It appears to have been common belief across the country that on the 1st of March the fleas arrived back in the house. Accounts according to Steve Stroud (2005) are first made in print in late Victorian times. This belief even added geographical reference in Somerset, for a Yeovil it is said that they came marching down Hendford Hill, and at Crewkerne similarly down Cemetery Hill! Similarly, an c1890 account in Devon:
“A house-maid advised Mrs Hewett not to open her bedroom window on 1st March and aid that she had heard that the black army always came down Exeter Hill, in Swarms.”
This black army not only described the flea’s appearance but made them synonymous with the Devil for it was also said that:
“The Devil shakes a bag of fleas at everybody’s door on 1st March.”
Therefore it as advised that housewives should be careful early in the morning their front door steps to drive away any invasion or else not open one’s windows.
According to Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of Sussex:
“If the fleas you would be free, let all your doors and windows open be”
She also recalls that a West Sussex tradition would be to get up before dawn to fling their doors and windows open and cry welcome March and sometimes the children would be given brushes and told to sweep away all dirt from thresholds and windowsills. In the eastern areas of the country they recommended:
“If from fleas you would be free, on the first of March let your windows closed be”
Bizarrely converse of course! An informant from Littleton told Simpson
“The reason why the windows were always kept shut in March because it was believed that the winds blew the fleas out of the thatch.”
People of Arundel on that date would shake themselves on Arundel bridge in the belief this would keep them free from fleas. Interestingly, Violets will bring fleas into the house in March according to an article in 1993 in Folklore called Plants used for pest control; some 20th century examples by Roy Vickery suggesting that being collected in 1985 there might have been some recent belief in the custom at least at Langtoft in Lincolnshire where it as collected.
In truth it was probably the change in climate that allowed cocoons laid in dust and fabrics to hatch and fleas to appear in great number. A similar event happens in houses which have been unoccupied for a period of time, in this case vibrations awake fleas from their torpor. Of course, no one remembers the 1st for its association with fleas – the human flea the scourge described in this folklore accounts in virtually if not entirely extinct in the British Isles a victim of the vacuum and temperatures of our homes are warm enough to allow cat and dog fleas to be active all year…I’d still watch up for some fleas coming down your street on the 1st of March.