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Throughout history the standard method of sewage disposal has been to bung it in the nearest river, which would ultimately carry it to the sea – the word ‘sewer‘ is Old English for ‘seaward’.
“In the entrance to Roman taverns and workshops have been uncovered large stone vessels which can best be described as urinals. Here is the first physical evidence of London’s toilet facilities.”
“In the period of Saxon and Viking occupation there is evidence of excrement dropped anywhere and everywhere, even within the houses.”
“Regulations [in London] of the 13th century ordained that ‘no one shall place dung or other filth in the streets or lanes, but cause the same to be taken by the rakers to the places ordained.’” Human dung at that time was used on the fields outside the city.
Pigs were allowed to roam the streets, as rubbish-eaters, but they themselves became a nuisance, because they were always blocking narrow lanes, and wandering into people’s houses. There was a cull of pigs, after which they were replaced by kites. You could get the death sentence for killing a kite.
In 1349 Edward III wrote to the mayor of London complaining that the city’s thoroughfares were “foul with human faeces, and the air of the city poisoned to the great danger of men passing.” Resulting legislation damned this “grievous and great abomination” and appointed four “scawageours” (scavengers) in each ward, responsible for cleanliness.
However, emptying your bowels directly into the river was still thought to be fine; on London bridge there were 138 houses and a public latrine.
Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, London had variously three streets known as Pissing Lane or Pissing Alley, which were used for the purpose suggested. Also noted are Dunghill Lane and Dunghill Stairs. Pudding Lane is named after dung. Sherborne Lane is nothing to do with Dorset; it was once Shiteburn Lane.
The first public bogs (since Roman times) were built in the 13th century. “The new bridge across the river was equipped with one of these modern conveniences, which had two entrances, while the smaller bridges across the Fleet and the Walbrook also made provision for them.
Against the streams and tributaries there were ‘houses of office,’ too, although many consisted simply of wooden planks with holes carved out of them. More elaborate public privies were constructed, some with four or more holes, culminating in Richard Whittington’s fifteenth-century ‘House of Easement’ or ‘Long House’ over the Thames at the end of Friar Lane. It contained two rows of sixty-four seats, one row for men and the other for women.”
In 1275, the White Friars complained to the king that the public privy above the Fleet gave out “putrid exhalations” which “overcame even the frankincense” and “had caused the death of manie Brethren.”
The law in the 14th century took lav-related crime pretty seriously. One man was charged for dung-dumping so bad that “there may neythir hors ne cart pas for his dong.” [sic]
Much later, Samuel Pepys recorded “Going down to my cellar, I put my foot in a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turners house of office is full and comes into my cellar.”
Ackroyd seems to suggest that the Great Stink was caused by reform, not neglect. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1847 ordered that all privy refuse was to be discharged directly into sewers. This was to keep the streets clean and healthy; previously cesspools had become a real menace. However, this reform meant that all effluent went “straight into the central reaches of the Thames. As a result the swan and the salmon, together with other fish, vanished in an open sewer.”
The water supply for many Londoners was taken directly from the river, and the water “from this time forward” was often described as being of a “brownish” colour.
Ackroyd points out that the Stink was “the odour of progress,” since the massively rising middle-class consumption was partly to blame for it; affluence leads to effluence.
All the above from the book: ‘London the Biography’ by Peter Ackroyd.
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