How the Victorian Era's 'Night Soil Men' Kept London From Going to Waste
No residence was more revered in the Victorian Era than Windsor Castle. “Among the royal palaces of Europe, Windsor Castle lays claim to the first place,” the publication Picturesque Europe declared. “Some ... might be larger; others ... may even surpass it in beauty of the site ... but in none are size, beauty, and grandeur so united as in the first and oldest of the royal residences.” Built by William the Conqueror and completed in 1086 [PDF], Windsor was a base to royals including Henry I, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and more. By the 1840s, it was home to Queen Victoria and the center of the monarchy—a destination for visiting dignitaries where opulence abounded. Glass chandeliers hung over the Queen’s Ballroom; festive decorations were strewn about the property during the Christmas season; ornate garden arrangements lined walkways; the turrets of St. George’s Chapel acted as beacons for spiritual enrichment.
It was really best, then, not to think of the 53 feces-filled cesspools lining the castle’s cellar.
In overcrowded London and the surrounding areas, the lack of indoor plumbing and wastewater treatment systems meant that literal tons of poop accrued, prompting disease and olfactory offense. While the queen was kept at a distance from the build-up at Windsor, a typical middle class family might have to contend with multiple poop ditches, each overstuffed with non-diluted waste. In all of London, 200,000 cesspools festered. One sanitation report for Buckingham Palace in the 1840s was so damning it was suppressed by officials.
In the absence of plumbing, someone had to come and clean it all up. It’s a testament to the decorum of the British that a euphemism was used: The feces was dubbed “night soil”—because it was retrieved nocturnally and could conceivably be used as fertilizer—and those tasked with disposing of it were known as “night soil men.” These fetchers of feces tackled a dangerous, thankless job, all in an attempt to keep Victorians unburdened by their ever-growing piles of poop.
From its fashion and art to its architecture and excess, the Victorian era—a period covering Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign, from 1837 to 1901—is among the most romanticized ages in world history. But in reality, the period was filthy in ways that seem incompatible with the affluence we now associate with it. More than a million people, or around one-tenth England and Wales’s population at the time, lived in London in 1801. By the mid-1800s, it was 2 million, all of them contributing to human congestion that made sanitary living all but impossible. Grazing sheep went from white to black in days thanks to smoke and soot; the deceased were buried in mass graves, the upper layers of which rested just inches below the surface. Decaying flesh was a common smell, and bacteria from the bodies sometimes traveled to water sources.
The other significant cause of odor was raw sewage. London had no public sewage system in the mid-1800s, only a rainwater system intended to catch precipitation run-off. People doing their business left stool to gather in privies, or sheds with poop holes dug in the ground for the express purpose of harboring waste. Some were located out of the house, while others emptied directly into a basement cesspool. The brick-lined pits were usually covered up when not in use, though that did little to disguise the fact that a festering collection of excreta was growing larger by the day.
“If your waste was on the street or in a broken system, it would probably get washed down into a river or nearby pond or leak directly into a nearby groundwater table,” Kimberly Worsham, a sanitation specialist and founder of consultancy firm FLUSH (Facilitated Learning for Universal Sanitation and Hygiene), tells Mental Floss. “Or, maybe your cesspool was overflowing, so there were stagnant pools of pooey water everywhere that flies would feast off. Those contaminations are how people started to get [disease] outbreaks.”
This was an obvious problem, though not one that people of the era fully understood. “Remember that, at the time, people had no clue that they were getting sick because of their contaminated water,” Worsham says. “They firmly believed in the miasma theory, which means that bad-smelling air caused diseases ... people were more concerned with how things smelled and less about the water they had.”
Still, the smell was certainly problem enough. If a low-income family shared a residence with others, the fecal matter could become untenable. As Ian Angus wrote in a 2018 issue of Monthly Review, “many people shared cesspools that were never emptied—the tenants couldn’t afford it, and the landlord didn’t care.” Basements were filled with expulsion. (Urine, though perhaps slightly more tolerable, had its own issues: The side of a building could only endure so much public urination before the paint began to fade and bricks corroded.)
