In this week’s blog post, QUB Research Fellow Ida Milne discusses how the discovery of a curious anecdote in Dublin’s medical history led to more profound historical observations.

For details of Ida’s research see:
QUB profile



Sometimes, in the tedium of trawling through dry-as-dust official reports, we historians have a find that initially seems little more than an amusing distraction, but later turns into a way of casting light on our topic.

In April, I  gave a paper on child deaths from infectious disease in the 1910s for department’s  Welfare and Public Health in the Industrial City: Belfast in Comparative Contexts c. 1800-1973 conference at PRONI, and mentioned a substantial increase in the  numbers of infants dying from diarrhoea in 1911, because, the authorities said, it was a hot summer.  Some 2,166 children under the age of two died from diarrhoeal disease, 927 more than the previous year.

Almost half of these infant deaths were concentrated Dublin (with 570) and Belfast (470), which between them contained almost quarter of Ireland’s four million people.  Charles Cameron, Dublin’s long-serving Medical Officer of Health, in the midst of his annual litany of the unsanitary conditions of Dublin tenement life, revealed that he had persuaded the city’s corporation to offer a bounty for bags of flies, as the homes most badly affected seemed to be filthy and full of flies.

I mentioned the little find as a pinch of levity to an oppressive topic.  Like horseflies descending on a cowpat, the audience was curious about the bags of flies: how many bags were there, what fee was paid, how did they collect them?

Their curiosity led me to reassess my flippant treatment of Cameron’s bags of flies idea. How well did it work, and just what was the scientific thinking that led him to think of it?

Cameron, in his report on public health in Dublin for 1911, said that it was firmly established that insects played an essential factor in humans acquiring infective disease, as they introduced the microorganisms that caused the disease into the human system.  He noted that in the hot summer of 1911, there was an abundance of flies.

‘The house fly is a frequent visitor to manure heaps and filthy places generally, where it gets infected.  Finding its way subsequently into houses it infects food.  The dirtier the dwellings are, and especially those with remnants of repasts scattered around the floor, the more likely are they to swarm with flies. There are few to be found in churches.’

He persuaded the corporation’s Public Health Committee to issue 100 brown paper bags and offer 3d for returning them to the disinfecting depot at Marrowbone lane, in the hope that ‘boys who were not at work’ might be encouraged to trap the flies and therefore remove a source of contagion from their home. In Cameron’s view, the flies were a key factor in the infant diarrhoea problem.

Twenty one bags were returned with about 6,000 flies in each, or 126,000 in all. Cameron, clearly taking his task very seriously, found that the average weight of each fly was 0.7 grams.  He said he made two mistakes: not initiating the scheme much earlier in the year, and making the bags too large, as killing 6,000 flies was an onerous task. He found several partly filled bags, and so decided to reduce the size in 1912 to something that would hold 3,000 flies, also for 3d. But 1912 proved to be a cooler summer with fewer flies, and no bags were turned.

It presented an image to me that was at once amusing and quite horrible, of small boys chasing around trying to smash bluebottles in their dilapidated tenement homes, as their mothers struggled to cope with meagre resources to wash and hydrate seriously ill infant siblings.  In the Dublin of 1911, 21,133 families lived in one room, sharing a bed, with a bucket or chamberpot for a toilet, and running water only available from an outside tap. If they were lucky, they shared an outside privy with all the other families in the building.  I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to bring those full chamber pots downstairs to empty them, probably into a dungheap. Or indeed to clear up squashed bluebottle off little boys’ hands.

Cameron was no armchair preacher about the conditions of the poor: he frequently visited tenements, and gives graphic descriptions, for example, of the smell and appearance of a wooden privy seat outside one overcrowded tenement. In the case of the 1911 diarrhoea epidemic, he had visited a one room tenement in Foley St, and saw an unusually large number of flies: “The table and bed were literally covered with them.  The room and all in it were very dirty, and the remains of the morning repast were scattered about on the table and bed.”

Finding only a couple of flies in the room next door, he asked the occupant why, and she responded that she kept everything well covered and the room and herself very clean.

I wondered why Cameron had not suggested that the Corporation supply sticky fly paper to deal with the problem, drawing on my own childhood memories of the goo in my hair as it joined the struggling flies on the papers hanging in my grandmother’s pantry.  A correspondent to the Freeman’s Journal on 19 August 1913 answered that musing, reporting that s/he had bought fly papers in several Dublin pharmacies, at a cost of a shilling.  ‘In all the paste was too dry, and the flies were able to roam across it.  An expenditure of one shilling resulted in the capture of one fly.’

Perhaps there is another lesson to be learned from the bags of flies find. Audiences are not usually excited by worthy but dull statistical material. The flies not only cast a light on the living conditions of Dublin’s poor and on contemporary understandings of disease, but also served to bag the listeners.