The hidden menace threatening the fabric of England's historic homes

Patrick Sawer
English Heritage's head conservator Caroline Rawson examining moth damage to a carpet at Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire - PA

With its priceless Art Deco interiors, Eltham Palace has been described as a masterpiece of modern design.

But it’s ornate furnishings and fittings face a small but deadly threat - the household moth.

The insect is posing a growing problem for historic homes such as Eltham Palace, a former hunting lodge of Henry VIII that was restored and redecorated in the 1930s by the Courtauld textile family.

English Heritage, the guardians of many of the country’s historic buildings, warned yesterday that what has been a perennial headache is set to get worse, with the estimated numbers of moths at its properties doubling in the past five years.

The charity, which has detected the appearance of the Monopis species, also known as the Pale Backed Clothes Moth, at its properties for the first time, has now launched a project to measure the spread and density of the moth population around the country.

Curators at the Eltham Palace, which has provided a backdrop to period dramas such as Brideshead Revisited and the Hercule Poirot series, discovered an infestation of household moths in The Boudoir room commissioned by Virginia Courtauld.

The Boudoir room at Eltham Palace suffered a moth infestation Credit: Ian Dagnall Commercial Collection/Alamy

English Heritage were forced to put a custom-built sofa and wood panelled book case, along with the room’s carpets and curtains, through a special heating process to eradicate the moths, which were found to have emerged from a void in the wall behind the sofa.

The moths’ larvae feeds on woollen carpets, clothing, upholstery, fur and stuffed animals, resulting in holes or patches if left untreated.

Amber Xavier-Rowe, English Heritage’s head of collections conservation, said: “Many people already know the exasperation of finding a much-loved jumper or coat destroyed by clothes moths. They can eat through centuries-old carpets, tapestries and clothes in a matter of months.

“The warmer weather has not helped and in the last five years the number of clothes moths we’ve captured on our traps has doubled.”

The Pale Backed Clothes Moth (Monopis crocicapitella) species

The charity spends £1 million a year on cleaning its properties and their collection of 500,000 historic artefacts, and has a dedicated team tasked with spotting and eradicating moth infestations.

Ms Xavier-Rowe added: “If we stopped cleaning our properties now we would see a huge amount of damage from moths within 12 months. It’s a constant battle that we have to catch them early before they start damaging fittings and furnishings.”

Extensive moth damage has previously been found on furnishings at Brodsworth Hall, in south Yorkshire, one of the most complete surviving examples of a Victorian country house in England.

Carpets, rugs and the delicate linings of leather suitcases belonging to the colourful 18th Century tobacco and sugar magnate Peter Thellusson were found to have been severely damaged when English Heritage took over the property in 1988.

Visitors to the charity’s properties are now being asked to take home with them a free moth trap to catch them in their own homes.

One of the moth traps visitors can take home Credit: English Heritage

The cardboard and the glue trap is impregnated with the female sex pheromone of the clothes moth – so that it attracts and catches male clothes moths. Although small, the moths are visible to the naked eye and can be counted.

Those taking part in the survey can post their results on the English Heritage website and the information will enable the spread of moths across England to be mapped, helping the charity decide where to concentrate its conservation efforts.

English Heritage, which re-opened many of its sites to the public this week following its annual spring-clean, also hopes the results of the survey will help researchers build up a comprehensive database of the moth population, helping them eventually to find ways of tackling the problem.

Additional reporting by Archie Osmond

Everything you wanted to know about moths, but were afraid to ask . . .

  • Clothes moths are a group of insects related to butterflies, belonging to the Lepidoptera order and growing to up to ½ inch in length.

  • The larvae of the common clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) eat their way through silk, cashmere, wool and other natural fibres containing the protein Keratin.

  • Moths are thought to have been introduced into Britain during the Roman era as the Roman empire expanded. Early evidence of moth damage has been found at Roman archaeological sites.

  • In 1590, Elizabeth I employed eight men to beat Windsor Castle’s furs for a full day to rid them of moths.

  • Eight years later six men were employed for four days to beat and air the robes of Whitehall Palace and the Tower of London.

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