The Stinking Past

(p. 356) The people who cleaned cesspits were known as nightsoil men, and if there has ever been a less enviable way to make a living I believe it has yet to be described. They worked in teams of three or four. One man – the most junior, we may assume – was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and the third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments. The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1753 related the case of one nightsoil man who went into a privy vault in a London tavern and was overcome almost at once by the foul air. ‘He call’d out for help, and immediately fell down on his face,’ one witness reported. A colleague who rushed to the man’s aid was similarly overcome. Two more men went to the vault, but could not get in because of the foul air, though they did manage to open the door a little, releasing the worst (p. 357) of the gases. By the time rescuers were able to haul the two men out, one was dead and the other was beyond help.

Source:
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

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