Bugs, Lice and Rats

Object: Recreated bug

Found: commissioned from artist

Date: 2022

Vermin consisting of the likes of bed bugs, rats and fleas within the fabric of the housing was a problem in Somers Town during the early twentieth century. Without the safe fumigation technology for buildings that we have today, the situation called for demolition. Irene Barclay, member of the St Pancras House Improvement Society, remembered in horror: ‘These insects feed on blood and attack the soft bodies of children unmercifully … I remember seeing a cross taken down from a wall and its exact outline remained for a few seconds in living bugs’. 

When St Christopher’s flats were opened in Somers Town in 1931, a parade of papier-mache vermin was torched and the ashes mixed in with the foundations. This celebratory performance of fire overseen by Father Basil Jellicoe was almost spiritual, signalling the birth of a new era in public health ambitions.

Public health starts with the built environment. Somers Town was particularly pioneering because the St Pancras Housing Improvement Society developed a proto-Welfare State. It was not just about caring for the community by providing housing, but creating a society where everything from the pub to children’s fresh air excursions were an essential civic duty. Its members and supporters realised that to fight poverty they had to provide a cradle to grave society. We can thank these public health pioneers for laying the foundations, mixed with the ashes of papier-mâché vermin of course, of the welfare state. 

By Eleanor Marshall

The papier-mâché vermin photo