from the same root as -bear, and hence the passage in the Psalms, "thou shalt not be afraid for by night,"

is rendered in Matthew"s Bible, "thou shalt not nede to be afraide of any by night."

In earlier times this insect was looked upon with no little fear, no doubt because it was not so abundant as at present. "In the year ," says Mouffet, "Dr. Penny was called in great haste to a little village called Mortlake, near the Thames, to visit noblemen who were much frightened by the appearance of bug-bites, and were in fear of I know not what contagion; but when the matter was known, and the insects caught, he laughed them out of all fear."

This fact, of course, disproves the statement of Southall, that bugs were not known in England before .

Linnæus was of opinion, however, that the bug was not originally a native of Europe, but had been imported from America. Be this as it may, it seems to thrive but too well in our climate, though it multiplies less in than in the warmer regions of the Continent, where it is also said to grow to a larger size, and to bite more keenly. This insect, it is said, is never seen in Ireland.

Commerce," says a learned entomologist, "with many good things, has also introduced amongst us many great evils, of which noxious insects form no small part; and one of her worst presents was, doubtless, the disgusting animals called bugs. They seem, indeed," he adds, "to have been productive of greater alarm at first than mischief,—at least, if we may judge from the change of name which took place upon their becoming common. Their original English name was Chinche, or Wall-louse; and the term bug, which is a Celtic word, signifying a ghost or goblin, was applied to them after Ray"s time, most probably because they were considered as "terrors by night. Hence our English word bug-bear. The word in this sense often occurs in Shakspeare, Winter"s Tale, act iii. sc. 2, 3; Henry VI. act v. sc. 2; Hamlet, act v. sc. 2. See Douce"s Illustrations of Shakspeare, i. 329.

Even in our own island these obtrusive insects often banish sleep. "The night," says Goldsmith, in his , "is usually the season when the wretched have rest from their labour; but this seems the only season when the bug issues from its retreats to make its depredations. By day it lurks, like a robber, in the most secret parts of the bed, takes the advantage of every chink and cranny to make a secure lodgment, and contrives its habitation with so much art that it is no easy matter to discover its retreat. It seems to avoid the light with great cunning, and even if candles be kept burning, this formidable insect will not issue from its hiding-place. But when darkness promises security, it then issues from every corner of the bed, drops from the tester, crawls from behind the arras, and travels with great assiduity to the unhappy patient, who vainly wishes for rest. It is generally vain to destroy only, as there are hundreds more to revenge their companion"s fate; so that the person who thus is subject to be bitten (some individuals are exempt), remains the whole night like a sentinel upon duty, rather watching the approach of fresh invaders than inviting the pleasing approaches of sleep."

Mouffet assures us, that against these enemies of our rest in the night our merciful God hath furnished us with remedies, which we may fetch out of old and new writers, either to drive them away or kill them.

The following is given as the best poison for bugs, by Mr. Brande, of the Royal Institution:—Reduce an ounce of corrosive sublimate () and ounce of white arsenic to a fine powder; mix with it ounce of muriate of ammonia in powder, ounces each of oil of turpentine and yellow wax, and ounces of olive oil; put all these into a pipkin, placed in a pan of boiling water, and when the wax is melted, stir the whole, till cold, in a mortar.

A strong solution of corrosive sublimate, indeed, applied as a wash, is a most efficacious bug-poison.



Though most people dislike this insect, others have been known to regard it with protecting care. gentleman would never suffer the bugs to be disturbed in his house, or his bedsteads removed, till, in the end, they swarmed to an incredible degree, crawling up even the walls of his drawing-room; and after his death millions were found in his bed and chamber furniture.

In the Banian hospital, at Surat, the overseers are said frequently to hire beggars from the streets, at a stipulated sum, to pass the night among bugs and other vermin, on the express condition of suffering them to enjoy their feast without molestation.

The bed-bug is not the only of its congeners which preys upon man. St. Pierre mentions a bug found in the Mauritius, the bite of which is more venomous than the sting of a scorpion, being succeeded by a swelling as big as the egg of a pigeon, which continues for or days.

Ray tells us that his friend Willoughby had suffered severe temporary pain, in the same way, from a water-bug. (, LINN.)

The winged insects of the order to which the bed-bug belongs often inflict very painful wounds, and it is even stated, upon good authority, that an insect of the order, commonly known in the West Indies by the name of the , can communicate an electric shock to the person whose flesh it touches. The late Major-General Davies, R.A. (well known as a most accurate observer of nature and an indefatigable collector of her treasures, as well as a most admirable painter of them), having taken up this animal and placed it upon his hand, assures us that it gave him, with its legs, a considerable shock, as if from an electric jar, which he felt as high as his shoulders; and then dropping the creature, he observed upon his hand where the feet had stood.

Bugs are very voracious, and seem to bite most furiously in the autumn, as if determined to feast themselves before they retire to their winter quarters.

There is another pernicious bed insect— the flea (, LINN.), which, being without wings, some of our readers may suppose to be nearly allied to the bed-bug, though it does not belong even to the same order, but to a new (, KIRBY), established on the principle that the wings are obsolescent or inconspicuous.

Fleas, it may be worth remarking, are not all of species; those which infest animals and birds differing in many particulars from the common bed-flea (). As many as distinct sorts of fleas have been found in alone.

