The Odious Black-Beetle: 1896


May I be permitted to add another count to the indictment against the “odious” and “odorous” black-beetle or “cockroach,” formulated in your amusing article on “Household Pests”? The wretched creature is very fond of the paste with which in former days (one seldom sees them now) the paper titles of books were affixed to their backs. When living on the Undercliff of the Isle of Wight, my house swarmed with these foul insects. They drowned themselves in one’s milk, swam in one’s soup, and nibbled one’s pastry. They even invaded our beds; nor was it conducive to a night’s calm repose, on turning down the bedclothes, to see one or more of these wretches scurrying away over the sheets. We laid traps for them—a very clever dodge —by filling soup-plates with beer, with a fringe of split sticks resting on the ground, by which they might climb, and after having drunk their fill, lose their heads, tumble in and be drowned. The abundance of these pests may be gathered when I say that one morning we found between twenty and thirty of various ages, sizes, and colours drowned in the beer in our own bedroom. My study having the kitchen fireplace behind it, was a favourite resort for these horrible insects. On the shelves by the fireplace there were a number of volumes with the white paper labels I have spoken of. These labels, to my annoyance, I found gradually disappearing; not peeling off, but wasting away in comminuted fragments. For some time this was a mystery to me; at last, while I sat writing late at the other side of the room, I was conscious of slight rustlings and scrapings by the fireplace, and on examining my bookshelves I found the cockroaches making their supper on the backs of my books.

Subsequent alterations in the house removed the kitchen, and the loss of the warmth which cockroaches so much delight in made them shift their quarters, and the injury to my library ceased; and the kitchen being in a remote part of the house, their visits to the bedrooms became less frequent. Like the writer of the article, I tried a hedgehog. The worthy animal did his best. He devoured cockroaches to repletion, an over-full meal sometimes making him almost a greater nuisance than the insects themselves. But what could one do among so many? He died at last, I believe, from over-devotion to his task, and his praiseworthy but ineffectual attempts to rid us of the pest came to an end. Not so the pest itself, and but for the structural alterations I have mentioned, and carefully stopping all the crannies in which the cockroaches nestled by the fireplace, it would have been as great as ever.

Edmund Venables.

Cat and bird stories from the “Spectator”: to which are added sundry anecdotes of horses, donkeys, cows, apes, bears, and other animals, as well as of insects and reptiles,  edited by John St. Loe Strachey, 1896

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Cockroaches/Black-beetles rarely figure in the pages of historical works and are never intentionally part of historic museum exhibitions. It is only in occasional essays such as this one that we are afforded the privilege of a peep into the long-lost past of these common house-hold pests.

The hedgehog as caretaker of the pantry is a beloved figure in the English home, whether manor or cottage. This author wrote of his desire to share his house with one:

An early ambition of the present writer was to live in a house stocked with black beetles in order to keep a hedgehog. At last this came about. The new house swarmed with the insects, and we had the luck to find a hedgehog in a cowshed and brought it home. It would not uncurl in the kitchen, so we put it in a dark cupboard, where there were enough of the creatures to “feed right a great hog,” as the cook, who was disappointed in the animal’s size, remarked, disparagingly. But the hedgehog never uncurled. We looked at him night and day and found beetles running over him and speculating where they would begin to eat him. At last we carried him to the lawn, where he did move and walked into the tennis net and had to be cut out to the great destruction of the meshes.

Black-beetle killing is a limited but respectable calling in London, and a leading member of the craft sends his card round at intervals to owners of the large mansions in London, to intimate that in his opinion the time has come when his services ought to be required in the houses which he has attended during many changes of ownership or occupation.

The St. Johns [AZ] Herald 28 September 1893: p.3

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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