Monday, 2 May 2005

Cess-pits and Chamber Pots

Cess-pits existed in London for many centuries, from medieval times onwards. Thankfuly they do not exist now. A cess-pit was a chamber in which sewage from each individual house was 'stored' until it was emptied. This task was for the so called 'night-soil men' to do. As disgusting as this job was, it could also be dangerous, as when in 1326 a certain Richard the Raker fell into his cess-pit and drowned "monstrously in his own excrement" while he was attempting to empty it. By the 16th century a new cess-pit related job was invented, that of the 'saltpetre man'. These men extracted nitrates from excrement, so it could be used to make gunpowder. Saltpetre men had a licence from the king to enter into anyone's house at any time and remove the sewage-ridden earth of the cess-pit.

In October 1660, Samuel Pepys records in his diary: "Going down to my cellar...I put my feet into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr. Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar". Unfortunately this sort of thing did happen often as cess-pits were not built very well and therefore leaked. Incidently, it took five days after Pepys's disgusting cellar experience until his neighbour sent the night-soil men to empty it and when they did come they added insult to injury by having the contents of the cess-pit carried through his house. However, as Lisa Picard puts it, Samuel got his own back three years later, when he had his cess-pit emptied via that same neighbour's house!

There were many houses however which did not have cess-pits and so their inhabitants resorted to the use of chamber-pots, the contents of which were regularly emptied out of windows, much to the chagrin of unsuspecting passers-by.

References:
  • "The Great Stink of London", by Stephen Halliday, published by Sutton Publishing
  • "The Worst Jobs in History", by Tony Robinson & David Willcock, published by Boxtree
  • "Restoration London: Everyday Life in London 1660-1670", by Liza Picard, published by Phoenix

1 comment:

feawen said...

It's my understanding (unverified) that the Brits get their slang word for bathroom "loo" from the customary warning call that was given out a window prior to the night jar being emptied, i.e. "guardez l'eau" Watch out for the water!