Maggot farms: a Cure for Tuberculosis

MUSCA VOMITORIA: even its proper Latin name couldn’t describe the larval stage of the common bluebottle any more aptly.  Because they eat decaying flesh, blue bottle flies in the house sometimes indicate a decomposing animal in an attic or wall space.  They are a reminder of the unpleasant side  of life and death that we ‘d rather ignore or forget. Dictionaries describe Musca vomitoria as ‘a large and troublesome species of blowfly’, and troublesome was the perfect description of its effects on local people in and around Wrose from early in the 20th century. 

And all, initially, for the sake of anglers!

The maggot farm in Wrose was a small business belonging to the Hainsworth family.  It was located by the Catstones Wood, in an area  of rough land and smallholdings, accessible only by cart tracks. The farm, with its putrid-smelling shed-like buildings, wasn’t a major problem until the second half of the century.  Then the housing developments built for Shipley’s fast expanding population began to creep ever closer.  Meanwhile the farm was in full production, breeding the larvae to supply Britain’s anglers, zoos, laboratories and bird-keepers with possibly the tastiest food or bait they could want.  The Hainsworth family’s maggots had a widespread reputation for quality, not just locally.

The farm received national attention  in 1937, when a short filler piece with titles such as “A Strange but Profitable Bequest” appeared in papers as widely spread as the Sunday Mirror and the Dundee Evening Telegraph.  Fred Hainsworth had been left ‘a million maggots’ in his late father’s will, and was ‘very well satisfied with it’.  Also, presumably, he was well satisfied with the £1566 also in his legacy – a considerable sum in those days!

The story continued,  describing the routine of supplying maggots to customers, sold by the pint, and totalling 1000 gallons of maggots a year.  The maggots travelled by rail in tin containers tied with string.  The reporter speculated as to ‘whether or not the railway officials realise exactly what they are handling’.

The site was described as being ‘on top of a naked moor, where there are no dwellings other than their own.  They have the advantage of complete seclusion and an excellent view’.

The smell emanating from the low stone buildings where the maggots live is, it was said, quickly dispersed on this windy height, hundreds of feet above sea level.

“The meat the maggots feed on is not necessarily rotten”, Mr Hainsworth told a reporter, “and the smell is not so bad as people might imagine.  There were crowds up here at the time of the Coronation, and I don’t think any of them realised there was such a thing as a maggot farm near.”

Fred Hainsworth seems to have been a taciturn man.  “It’s not so bad.  You get used to it,” he said in his interview.  The reporter added that “This is his answer to most of the wondering comments of the non-maggot-fancying outsider.  He has been getting used to it for 20 years.” 

It was perhaps, not the most sociable of jobs.

The pungent ammonia-like stench given off by large quantities of maggots was not to the liking of people moving to live in the new houses around the farm.  Add to that the foul smell of rotting meat (food for the maggots), wafting on windy days over areas beyond  Wrose itself – Idle and Thackley included – and mass breakouts of bluebottles escaping from their sheds. Unsurprisingly, the farm became the focus of complaints.

In 1968 the T&A reporter Jim Appleby visited the farm to investigate the grievances of the local householders.  He described what he found: ‘You go into the breeding shed.  Immediately the heavy ammonia smell in the air catches the throat and wrings tears from the eyes.  In stone stalls on both sides of the shed, maggots in their thousands gorge themselves on fish and meat … ten days later they’re ready to riddle off into sawdust filled troughs in another building for dispatch’.  But, for a maggot farm, it was well-run and hygienically clean and operating within the rules of public health.

But there was an unexpected beneficial side to the maggots’ existence.  Bradford had always had a problem with high rates of tuberculosis, particularly amongst the poorer of its people.  They lived in appallingly bad, overcrowded slums amongst all the smoking chimneys of the great woollen mills for which the city was famous.  There were a lot of folk remedies and quack medicines that promised to cure the disease, but tuberculosis continued to kill, relentlessly,  as many as 10% of the population throughout the 19th century. 

Many of the folk cures were based on the need for a change of air. Few people in Bradford could afford a lengthy visit to a sanatorium in Switzerland’s mountains,  so cheap alternative therapies were needed.  And,  for a short and cheap change of air, where else but Wrose?  

As a researcher in the 1960s reported:

… in the Wrose area of Bradford/Shipley some at least of the old inhabitants believe that the vile smell emanating from a local ‘maggot-farm’ is good for sufferers from tuberculosis, and I have been told by one person that, during the Great War, platoons of soldiers were marched through the buildings in which the maggots were reared in order to strengthen their resistance to the disease. 

