Affluence and effluence: waste management in the long 18th Century

Flo Laino

November 11, 2014

Amidst the civility of 18th and 19th Century architecture, it is often easy to forget the rather more shabby, mucky character of buildings that generally dominated the street-scene of the capital at this point in time.

Contrary to the popular belief that a new ‘modern’ London, had risen wholesale out of the devastation of the post-Great Fire landscape, the socio-economic conditions of a city in outcry for compensation and rapid rebuilding work, meant that London had for the most part been rebuilt along the same lines of its pre-fire fabric. Thus, far into the 18th Century, as the need for housing exploded alongside a growing population, the average London house could be just as susceptible to the ‘cowboy build’ as those built before. A catalogue of problems such as thin-party walls, blocked windows, and unstable materials, were to continue into the types of houses that would colour the pages of Dickens. However, perhaps one of the most virulent aspects of domestic life in the Early Modern home across all classes, was the issue of poor disposal of human excrement.

We know of a strong distaste for human muck in London, derived from its associations with the Medieval bubonic plague, and the hundreds of neighbourly disputes it provoked (as documented in the Assizes of Nuisances), but the lack of waste management by the City authorities, meant a continual intrusion of filth into both private and public spaces, as Londoner’s would rid themselves of their soils in anyway they could. Public latrines were positioned on London Bridge, whilst smaller rivers, such as the Walbrook and the Fleet were often commandeered for private jetties, made of wood (Sabine 1937, 16). The City Authorities, recognising this encroachment as an endemic cause of rotting walls, open sewers, and water pollution, made attempts to outlaw public fouling, and offered financial rewards for those who informed on such instances (Sabine 1937, 26; Hardy 1985, 251).

Over the course of the 17th-18th Centuries, toiletry technology progressed slowly, with the greater introduction of cesspits in shared courtyards between houses, and privies, such as ornately decorated ‘Jerichos’, or ‘necessary rooms’ at the end of gardens (Reid 1989). This tells of the evolving national relationship of English people with their ‘business’ matters, as a tale of increasing intolerance, of increasing need for privacy and of polite ways of dealing with their soils. But mostly, in London where space was dear and land profitable, up until the introduction of water-closets and the sewage system in the mid-19th Century to the mass market, we continue to find foul places in the basements and cellars of houses, emptied at night by ‘Nightmen’, men working with carts and buckets to scrape out the muck (as can be seen in the background of Hogarth’s ‘Night’).

It is of this phenomenon that documentary history is littered with countless instances of unfortunate encounters! Samuel Pepys, residing but a couple streets away from the 100 Minories site, told in 1660 of how going down into his cellar one morning, he was much troubled by putting his foot into ‘a great heap of turds’, which had come up from ‘Mr Turner’s house of office…’, his neighbour with whom he shared a cesspit and was in frequent dispute. Gilbert Innes, a Scottish merchant, residing in London in 1793 wrote of an occasion after breakfast when upon opening the window ‘the most damnable of all stinks’ caused him to instantly part with breakfast on the stairs, whilst the ‘whole people in the house suffered the difficulty of disgorging the supper of the preceding evening’. The cause of this damnable stench was that the ‘nightman’ had not yet finished his work (Jenner 2013).

Widely reviled as a decrepit, filthy and sickening sort, documentary evidence shows an alternative view of the “nightmen” co-existing alongside the polite. The removal of night soil became big business in London, in areas around the city such as Old Street and Moorfields. Tradesmen such as John Hunt, (pictured above) were marketing themselves in scenes of quiet pastoral content; the nightmen, clean and happy in their employment, heroes of English sensibilities. Yet there are just as many dirty and sordid stories of nightmen which survive in the documentary sources. Cases of the nightmen, stripped topless, waist deep in muck, addicted to gin in order to make the night, removing not only human excrement, but at times human bodies from the pools, show a very alternate experiences of ‘polite’ domestic spaces over the course of the long 18th Century (Jenner 2013; Keene 2001, 173; Mayhew 1861).


Hardy, A. (1984). ‘Water and the search for public health in London in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’. Medical History, 28, pp. 250 – 282.

Keene, D. (2001). ‘Issues of water in Medieval London to c. 1300’. Urban History, 28, 2, pp. 161 – 179.

Jenner, M. (2013). ‘Polite and Excremental Labour? London’s Nightmen c. 1600 – c. 1850.’ Institute of Historical Research.

Mayhew, H. (1861 – 62). London Labour and the London Poor. 4 vols, Reprint. New York: Dover, 1968.

Reid, R. (1989). The Georgian House and its details. London: Bishopsgate Press.

Sabine, E. (1937). ‘City Cleaning in Mediaeval London’. Speculum, 12, 1, pp. 19 – 43.

Featured Image

Heal, A. (n.d.). Trade card of William Woodward, Nightman, Carman and Chimney-sweep. Advertisement. London: Wellcome Collection. Available here.