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Cesspool in the City

There was a time when the only escape from urban filth, noise, and stench was a pigsty.

By 10.18.07

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This review by Florence King appeared in the September 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770
by Emily Cockayne
(Yale University Press, 335 pages, $35)

SOME YEARS AGO P.J. O'Rourke famously reminded paleoconservatives that the perfect past was just a verb tense, not a revealed truth. "When you start yearning for the good old days," he warned, "say one word: dentistry." This is apt advice for paleos in thrall to the medieval world when England was still a green and pleasant land, but for those who wish they had lived in the bustling, overcrowded, gin-soaked London of Pepys and Swift the cautionary word is s--t.

It was everywhere. Pepys, the unflagging diarist, records that he "stepped into a great heap of turds" that had entered his cellar from his neighbor's cesspit. It was also on people's minds. Jonathan Swift wrote a poem, "The Lady's Dressing Room," about a footman who sneaks into the boudoir of his employer, the fair Celia, to indulge his fantasy of examining her possessions at close range. After going through her dresses, her brushes and combs, and her towels, he opens her "close stool," a chamber pot concealed in a chair, "Repeating in his amorous fits, Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia s--ts!"

A basement cesspit contained what dropped into it when people used the privy-a wooden box with a hole in it-on the floor above. When the cesspit began to fill up, the householder was required to empty it and put its contents, officially called "night-soil," outside his door to be collected by the "nightmen." It was one of those civic solutions based on cooperation and personal responsibility, the kind we still have, that are guaranteed to work provided the governing authority can revise human nature and repeal the law of averages.

Householders by and large ignored the law. Like Pepys's neighbor, they let their cesspits fill up until the collected putrefactious gases rotted walls and caused floors to collapse. Houses with unhatched cellars fronting on the sidewalk presented a memorable peril to pedestrians groping their way home through the unlighted streets, who suddenly found themselves falling into a black hole and landing headfirst in a load of... er, night-soil. Still other landlords, to keep it off their own property, dumped it in churchyards or public buildings. When a pile of... er, night-soil got really big, it was called a "dunghill." There was one in front of the Royal Exchange but the nightmen left it there, which was just as well because a wagon full of... er, night-soil spilled its contents when it hit the cavernous potholes in the roads. (Householders were required to repair the paving in front of their houses but they seldom did, so at least the potholes were filled with something.)

The wheels also leaked axle grease made from the fat of goose kidneys, attracting unpenned pigs that followed the wagons, rooting through the spill-over to get at anything edible. There was plenty: rotting viscera dumped by butchers, maggot-infested flour dumped by bakers, and liquifying cabbages turning into matching brown slime, compliments of the produce sellers.

"The contemporary love of purgatives and the questionable source of some food supplies must have worsened the state of the privies" is how the straight-faced British author understates the case. Tapeworm was common in people because it was common in pigs, and everyone ate pork. The best time to shop was early in the morning before meat spoiled or got too fly-blown. Butchers inflated meat with their own breath or stuffed rags in cavities to bulk out the carcass. Bakers put stones in their dough to cheat on the weight, and made "white" bread by adding alum to wheat flour. Fishmongers disguised spoiled fish by coating the gills with fresh blood from more recent catches. The same river barges that brought vegetables from the country transported the city's collected night-soil to the country for use as fertilizer -- floating E. Coli cultures going back and forth across the Thames day after day. If eating the food didn't kill you, merely shopping for it could. The open-front stalls were regularly splashed by passing vehicles, covering food and shoppers with mud and who knew what else. And if you didn't watch where you were going, you could be knocked down by a whole carcass of beef hanging from the roof.

AN OXFORD SCHOLAR, author Emily Cockayne teaches history in the East Midlands and is associated with Open University, Britain's televised college curriculum. Her book enlists a host of primary sources but her most entertaining one is the fictional character, Matt Bramble, from the Tobias Smollett novel, The Adventures of Humphrey Clinker. Bramble is an 18th-century Felix Unger, a hypochondriac who complains about everything, especially dirt. Here he is on London milk, which was carried through the streets in open pails: "Exposed to foul rinsings discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco-quids from foot passengers, overflowings from mud carts... dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys, the spewings of infants... and finally the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture under the respectable denomination of the milk-maid."

Everybody scratched and everybody smelled; class distinctions obtained to a degree but all offended. The overriding problem was lack of clean water. The primary source was the Thames, where Londoners threw anything they needed to get rid of, including dead bodies; where lazy nightmen dumped the dung they were supposed to bury; and where riverfront houses built cesspits to empty directly into it. A few wells existed but they frequently doubled as urinals. Conduits carried river water to houses but most people did their washing in them for lack of residential plumbing hookups. Going to the communal pump and lugging buckets back home was too much trouble, so the full-immersion bath was virtually unknown. The fastidious washed the most problematic parts but most people used a pig-hair brush to dislodge lice. Between the stiff brush and the soap made from rancid fat and ashes, skin infections were rife.

Upper-class women did not comb their hair for three months lest they spoil their coiffures. Hair was powdered with white flour to soak up the greasy dirt, but this only clogged the roots and attracted more lice. Men began wearing wigs so they could shave their heads and avoid the torment of an itching scalp, but the wigs, made from real hair, got just as greasy and dirty and attracted lice as well, and the webby canvas underside of the wig scratched unbearably.

