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Waste Matter

What the voracious city devours, it must eventually disgorge in rubbish and excrement. Thomas More, who as under-sheriff knew the malodorous and insanitary conditions of London at first hand, decided that in his Utopia (1516) anything sordidum (dirty) or morbum (diseased) should be forbidden within the walls. In the early sixteenth century, this was indeed a utopian state.

The sanitary conditions of London in the centuries of Roman civilisation, when a system of public baths and latrines helped actively to promote urban cleanliness, were as good as anywhere within the empire. Yet it would be unwise to depict a marbled city without stain; refuse heaps, containing the bones of oxen, goats, pigs and horses, were found in the open areas of the city still within the walls, although it is likely that semi-domesticated ravens were always ready to consume offending garbage littered upon the street. The practice of throwing the contents of urine jars out of the window is well known, as is attested by numerous court cases. In the entrance to Roman taverns and workshops, however, 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 one such site, along Fish Street Hill, was found a bag of cannabis which also testifies to the longevity of the drug culture of the city).

In the period of Saxon and Viking occupation there is evidence of excrement dropped anywhere and everywhere, even within the houses, which suggests a deterioration in healthy practice. In turn we may imagine the medieval town littered with horse dung and cesspools, strewn with the offal of butchers, with wooden chips and kitchen refuse, human excrement and daily rubbish, generally impeding the “channels” which ran down both sides of the street. Regulations of the thirteenth 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”; these “places” were an early version of the rubbish tip from which the contents were taken by cart or boat to outlying areas where the dung could be used as manure for the fields. Pigs were allowed to roam through the streets as natural consumers of rubbish, but they proved a considerable nuisance with their custom of blocking narrow lanes and straying into houses; their place after a cull was taken by kites who performed the same function as ravens in first-century London. Indeed there were laws that forbade on pain of death the killing of kites and ravens, which became so tame that they would snatch a piece of bread and butter from a child’s hands.

In 1349 Edward III wrote to the mayor, complaining that the thoroughfares were “foul with human faeces, and the air of the city poisoned to the great danger of men passing.” As a result the civic authorities issued a proclamation denouncing the “grievous and great abomination” to be found in filth, dung and other nuisances obstructing the streets. From entries in the Letter Books and the Plea and Memoranda Rolls it is clear that the city leaders, fearing epidemic disease, accepted the need for sanitary legislation. Four scavengers (scawageours) were to be held responsible for rubbish in each ward, and each householder had a duty to ensure that the street outside his door was cleared of noisome waste. There were fines for any citizen found dumping refuse into the Fleet or Walbrook, and a “serjeant of the channels” was appointed to ensure that the rivulets of street and stream remained unimpeded. But old habits persisted. Households overlooking the Walbrook paid a tax or toll in order to build their latrines over the running water of the river, and upon London Bridge itself there were 138 houses as well as a public latrine which showered down upon the Thames.

Public places, in that capacity, were used more often than private spaces. Pissing Lane, later known as Pissing Alley, “leadinge from Paules Church into Pater Noster Rowe,” may be mentioned, along with two other alleys of the same name dating variously from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. Similarly there were Dunghill Lanes beside Puddle Dock and Whitefriars as well as Queenhithe, while Dunghill Stairs was located to the front of Three Cranes Wharf.

The first public lavatories, since the urns of Roman London, were constructed in the thirteenth 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, while the refuse dropped into a gully washed with the tides. Public exposure in the city’s privies, however, could be dangerous. A quarrel between two men in a privy beside the wall of Ironmonger Lane ended in murder. Death came in other forms from the same source. The privy above the Fleet, near the mouth of the Thames, caused much discomfort to the monks of White Friars who in 1275 declared to Edward I “that the putrid exhalations there from overcame even the frankincense used in their Services and had caused the death of manie Brethren.”

