Before the creation of the flushing toilet, someone had the privilege of writing down ‘night soil man’ as their profession. I’m sure this charming job title doesn’t need much description. Night soil is a historically used as a euphemism used for human waste collected from cesspools, privies, pit latrines and septic tanks.
For waste removal, humans often take the approach of ‘let’s make it someone else’s problem.’ Such was the case with the human excrement that emptied into the Thames from water closets. But realising that London’s smells were killing tourism, officials employed night-soil men to remove the waste from under people’s homes.
Just like it sounds, the night-soil men worked between midnight and five a.m. The men lowered a ladder into the hold beneath a building and filled a bucket with “night soil” (human waste), which was then pulled up and dumped into carts to be carried off.
Being a night soil man wasn’t exactly a dream career, but it paid well and worked well as a part-time job. The men usually operated in teams of four to remove night soil: one acts as a hole man, the other a rope man, and two tub men. The hole man was the one who crawled into the cesspool to scoop waste into a bucket. The rope man would then haul the bucket up and pass it to the tub men, who would take it to the cart.
It wasn’t just human faeces that once littered major city streets. Horse dung for one was difficult to remove. By the 1890s, 1,000 tons of horse dung was dropped onto London streets per day, a job that was often relegated to street children instead of professional night soil men.
The job could be dangerous; 19th century accounts survive of individuals falling into cesspits and night soil vaults. Thanks to these men who worked through the night, via a system of buckets and carts, the products of London’s digestive system would be gone by morning.
But if the very act of emptying privies in the black of night wasn’t unappealing enough, working antisocial hours turned up some interesting events not listed in the job description. There were reports of night soil men catching burglars in the act, or being called to horrendous bloody scenes by members of the public to provide alibis!
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I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.
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