London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Her Majesty's Bug-Destroyer.


THE vending of bug-poison in the London streets is seldom followed as a regular source of living. We have met with persons who remember to have seen men selling penny packets of vermin poison, but to find out the vendors themselves was next to an impossibility. The men seem merely to take to the business as a living when all other sources have failed. All, however, agree in acknowledging that there is such a street trade, but that the living it affords is so precarious that few men stop at it longer than or weeks.

Perhaps the most eminent firm of the bugdestroyers in London is that of Messrs. Tiffin and Son; but they have pursued their calling in the streets, and rejoice in the title of "Bug- Destroyers to Her Majesty and the Royal Family."

Mr. Tiffin, the senior partner in this house, most kindly obliged me with the following statement. It may be as well to say that Mr. Tiffin appears to have paid much attention to the subject of bugs, and has studied with much earnestness the natural history of this vermin.

"We can trace our business back," he said, "as far as , when of our ancestors turned his attention to the destruction of bugs. He was a lady"s stay-maker—men used to make them in those days, though, as far as that is concerned, it was a man that made my mother"s dresses. This ancestor found some bugs in his house—a young colony of them, that had introduced themselves without his permission, and he didn"t like their company, so he tried to turn them out of doors again, I have heard it said, in various ways. It is in history, and it has been handed down in my own family as well, that bugs were introduced into England after the fire of London, in the timber that


was brought for rebuilding the city, years after the fire, and it was about that time that my ancestor discovered the colony of bugs in his house. I can"t say whether he studied the subject of bug-destroying, or whether he found out his stuff by accident, but he certainly invent a compound which completely destroyed the bugs, and, having been so successful in his own house, he named it to some of his customers who were similarly plagued, and that was the commencement of the present connexion, which has continued up to this time.

At the time of the illumination for the Peace, I thought I must have something over my shop, that would be both suitable for the event and to my business; so I had a transparency done, and stretched on a big frame, and lit up by gas, on which was written—

Our business was formerly carried on in the Strand, where both my father and myself were born; in fact, I may say I was born to the bug business.

I remember my father as well as possible; indeed, I worked with him for or years. He used, when I was a boy, to go out to his work killing bugs at his customers" houses with a sword by his side and a cockedhat and bag-wig on his head—in fact, dressed up like a regular dandy. I remember my grandmother, too, when she was in the business, going to the different houses, and seating herself in a chair, and telling the men what they were to do, to clean the furniture and wash the woodwork.

I have customers in our books for whom our house has worked these years; that is, my father and self have worked for them and their fathers. We do the work by contract, examining the house every year. It"s a precaution to keep the place comfortable. You see, servants are apt to bring bugs in their boxes; and, though there may be only or bugs perhaps hidden in the woodwork and the clothes, yet they soon breed if left alone.

We generally go in the spring, before the bugs lay their eggs; or, if that time passes, it ought to be done before June, before their eggs are hatched, though it"s never too late to get rid of a nuisance.

I mostly find the bugs in the bedsteads. But, if they are left unmolested, they get numerous and climb to the tops of the rooms, and about the corners of the ceilings. They colonize anywhere they can, though they"re very high-minded and prefer lofty places. Where iron bedsteads are used the bugs are more in the , and that"s why such things are bad. They don"t keep a bug away from the person sleeping. Bugs"ll come, if they"re yards off.

I knew a case of a bug who used to come every night about or feet—it was an immense large room—from a corner of the room to visit an old lady. There was only bug, and he"d been there for a long time. I was sent for to find him out. It took me a long time to catch him. In that instance I had to examine every part of the room, and when I got him I gave him an extra nip to serve him out. The reason why I was so bothered was, the bug had hidden itself near the window, the last place I should have thought of looking for him, for a bug never by choice faces the light; but when I came to inquire about it, I found that this old lady never rose till o"clock in the day, and the window-curtains were always drawn, so that there was no light like.

Lord! yes, I am often sent for to catch a single bug. I"ve had to go many, many miles—even or —into the country, and perhaps catch only half-a-dozen bugs after all; but then that"s all that are there, so it answers our employer"s purpose as well as if they were swarming.

I work for the upper classes only; that is, for carriage company and such-like approaching it, you know. I have noblemen"s names, the in England, on my books.

My work is more method; and I may call it a scientific treating of the bugs rather than wholesale murder. We don"t care about the thousands, it"s the last bug we look for, whilst your carpenters and upholsterers leave as many behind them, perhaps, as they manage to catch.

The bite of the bug is very curious. They bite all persons the same (?) but the difference of effect lays in the constitution of the parties. I"ve never noticed that a different kind of skin makes any difference in being bitten. Whether the skin is moist or dry, it don"t matter. Wherever bugs are, the person sleeping in the bed is sure to be fed on, whether they are marked or not; and as a proof, when nobody has slept in the bed for some time, the bugs become quite flat; and, on the contrary, when the bed is always occupied, they are round as a "lady-bird."

The flat bug is more ravenous, though even he will allow you time to go to sleep before he begins with you; or at least until he thinks you ought to be asleep. When they find all quiet, not even a light in the room will prevent their biting; but they are seldom or ever found under the bed-clothes. They like a clear ground to get off, and generally bite round the edges of the nightcap or the nightdress. When they are found the bed, it"s because the parties have been tossing about, and have curled the sheets round the bugs.