Certain other parts of London were renowned, and arraigned, for their dirtiness—Farringdon Without and Portsoken were known for their dung-heaps and rubbish dumps while the inhabitants of Bassinghall Ward and Aldrich Gate [Aldersgate] Ward were fined for “casting out of ordure and urine.” One may add to this noisome list the place known as Moorfields which, before being drained in 1527, was said to be “a melancholy region, with raised paths and refuse-heaps, deep black ditches, not unodourous and detestable open sewers.” It was a walk, according to one city history, suitable for London suicides and London philosophers.

The London memoranda (court records) of the fourteenth century are filled with complaints and exhortations. A wall “fallith down gobet-mele into the hie strete, and makith the wey foule … the commin privey of ludgate is full difectif and perlus, and the ordur thereof rotith the stone wallys.” In the parish of St. Sepulchre one Halywell was indicted “for anoyng the feld with donge on both sides horspole,” and one Norton for a similar offence “that there may neythir hors ne cart pas for his dong.” Fourteen households in Foster Lane were indicted “for castyngh out of ordour & vrine,” and in the parish of St. Botolph a nuisance was created by “stuppyng of the water, for by cause that the dunghe and the Robous that is dreuen doune ther-to.” All the cooks of Bread Street were arraigned for keeping their “dung and garbage” under their stalls, while a dung-hill in Watergate Street was deemed to create “ordour of Prevees and other orrible sigtis.” We can hear the voice of Londoners in these denunciations, and join in their very local vision of the “filth that cometh doun be Trinite Lane and Cordwanerstrete by Garlekhith and goth doun in the lane by twix John Hatherle shop and Rick Whitman shop, of whiche dong moche goth in to Thamise.”

The same kind of complaint emerges in every century, and there is a plaintive echo of these London memoranda in Samuel Pepys’s words from Seething Lane: “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.”

Londoners are fascinated by excrement. Sir Thomas More, in the early sixteenth century, uses five names of shit—cacus, merda, stercus, lutum, co-enum—in his polemical work. These are Latin terms but in the English of the same century homage was paid to human excrement with the nickname of “Sirreverence.” In the late twentieth century those quintessentially London artists, “Gilbert and George” of Spitalfields, arranged large exhibitions of their Shit Paintings.

The very houses of London are built upon refuse. Discarded and forgotten objects, left among old foundations, help to support the weight of the modern city, so that beneath our feet are copper brooches and crucibles, leather shoes and lead tokens, belts and buckles, broken pottery and sandals and figurines, tools and gloves, jars and pieces of bone, shoes and oyster shells, knives and toys, locks and candlesticks, coins and combs, plates and pipes, a child’s ball and a pilgrim’s amulet, all spreading their silent ministry through the earth. But the city is built upon remains and ruins in a more literal sense. In Chick Lane, in 1597, it was discovered that thirty tenements and twelve cottages had been erected upon a great dump of public refuse, while Holywell Street was built upon a site of rubbish and waste which had accumulated for a hundred years after the Great Fire. Even the pavements of the modern city are made, according to The Stones of London by Elsden and Howe, “with slabs produced from clinkered household refuse by the municipal authorities.”

The streets also bear the marks of waste. Maiden Lane is named after middens, Pudding Lane after the “pudding” sent down it to the dung boats moored on the Thames. Public dumps were also known as laystalls and there is still a Laystall Street in Clerkenwell. Sherborne Lane was once known as Shiteburn Lane.

In the period when Pepys was complaining about the substances in his cellar, the privy was being used in most households for kitchen and domestic as well as human refuse. The streets, despite all the prohibitions and regulations, were still offensive “with dust and unwholesome stenches in summer and in wet weather with dirt.” This passage occurs in a report of 1654, and eight years later the city made one of its periodic efforts to cleanse itself with injunctions that householders on Wednesdays and Saturdays should put their refuse in “basket tubs or other vessels ready for the Raker or Scavenger”; the approach of his cart or carriage was meant to be heralded by “a bell, horn, clapper or otherwise,” thus alerting the inhabitants to bring out their rubbish. Excrement itself was removed from the cesspits by “night-soil men,” whose carts were notoriously leaky; they dropped “near a quarter of their dirt” and the great eighteenth-century philanthropist Jonas Hanway remarked that they subjected “every coach and every passenger, of what quality whatsoever, to be overwhelmed with whole cakes of dirt at every accidental jolt of the cart, of which many have had a most filthy experience.” It might be thought the Great Fire would bring a speedy and fiery end to the city’s problems of waste, but the habits of the citizen were not to be easily changed. The novels of the eighteenth century pay horrified, if somewhat oblique, attention to the malodorous and generally offensive conditions of the capital.

