Monday 16 January 2012

Night Soiled

I've been researching night-soil men recently, and it troubled me that I had stumbled upon no first-hand accounts of their work, apart from Henry Mayhew [see earlier post] until I stumbled across this letter, cited in this academic article.
My Dear Sir,

As an illustration of the frequency of the abominable system of cesspools, even in first class streets and towns, I am told on good authority, that in that small space in Piccadilly, near St. James’s Church, now being excavated for the foundation of the Museum of Economic Geology, no less than eight cesspools have been found, besides a large leak from a foul drain. How can a town be healthy with such abominations existing in wealthy districts?
The nightmen are a brutal set of men and fortunate will it be for the public if we can get rid of them. Last Thursday, I went to see an old cesspool emptied, the stuff in which had been accumulating for five years - my object being to inspect a process for disinfection. During the process of empying I saw one of the nightmen actually take up in hand a quantity of the night soil and swallow it ‘to see how it tasted’. After I left I understood, in fact, I have it in evidence under the signature of the nightman himself, one of the nightmen rubbed the night soil into his eyes ‘to see if it acted in the same way on the eyes as common night soil'. Could the chiffoniers of Paris classed among the ‘classes dangereuses’ equal these nightmen in their bestial habits?

Lyon Playfair
1 February 1847
The letter rests in the Edwin Chadwick collection at UCL (whose archivists kindly sent me a copy) and is from the eminent chemist Lyon Playfair, a supporter of Chadwick's sanitary reform agenda. Chadwick [see here for a brief bio] was an energetic but divisive civil servant, the 'architect' of the New Poor Law, and viewed cesspools as one of the great obstacles to improved sanitation in the capital. This letter, therefore, must have been grist to the mill - although one suspects he could never have repeated such a gruesome detail in a public forum.

Yet I rather feel for the 'bestial' nightmen. They had no modern notion of sanitation or hygiene and had been informed that the night-soil had been 'disinfected' by the latest chemical solution. Various 'disinfecting fluids' were being tried out in 1847 - including a 'Monsieur Ledoyen's mixture', one created by Sir William Burnett and 'Ellerman's Patent Disinfecting Fluid'. Unfortunately, these were all based on a Victorian notion of disinfectant - ie. they removed the smell of decomposing excrement - the 'miasma' which was believed to be the chief cause of contagious disease. Some were even poisonous (Ledoyen's mixture contained nitrate of lead, if I recall). If anything, the poor nightmen were simply testing the marvellous new solution - albeit in a rather gross fashion. Were they so 'bestial' as all that?

One of the most interesting things about cesspools that I've discovered is that the wealthy didn't necessarily bother with nightmen. After all, everyone disliked the smell and nuisance of emptying out 'soil' by hand, which is why it was illegal to do so during daylight hours. The solution for the larger properties in Mayfair was simple:-
The public are scarcely aware of the fact that many of the very best portions of the West End are literally honeycombed with cesspools. Many houses have from three to six or seven under them. In some porous neighbourhoods the practice is still when one cesspool is full to arch it over and dig another, to avoid the expense and trouble of removing the soil.
Metropolitan Sanitary Commission, First Report, 1847

Hence the reference to 'eight cesspools' above. Is there anything that money can't buy, eh?


  1. It has in a way an ancient tradition; the woad dippers could tell the acidity of a bath by feel and taste and this was vital to know for the quality of the dye bath. Traditional woad dyeing without modern oxidants is a smelly process having an odour something like rotting cabbages that have been used as a toilet by all local tom cats.
    And of course the earliest way of making a diagnosis by a physician was to taste the urine of a patient. Diabetes is the obvious illness to pick out here but I understand other maladies could be inferred too.

    1. Thanks for the comment - most interesting.