The finest and the fattest bugs I ever saw were those I found in a black man"s bed. He


was the favourite servant of an Indian general. He didn"t want his bed done by me; he didn"t want it touched. His bed was full of "em, no beehive was ever fuller. The walls and all were the same, there wasn"t a patch that wasn"t crammed with them. He must have taken them all over the house wherever he went.

I"ve known persons to be laid up for months through bug-bites. There was a very handsome fair young lady I knew once, and she was much bitten about the arms, and neck, and face, so that her eyes were so swelled up she couldn"t see. The spots rose up like blisters, the same as if stung with a nettle, only on a very large scale. The bites were very much inflamed, and after a time they had the appearance of boils.

Some people fancy, and it is historically recorded, that the bug smells because it has no vent; but this is fabulous, for they a vent. It is not the human blood neither that makes them smell, because a young bug who has never touched a drop will smell. They breathe, I believe, through their sides; but I can"t answer for that, though it"s not through the head. They haven"t got a mouth, but they insert into the skin the point of a tube, which is quite as fine as a hair, through which they draw up the blood. I have many a time put a bug on the back of my hand, to see how they bite; though I never felt the bite but once, and then I suppose the bug had pitched upon a very tender part, for it was a sharp prick, something like that of a leech-bite.

I once had a case of lice-killing, for my process will answer as well for them as for bugs, though it"s a thing I should never follow by choice. Lice seem to harbour pretty much the same as bugs do. I found them in the furniture. It was a nurse that brought them into the house, though she was as nice and clean a looking woman as ever I saw. I should almost imagine the lice must have been in her, for they say there is a disease of that kind; and if the tics breed in sheep, why should not lice breed in us? for we"re but live matter, too. I didn"t like myself at all for or days after that lice-killing job, I can assure you; it"s the only case of the kind I ever had, and I can promise you it shall be the last.

I was once at work on the Princess Charlotte"s own bedstead. I was in the room, and she asked me if I had found anything, and I told her no; but just at that minute I happen to catch , and upon that she sprang up on the bed, and put her hand on my shoulder, to look at it. She had been tormented by the creature, because I was ordered to come directly, and that was the only I found. When the Princess saw it, she said, "Oh, the nasty thing! That"s what tormented me last night; don"t let him escape." I think he looked all the better for having tasted royal blood.

I also profess to kill beetles, though you can never destroy them so effectually as you can bugs; for, you see, beetles run from house to another, and you can never perfectly get rid of them; you can only keep them under. Beetles will scrape their way and make their road round a fireplace, but how they manage to go from house to another I can"t say, but they

I never had patience enough to try and kill fleas by my process; it would be too much of a chivey to please me.

I never heard of any but man who seriously went to work selling bug poison in the streets. I was told by some persons that he was selling a -rate thing, and I spent several days to find him out. But, after all, his secret proved to be nothing at all. It was train-oil, linseed and hempseed, crushed up all together, and the bugs were to eat it till they burst.

After all, secrets for bug-poisons ain"t worth much, for all depends upon the application of them. For instance, it is often the case that I am sent for to find out bug in a room large enough for a school. I"ve discovered it when the creature had been or months there, as I could tell by his having changed his jacket so often—for bugs shed their skins, you know. No, there was no reason that he should have bred; it might have been a single gentleman or an old maid.

A married couple of bugs will lay from to eggs at laying. The eggs are oval, and are each as large as the part of an inch; and when together are in the shape of a caraway comfit, and of a bluishwhite colour. They"ll lay this quantity of eggs times in a season. The young ones are hatched direct from the egg, and, like young partridges, will often carry the broken eggs about with them, clinging to their back. They get their fore-quarters out, and then they run about before the other legs are completely cleared.

As soon as the bugs are born they are of a cream colour, and will take to blood directly; indeed, if they don"t get it in or days they die; but after feed they will live a considerable time without a meal. I have known old bugs to be frozen over in a horse-pond—when the furniture has been thrown in the water—and there they have remained for a good weeks; still, after they have got a little bit warm in the sun"s rays they have returned to life again.

I have myself kept bugs for years and a half without food, and a housekeeper at Lord H——"s informed me that an old bedstead that I was then moving from a store-room was taken down years ago, and had not been used since, but the bugs in it were still numerous, though as thin as living skeletons. They couldn"t have lived upon the sap of the wood, it being worm-eaten and dry as a bone.

A bug will live for a number of years, and we find that when bugs are put away in old furniture without food, they don"t increase in number; so that, according to my belief, the


bugs I just mentioned must have existed fortyfive years: besides, they were large ones, and very dark-coloured, which is another proof of age.

It is a dangerous time for bugs when they are shedding their skins, which they do about times in the course of a year; then they throw off their hard shell and have a soft coat, so that the least touch will kill them; whereas, at other times they will take a strong pressure. I have plenty of bug-skins, which I keep by me as curiosities, of all sizes and colours, and sometimes I have found the young bugs collected inside the old ones" skins for warmth, as if they had put on their father"s great-coat. There are white bugs—albinoes you may call "em—freaks of nature like.

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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