Yet if the Great Fire did not cleanse London, it is appropriate that commerce should do so instead. Improved methods of agriculture meant that, by 1760, manure had become a valuable commodity. Since household ash and cinders also began to be employed in brick-making, a whole new market for refuse emerged. Now there came new dealers, competing upon the exchange of the streets. In 1772 a city scavenger of St. James, Piccadilly, reported that he was “greatly injured by a set of Persons called Running Dustmen who go about the streets and places of this Parish and collect the Coal Ashes.” He begged the parishioners only “to deliver their Coal Ashes but to the Persons employed by him the said John Horobin who are distinguished by ringing a Bell.” One eighteenth-century advertisement parades the benefits of Joseph Waller, residing by the Turnpike at Islington, who “keeps Carts and Horses for emptying Bog-Houses.” When rubbish became part of commerce, the conditions of the city were improved more speedily than by any Paving Acts or Cleansing Committees.

In the nineteenth century, the history of city refuse became part of the history of city finance. The dust-heap in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, modelled upon a real and ever more offensive pile off the King’s Cross Road, was believed to contain buried treasure and had already made a fortune for its owner. “I’m a pretty fair scholar in dust,” Mr. Boffin explains, “I can price the Mounds to a fraction, and I know how they can be best disposed of.” There were “Mounds” or “Mounts” of refuse in various parts of London. One immediately to the west of the London Hospital was known as “Whitechapel Mount,” and from its summit could be seen “the former villages of Limehouse, Shadwell and Ratcliffe.” Another was situated at Battle-bridge and was known to the author of Old and New London as a mountain with “heaped hillocks of horse-bones” together with cinders, rags and ordure. It became the resort of “innumerable pigs” but its true commercial worth was proved in a remarkable manner when, in the first years of the nineteenth century, the Russians purchased all the ashes from that site to assist in the rebuilding of Moscow after its burning by the French. The area itself, just north of the present King’s Cross Station, had become the quarters of “dustmen and cinder-sifters” as well as more general scavengers, or, in other words, all those who lived upon the refuse of the city. In that sense it was a benighted place and, even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is characterised by its bleakness and ugliness. The atmosphere of dereliction hangs over it still.

At Letts Wharf, on the southern bank of the Thames near the Shot Tower at Lambeth, another band of Londoners used to sift and pick through the refuse. Most of them were women, who smoked short pipes and wore “strawboard gaiters and torn bonnet boxes for pinafores.” Theirs was an old profession, passed from mother to daughter, generation after generation. “The appearance of these women is most deplorable,” one medical officer wrote, “standing in the midst of fine dust piled up to their waists, with faces and upper extremities begrimed with black filth, and surrounded by and breathing a foul, moist, hot air, surcharged with the gaseous emanations of disintegrating organic compounds.” The dust was sifted into its coarse and fine components, while old pieces of tin were salvaged together with old shoes and bones and oyster shells. The tin often went to make “clamps” for luggage, while the oyster shells were sold to builders; old shoes went to the manufacturers of the famous dye, “Prussian blue.” Nothing was wasted.