Nobody but the rich had new clothes. The poor made do not just with second-hand garments but more likely fourth- or fifth-hand. By the time the clothes got to them, they were "smutted, food-stained, sweat-ridden, pissburnt, and might shine with grease"; one garment was "so beliquor'd and belarded" that it caught fire by itself; and the wife of a used-clothes dealer described her life as an unending dank prison of "nitty coats and stinking hose."

The best people tried everything to conceal their dirt and mask their odors, including using lotions containing arsenic, but Matt Bramble would not let them get away with it. Describing the olfactory experience of attending a high society ball in Bath, he says: "Imagine to yourself a high exalted essence of mingled odours arising from putrid gums, imposthumated lungs, sour flatulences, rank armpits, sweating feet, running sores and issues, plasters, assafoetida drops, musk, hartshorn, and sal volatile, besides a thousand frowzy streams which I could not analyze."

By now even the crustiest paleos are probably put off by Stuart and Georgian England, but the era may still represent the good old days to career-minded progressives and single moms if our late-night infomercials are any guide. "WORK AT HOME!" is where it's at, the ultimate escape, the new American dream, but it was par for the course in London at the dawn of the Industrial Age. Thanks to the overcrowding brought on by rapid urbanization, the homes of the city's craftsmen doubled as workshops.

It was also the dawn of the neighbors' lawsuit. Having a tailor, a wigmaker, or a bookbinder next door was okay. A shoemaker wasn't too bad, and even a carpenter was tolerable, but armourers, ironmongers, and coppersmiths used sledgehammers, and copper had to be hit really hard to make it produce the characteristic high-pitched shriek that signaled a successful molding. It did no good to complain to coppersmiths because they were all deaf as posts, but if you managed to get him evicted his lodging might be rented by a knife-sharpener whose daily grind sounded like a thousand fingernails scraping across a blackboard all at once. Or maybe a tanner, who wasn't unusually noisy but who kept big tubs of urine at the ready to treat his hides.

Even given the unlikely possibility that your immediate neighbors were quiet, havoc was never far away, usually in the form of agonized howls. The dog-skinner down the street was hard at his task of supplying aristocrats who practiced the sport of falconry with meat for their hawks. The pig castrator in his protective leather apron was busily hacking off testicles. Live cattle headed for slaughter were "baited," i.e., harassed by vicious dogs, because it was said to tenderize their meat. The dogs weren't fussy about whose meat they tenderized. They baited people too, which led to the popularization of an elegant item that ironically has come to symbolize this raucous age: the gentleman's walking stick.

WHAT, YOU MAY BE ASKING YOURSELF, does all this have to do with 21st-century America? Why review a book like Hubbub, written by a British academic, published by a university press, and chock full of scholarly footnotes? Other than giving us a chance to practice the good-natured schadenfreude that the how-people-lived division of social history offers, what purpose is served by calling it to the attention of a youngish political-magazine audience interested in current events?

Because it's about us.

In the last two years, two news stories have hit Americans where we live more than all the specials about Iraq, illegal immigration, and Campaign '08 put together. The first was Hurricane Katrina; specifically, the descriptions, compulsively repeated by TV reporters, of the sanitary conditions at the Superdome and Convention Center. Over and over we were told there were no working toilets, that people were using the floors, that the air was fetid and foul. We got the point but still they wouldn't stop. The average TV reporter shies away from unusual words; if they need a dramatic description they will settle for "surreal," but Katrina correspondents pulled out all the stops. The refugees were trapped in an "abyss." It was "stygian... infernal... spectral... sepulchral." One reporter even called the whole city of New Orleans a "charnel house."

The second news story concerned the plane whose toilet got stopped up and sent "raw sewage," as it was carefully called, flowing down the aisle for the whole of a trans-Atlantic flight. The compulsive repetition began again, this time with passengers attempting to describe the smell, and an endless loop of the shot of the aisle that looked just like the descriptions of 18th-century London streets in this book.

Our obsessive need to talk about s--t and our compulsion to see it as a symbol of death exposes with merciless clarity what is really on our minds. We are aware of our national regression and harbor a deep fear that the country is breaking down. Among the many intriguing quotations in this book is one by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who said: "A lack of personal hygiene excites an uneasy sensation in others." We live with that uneasy sensation every day. Water shortages, low-flow shower heads, sluggish ever-shrinking toilets, blackouts, brownouts, and now food scares that become the subject of two-hour documentaries so that all the reporters get to say "diarrhea" in every other sentence.

Americans in the Age of Terrorism live with the dread certainty that one day soon we will be stuck indefinitely in some airport for weeks, with no possibility of showering or even washing, without clean underwear but with diarrhea, our toothbrushes confiscated, and all women forced to surrender every sanitary napkin and tampon they packed so that Security can rip them open to see if there's anything inside.

The uneasy sensation we feel is not fear of another 9/11 per se, but a fear that another 9/11 will be the Day the Plumbing Stopped.

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About the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, The Florence King Reader, and, most recently, STET, Damnit!: The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002 (National Review Press).