If that precautionary measure failed, soldiers returning from the battlefields with tuberculosis were prescribed a regular two hour spell in the maggot breeding shed, the theory being that ammonia was good for cleaning the lungs.  It was not a pleasant  remedy:  two hours of sitting in a hut full of maggots, after all the soldiers had gone through on the battlefield,  must have felt more like a form of torture than a cure.  But another source, writing of the same period, mentions the even worse remedy of eating maggots that could be inflicted upon soldiers.

But many of the folk remedies for tuberculosis (in the past more commonly called phthisis or consumption), were based on the assumption that this type of vapour treatment for various lung disorders was beneficial .  There were tales of TB sufferers being made to ‘breathe the breath of horses, mules and donkeys’ or children being held over a privy or commode or ‘taken to a pig sty before dawn and made to bite into the hog trough’ or being held over a steaming manure pile’.  Spending nights lying in a cow byre with the cattle was also a popular remedy.  All of these practices seem to have rested on the importance of a change or exchange of air between the animal and the human.  Most demonstrate how desperate people were to be cured of what was so often a fatal disease.

It is worth noting that when, in the late 1940s, a person who had recently moved into the Wrose district tried to rouse local opinion against the farmer on the grounds that his ‘farm’ was a danger to health, he received very little support for his campaign.  The Shipley Times stated that ‘the report of the Area Planning Officer upon his recent inspection of the premises was submitted, and it was resolved that no action be taken in the matter’.  Had the people of Wrose become immune to the nauseous smell, or were they perversely proud of their curious local farming enterprise? Were they even still paying a visit to the farm when they felt the need for ‘a change of air’?

The farm still existed when in the late 60s/early 70s, I occasionally worked in the area, and If the wind was in the wrong direction the stench was terrible, and if I had to send staff out to work in the thereabouts they were sometimes very reluctant to do so. I think it was closed down in the 70s, possibly by the Environmental Health Department!

After the story of the maggot farm appeared in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus in 2021, the son of the former owner, Arthur Pedley, contacted the paper and gave more detail about events at the farm when it was eventually closed, and how the closure affected his family. The text of the article (written by Emma Clayton of the T & A) follows. It gives a wider picture of the work at the farm, and confirms that the farm was run on hygienic lines. My thanks to Emma Clayton and Mr Pedley for agreeing to this additional use of their article.


THE son of a former Bradford maggot farmer says he “never recovered” after closing his business following complaints from residents moving to new houses near the site.
This week the T&A ran a look-back feature on the Wrose maggot farm owned by the Hainsworth family. Established by Albert Hainsworth in 1907, it was in-demand as a supplier for animal feed and fishing bait. Maggots were shipped to countries including the Netherlands and Belgium and across the UK for anglers, zoos, laboratories and bird-keepers.

But when housing was built near the farm in the 1960s the stench from large quantities of maggots was not to the liking of some people in the new houses. “Add to that the foul smell of rotting meat – which was food for the maggots – wafting on windy days over areas beyond Wrose and mass breakouts of bluebottles escaping from sheds. The farm became the focus of complaints,” wrote historian Dr Christine Alvin in the T&A feature.
Andrew Pedley, whose father ran the farm in the 1960s, said it was well respected, adhered to public health rules, and was there long before the new housing. “The developers knew full well there was a maggot farm there, and the people moving into the houses knew. So to complain about a business that had been there since the early 1900s seemed very unfair,” said Mr Pedley.

“I worked there from the age of 13 to 15, when I was still at school and we lived at the end of the track, near the farm. I don’t believe the smell went as far as Idle and Thackley, as the article said. It was my dad Bernard’s farm, it had been my grandad Fred’s before that, and his father, Albert, had started it. It was a long-running family business with an excellent reputation – we supplied to Harewood House tropical bird gardens and cases of maggots used to go all over the country. My dad had a van with a pink elephant on the side, everyone knew it was Hainsworth’s van. It said ‘The best maggots for miles around’.”
Mr Pedley claimed complaints about the farm caused his father great stress and led to its closure in the 1970s. “The farm had been there for years before the housing, but there was so much pressure from the complaints, it broke my dad in the end,” he said. “It was his livelihood, it was all he knew, and he lost it. They ended up shutting him down and he never recovered. It made him ill in the end.”

The farm, by Catstones Wood, was accessible only by cart tracks prior to the new housing development. In 1965 the T&A reported that more than 30 residents petitioned Shipley Council complaining of flies and smells coming from the maggot farm.
In 1968 T&A reporter Jim Appleby visited the farm and found thousands of maggots feasting on fish and meat. He wrote that “it was well-run and hygienically clean and operating within the rules of public health.”
He said Bernard Hainsworth, who took over running the farm in the 1950s, “is openly concerned about the complaints and has followed to the letter every piece of advice the council has given on the subject of preventing bluebottles escaping.”
The report also said First World War soldiers returning with tuberculosis had been taken to Hainsworths’ maggot sheds, where the smell was said to be good for the lungs.

Dr C Alvin.

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