It was once rumoured that the streets of London were paved with gold and so it is perhaps no surprise that, in the nineteenth century, the refuse “daily swept up and collected from the streets … is turned into gold to the tune of some thousands of pounds a year.” In photographs of the Victorian city, the gutters are filled with litter and street-sweepings with the added nuisance of multifarious orange peel. The rewards of the city sweepers were based entirely upon locality, but the most obvious product was “street mud” which was sold to farmers or market gardeners. The thoroughfares most highly prized were those where “locomotion never ceases”—Haymarket being “six times in excess of the average streets,” followed by Watling Street, Bow Lane, Old Change and Fleet Street. So even movement itself creates profit in a city based upon speed and productivity.

“Street orderlies” swept the streets and crossings. Some were “pauper labourers” set to the task as a convenient method of combining discipline with efficiency, while others were “philanthropic labourers” who were paid by various charitable concerns. By the middle of the century, all were in competition with the new “street-sweeping machines” which had a mechanical power “equal to the industry of five street-sweepers.”

The industry was complex, however, and different forms of scavenging were specific. Horse manure was collected by boys in red uniforms, who ran among the traffic shovelling it up and placing it in receptacles by the side of the road; this represented yet more London “gold,” at least to farmers in dire need of fertiliser. There were bone-pickers and rag-gatherers, cigar and cigarette pickers, old wood collectors, sweeps and dredgermen, dustmen and “mud larks,” all intent upon collecting up “the most abject refuse” of the city in case it might become “the source of great riches.”

From one owner of a beer-shop on the Southwark Bridge Road Henry Mayhew, who chronicled the street-finders as a different class of city dwellers, learned how the bone-grubbers took their bags of bones to his establishment. Here they received payment and “sat … silently looking at the corners of the floor, for they rarely lifted their eyes up.” The rag-finders had their own separate “beats.” The “pure” finders took up dog excrement from the street; in the early nineteenth century it had been the profession of women who were known as “bunters” but the increasing demands of the tanning trade, for which the excrement was used as an astringent, meant that male workers were also in demand.

In the hope of “finding fitting associates and companions in their wretchedness … or else for the purpose of hiding themselves and their shifts and struggles for existence from the world” the “pure” finders tended to congregate within tenements in the east of the City, just past the Tower of London, between the docks and Rosemary Lane. This was an area, according to Mayhew, “redolent of filth and pregnant with pestilential disease.” The inadvertent use of “pregnant” suggests here the general association of dirty people with sexual depravity. Indeed the attempt to take prostitution off the streets of London was itself linked with the removal of excrement for the cleanness of the city. In a similar spirit there were also warnings concerning the revolutionary potential of the poor, with their “fevers and … filth.” Once more is made the implicit connection between poverty, disease and excrement. It was an association which occurred to the “pure” finders themselves. “There’s such a dizziness in my head now,” one told Mayhew, “I feel as if it didn’t belong to me. No, I have earned no money to-day. I have had a piece of bread that I steeped in water to eat. I could never bear the thought of going into the great house [the workhouse]; I’m so used to the air that I’d sooner die in the street, as many I know have done. I’ve known several of our people, who have sat down in the street with their basket alongside them, and died.”

And thus the dead in turn became rubbish to be removed by the parish and swept away. The cycle of life was completed.

The outlines of age may be seen in the features of the very young. The youthful collectors of river refuse, known as “mud larks,” scavenged for pieces of coal or wood which they would then put in kettles, baskets, or even old hats. Many of them were small children, approximately seven or eight years old, and Mayhew questioned one of them. “He had heard of Jesus Christ once … but he never heard tell of who or what he was and didn’t ‘particular care’ about knowing … London was England and England, he said, was in London but he couldn’t tell in what part.” For him the condition which made up “London” was everywhere, therefore; and, as Mayhew observed, “there was a painful uniformity in the stories of all the children” of the city.

Another group of scavengers were known as “toshers,” hence the pejorative expression “tosh.” They were the sewer hunters, burrowing beneath the surface of the city in search of valuable waste. In the early part of the nineteenth century they could enter by the holes along the Thames, braving the crumbling brickwork and rotten stone, in order to creep along the underground labyrinth. But then, in the 1850s and 1860s, everything changed as a result of what was called London’s “sanitation revolution.”