The most annoying species, however, is, fortunately, not indigenous, being a native of the tropical latitudes, and variously named in the West Indies, chigoe, jigger, nigua, tungua, and pique (, LINN). According to Stedman, "this is a kind of small sand-flea, which gets in between the skin and the flesh without being felt, and generally under the nails of the toes, where, while it feeds, it keeps growing till it becomes of the size of a pea, causing no further pain than a disagreeable itching. In process of time its operation appears in the form of a small bladder, in which are deposited thousands of eggs, or nits, and which, if it breaks, produce so many young chigoes, which in course of time create running ulcers, often of very dangerous consequence to the patient. So much so, indeed, that I knew a soldier, the soles of whose feet were obliged to be cut away before he could recover; and some men have lost their limbs by amputation, nay, even their lives, by having neglected, in time, to root out these abominable vermin. Walton mentions that a Capuchin friar, in order to study the history of the chigoe, permitted a colony of them to establish themselves in his feet: but before he could accomplish his object his feet mortified and had to be amputated.

No wonder that Cardan calls the insect "a very shrewd plague."

Several extraordinary feats of strength have been recorded of fleas by various authors,

and we shall here give our own testimony to a similar fact. At the fair of Charlton, in Kent, , we saw a man exhibit fleas harnessed to a carriage in the form of an omnibus, at least times their own bulk, which they pulled along with great ease; another pair drew a chariot. The exhibitor showed the whole through a magnifying glass, and then to the naked eye, so that we were satisfied there was no deception. From the fleas being of large size they were evidently all females.

It is rarely, however, that we meet with fleas in the way of amusement, unless we are of the singular humour of the old lady mentioned by Kirby and Spence, who had a liking to them; "because," said she, "I think they are the prettiest little merry things in the world; I never saw a dull flea in all my life."

When Ray and Willoughby were travelling, they found "at Venice and Augsburg fleas for sale, and at a small price too, decorated with steel or silver collars round their necks. When fleas are kept in a box amongst wool or cloth, in a warm place, and fed once a-day, they will live a long time. When these insects begin to suck they erect themselves almost perpendicularly, thrusting their sucker, which originates in the middle of the forehead, into the skin. The itching is not felt immediately,


but a little afterwards. As soon as they are full of blood, they begin to void a portion of it; and thus, if permitted, they will continue for many hours sucking and voiding. After the itching no uneasiness is subsequently felt. Willoughby had a flea that lived for months, sucking in this manner the blood of his hand; it was at length killed by the cold of winter."

According to Mouffet"s account of the sucker of the flea, "the point of his nib is somewhat hard, that he may make it enter the better; and it must necessarily be hollow, that he may suck out the blood and carry it in."

Modern authors, particularly Straus and Kirby, show that Rösel was mistaken in supposing this sucker to consist of pieces, as it is really made up of . , there is a pair of triangular instruments, somewhat resembling the beak of a bird, inserted on each side of the mouth, under the parts which are generally regarded as the antennæ. Next, a pair of long sharp piercers (, KIRBY), which emerge from the head below the preceding instruments; whilst a pair of feelers (), consisting of joints, is attached to these near their base. In fine, there is a long, slender tongue, like a bristle, in the middle of these several pieces.

Mouffet says, "the lesser, leaner, and younger the fleas are, the sharper they bite,— the fat ones being more inclined to tickle and play. They molest men that are sleeping," he adds, "and trouble wounded and sick persons, from whom they escape by skipping; for as soon as they find they are arraigned to die, and feel the finger coming, on a sudden they are gone, and leap here and there, and so escape the danger; but so soon as day breaks they forsake the bed. They then creep into the rough blankets, or hide themselves in rushes and dust, lying in ambush for pigeons, hens, and other birds; also for men and dogs, moles and mice, and vex such as pass by. Our hunters report that foxes are of full them, and they tell a pretty story how they get quit of them. "The fox," say they, "gathers some handfuls of wool from thorns and briers, and wrapping it up, holds it fast in his mouth, then he goes by degrees into a cold river, and dips himself down by little and little; when he finds that all the fleas are crept so high as his head for fear of drowning, and ultimately for shelter crept into the wool, he barks and spits out the woll, full of fleas, and thus very froliquely being delivered from their molestations, he swims to land."

This is a little more doubtful even than the story told of Christina, queen of Sweden, who is reported to have fired at the fleas that troubled her with a piece of artillery, still exhibited in the Royal Arsenal at Stockholm.

Nor are fleas confined to the old continent, for Lewis and Clarke found them exceedingly harassing on the banks of the Missouri, where it is said the native Indians are sometimes compelled to shift their quarters, to escape their annoyance. They are not acquainted, it would therefore seem, with the device of the shepherds in Hungary, who grease their clothes with hog"s-lard to deter the fleas;

nor with the old English preventive:

While wormwood hath seed, get a handful or twaine,

To save against March, to make fleas refrain.

Where chamber is swept, and wormwood is strown, Ne"er flea for his life dare abide to be known."

Tusser, "Points of Goode Husbandry."

Linnæus was in error in stating that the domestic cat (, TEEMMINCK) is not infested with fleas; for on kittens in particular they abound as numerously as upon dogs.


[] "Mém. Anim. sans Vertébrat." i. 36.

[] Ps. xci. 5.

[] "Theatr. Insect." 270.

[] J. R.

[] Goldsmith"s "Animat. Nature," iv. 198.

[] "Theatr. Insect."

[] Materia Medica," Index.

[] Nicholson"s "Journal," xvii. 40.

[] Forbes, "Oriental Mem." i.

[] "Voyage to the Isle of France."

[] Hist. Insect." 58.

[] "Insect Transformations," p. 393.

[] Walton"s "Hispaniola."

[] "Subtilia," lib. ix.

[] "Insect Transformations," p. 180.

[] Introduction, i. 102.—J. R.

[] J. R.

[] "Theatre of Insects," p. 1102.

[] "Theatre of Insects," p. 1102.

[] Linnæus, "Lachesis Lapan." ii. 32, note.

[] "Travels."

[] J. R.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men