London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry




COCKROACHES are even more voracious than crickets. A small species (, LINN.), occasionally met with about London, is said to swarm numerously in the huts of the Laplanders, and will sometimes, iu conjunction with a carrion-beetle (, LINN.), devour, we are told, in a single day, their whole store of dried fish.

In London, and many other parts of the country, cockroaches, originally introduced from abroad, have multiplied so prodigiously as to be a great nuisance. They are often so numerous in kitchens and lower rooms in the metropolis as literally to cover the floor, and render it impossible for them to move, except over each other"s bodies. This, indeed, only happens after dark, for they are strictly night insects, and the instant a candle is intruded upon the assembly they rush towards their hiding-places, so that in a few seconds not of the countless multitude is to be seen.

In consequence of their numbers, independently of their carnivorous propensities, they are driven to eat anything that comes in their way; and, besides devouring every species of kitchen-stuff, they gnaw clothes, leather, and books. They likewise pollute everything they crawl over, with an unpleasant nauseous smell.

These "black-beetles," however, as they are commonly called, are harmless when compared with the foreign species, the giant cockroach (), which is not content with devouring the stores of the larder, but will attack human bodies, and even gnaw the extremities of the dead and dying.—(Drury"s iii. )

Cockroaches, at least the kind that is most abundant in , hate the light, and never come forth from their hiding-places till the lights are removed or extinguished (the , however, which abounds in some houses, is bolder, making its appearance in the day, and running up the walls and over the tables, to the great annoyance of the in- habitants). In the London houses, especially on the ground-floor, they are most abundant, and consume everything they can find—flour, bread, meat, clothes, and even shoes. As soon as light, natural or artificial, appears, they all scamper off as fast as they can, and vanish in an instant.

These pests are not indigenous to this country, and perhaps nowhere in Europe, but are of the evils which commerce has imported. In Captain Cook"s last voyage, the ships, while at Husheine, were infested with incredible numbers of these creatures, which it was found impossible by any means to destroy. Every kind of food, when exposed only for a few minutes, was covered with them, and pierced so full of holes, that it resembled a honeycomb. They were so fond of ink that they ate out the writing on labels. Captain Cook"s cockroaches were of kinds— the and

The following fact we give from Mr. Douglas"s —

Everybody has heard of a haunted house; nearly every house in and about London is haunted. Let the doubters, if they have the courage, go stealthily down to the kitchen at midnight, armed with a light and whatever other weapon they like, and they will see that beings of which Tam o"Shanter never dreamed, whose presence at daylight was only a myth, have here "a local habitation and a name." Scared from their nocturnal revels, the creatures run and scamper in all directions, until, in a short time, the stage is clear, and, as in some legend of diablerie, nothing remains but a most peculiar odour.

These were no spirits, had nothing even of the fairy about them, but were veritable cockroaches, or "black-beetles"—as they are more commonly but erroneously termed—for they are not beetles at all. They have prodigious powers of increase, and are a corresponding nuisance. Kill as many as you will, except, perhaps, by poison, and you cannot extirpate them—the cry is, "Still they come."

One of the best ways to be rid of them is to keep a hedgehog, to which creature they are a favourite food, and his nocturnal habits make him awake to theirs. I have known cats eat cockroaches, but they do not thrive upon them.

" article of their food would hardly have been suspected," says Mr. Newman, in a note communicated to the Entomological Society, at the meeting in . ""There is nothing new under the sun;" so says the proverb. I believed, until a few days back, that I possessed the knowledge of a fact in the dietary economy of the cockroach of which entomologists were not cognisant, but I find myself forestalled; the fact is "as old as the hills." It is, that the cockroach seeks with diligence and devours with great gusto the common bed-bug.



I will not mention names, but I am so confident of the veracity of the narrator, that I willingly take the entire responsibility of the following narrative:—

"Poverty makes one acquainted with strange bedfellows;" and my informant bears willing testimony to the truth of the adage. He had not been prosperous, and had sought shelter in a London boarding-house; every night he saw cockroaches ascending his bed-curtains; every morning he complained to his very respectable landlady, and invariably received the comforting assurance that there was not a "black-beetle in the house." Still he pursued his nocturnal investigations, and he not only saw cockroaches running along the tester of the bed, but, to his great astonishment, he positively observed one of them seize a bug, and he therefore concluded, and not without some show of reason, that the cockroach ascended the curtains with this especial object, and that the more odoriferous insect is a favourite food of the major one.

The following extract from Mr. Webster"s "Narrative of Foster"s Voyage," corroborates this recent observation, and illustrates the proverb which I have taken as my text: "Cockroaches, those nuisances of ships, are plentiful at St. Helena, and yet, bad as they are, they are more endurable than bugs. Previous to our arrival here in the Chanticleer we had suffered great inconvenience from the latter; but the cockroaches no sooner made their appearance than the bugs entirely disappeared. The fact is, the cockroach preys upon them, and leaves no sign or vestige of where they have been. So far, the latter is a most valuable insect."

So great is the annoyance and discomfort arising from these insects in Cockney households, that the author of a paper in the discusses the best means of effecting their extirpation. The writer of the article referred to avows his conviction, that the ingenious individual who shall devise the means of effectually ridding our houses of these insect pests will deserve to be ranked amongst the benefactors of mankind. The writer details the various expedients resorted to — hedgehogs, cucumber-peel, red wafers, phosphoric paste, glazed basins or pie-dishes filled with beer, or a syrup of beer and sugar, with bits of wood set up from the floor to the edge, for the creatures to run up by, and then be precipitated into the fatal lake, but believes that "none of these methods are fundamental enough for the evil," which, so far as he is yet aware, can only be effectually cured by heating our houses by steam!

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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