It is a curious fact of city life that the sanitation of the early nineteenth century did not differ materially from that of the fifteenth century. There had been attempts at superficial improvement, with efforts to maintain the cleanliness of the Kilbourne and the Westbourne, the Ranelagh and the Fleet, the Shoreditch and the Effa, the Falcoln Brook and the Earl, all important rivers and streams. But the central feature of London’s sanitation remained its greatest disgrace; there were still cesspools beneath some 200,000 houses. Effluent was forced upwards through the wooden floors of the poorer households.

The solution of the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1847, that all privy refuse was to be discharged directly into the sewers, seemed convincing at the time. But the effect was that the effluent was transported 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. In the words of Disraeli, the river had become “a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror.” Where once rose petals had been papered across the windows of the Westminster Parliament building, now sheets soaked with chlorine were used instead. The problem was compounded by the fact that the water supply for many Londoners was taken directly from the Thames, and from this time forward it was often described as of a “brownish” colour. The prevalence of cholera in the same period, when it was believed that “all smell is disease,” only increased the noxious horror of the city where the discharges of three million people were running through its midst. The concentration of people seeking work in the capital, and the rising consumption of the Victorian middle class, had led to a complementary rise in effluence. The pervasive smell may in that sense be regarded as the odour of progress. These were the conditions of London as late as 1858, the year of the “Great Stink.”

In 1855, under the pressure of extreme circumstances, a Metropolitan Board of Works had been established to remedy the unhappy situation. Three years later, during a long and hot summer, Joseph Bazalgette began his scheme to divert all sewage from the Thames through different types of sewer (main line and intercepting, storm relief and outfall) to outfalls at Barking and Crossness; it was described by the Observer as “the most extensive and wonderful work of modern times,” and by the end of this great engineer’s ministrations 165 miles of main sewers had been reconstructed in Portland cement with a further 1,100 miles of new local sewers. For all practical purposes, large parts of Bazalgette’s system remain in place at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It was a signal example of public health enterprise in the face of a rapidly deteriorating urban environment; characteristic of London administration, however, was that it occurred very quickly and in conditions of near panic. All the great works of the city seem to be in one sense improvised and haphazard.

·  ·  ·

By the early twentieth century the dust mounds and open ash-pits were removed from the capital, and most of the rubbish was pulverised, burned or treated with chemicals; the environmental theory of disease, which simply prescribed that waste should be removed to as distant a point as possible, was replaced by the “germ” theory, which meant that waste had effectively to be neutralised. So changes in epidemiological research can affect the topography of the city. The fabric of London is susceptible to theory, therefore, and in the previous century huge areas of sewage purification were complemented by vast incineration plants. The enormous Solid Waste Transfer Station by Smugglers Way in Wandsworth and the great Sewage Works of Beckton are largely unseen; they are monuments to the city’s secret industry.

There are still rubbish tips located in various parts of the capital and, although gulls and pigeons have now taken the place of ravens and kites, the vagrant scavenger (once known as a “totter”) is still to be seen in the streets of London searching through bins and garbage for cigarette ends, food or drink. The ability—in fact the necessity—of the city to discharge its own rubbish continues in various guises. The quantity of waste in the ever-increasing city has risen higher than any nineteenth-century dust mound, with an average of ten million tonnes produced by the capital each year, among it almost one and a half million tonnes of scrap metal, and half a million tonnes of paper. It is only to be expected, too, that the history of modern effluent is still part of the history of commerce. In the sixteenth century it was discovered that the nitrogen from excreta could be used in the manufacture of gunpowder, but in the twentieth century human faeces yielded a different form of power. Incineration plants, like that at Edmonton, produce hundreds of thousands of megawatts of electricity each year. Gold and platinum are being emitted by the catalytic converters fitted to cars and deposited within exhaust fumes; soon, according to one scientist reported in The Times of 1998, “it will make economic sense to pan the deposits” along the city thoroughfares. So London’s streets are also now truly paved with gold.

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