Those that enlisted the services of the night soil men had it comparatively better. In London as well as American cities like New York, these sanitation workers rushed to scrub away traces of intestinal evacuation. Because disturbing the cesspool would stir up an even more foul odor, it was often mandated that the night soil men go to work only at night so as not to offend pedestrians with their sagging carts full of feces.
Although the liquid portion of the waste usually seeped out of the porous cesspools and into the surrounding land, the remaining solids had to be addressed, typically by being scooped out of the privies using buckets and placed on wagons. Then it was either hauled off to be used in agriculture (farmers would pay for the service) or dumped somewhere to become someone else’s problem.
In New York, for example, collected poop was thrown into the Hudson River, where it strangled docking areas and made it difficult for boats to come to rest. If a boat’s occupants were especially unfortunate, they might be on the receiving end of workers dumping their night’s work. Other night soil men might opt to dump their collection in a public street, which in London was already thick with horse dung.
There was some good news for cesspool maintenance. Depending on the privy in question, it might only need to be emptied two or three times a year. Some invited the night soil men just once a year, creating an unimaginable situation. But no matter how many times the night soil men were summoned, feces still leached into the ground and into nearby wells, prompting the spread of disease: There were frequent outbreaks of cholera, which can be transmitted through feces-contaminated water. It’s little wonder that city dwellers tended to have a lower life expectancy than country residents.
To be a night soil man was not a full-time occupation. Often, they were manual laborers like bricklayers who decided to pick up some extra money by transporting poop. In addition to coming home smelling like human waste, the workers were also attractive to robbers: Because they were often alone in the middle of the night, night soil men made appealing victims. But even without being violently attacked, they were performing unsanitary work in unsanitary conditions with few precautions.
“Firstly, they could fall and drown in the cesspools they were emptying out,” Worsham says. “Suppose you didn’t drown after falling into a cesspool. In that case, you may contract one of the many diseases floating around in people’s feces. And sometimes, people didn’t just put feces in their pits that needed emptying, so you could also get impaled on something sharp if you fell in accidentally. Basically—don’t fall in.”
The night soil men weren’t the only ones getting knee deep in poop. People known as “toshers” navigated London’s ancient sewer system (which at the time was tasked primarily with redirecting rainwater) looking for discarded valuables. Occasionally, effluent water from flush toilets that were increasingly being connected to the system by the wealthy could strike like a tidal wave. It was deeply unpleasant work.
Some in London had no problem dumping their waste themselves—often right into the River Thames, which also doubled as a source of drinking water. (It was said an eel could not survive being submerged in a bucket of Thames water, so dire was its contamination.) Thanks to a brutally hot summer in 1858, the river became so ripe with turds that people took to referring to it as the Great Stink. Those too close to the water were at risk of fainting; the stench was enough to evacuate Parliament.
The Great Stink emphasized London’s hygiene issues. But some people were still under the impression that it was miasma, or smelly air, that caused disease—not bacteria. So when miasma theorist Joseph Bazalgette designed London’s wastewater system, he hadn’t really concerned himself with polluting the Thames. “Bazalgette thought his goal was to put the smells underground,” Worsham says. “So he engineered the entire sewer system of London to output in the Thames—only further out near the sea, so the stench wouldn’t come back in during the river’s tides.”
Thanks to the Great Stink, London put a rush on a sewage system. “While London had rain drainage sewers for centuries prior, they all switched to wastewater systems to carry away sewage around 1870,” Worsham says. (It took Bazalgette that long to get 1100 miles of plumbing together, an infrastructure still in use today.)
The development of public sewers as well as running water to carry waste away was an improvement and lowered demand for cesspool maintenance. Channeling waste out of private homes in this manner was both more hygienic (Liverpool, which had already built a sewage system by the time London got started [PDF], eventually doubled the life expectancy of its residents) and infinitely more efficient. Germ theory still hadn’t fully taken hold, though, and some weren’t convinced until an 1878 boat collision that capsized two vessels; some passengers had died as a result of ingesting the raw sewage dumped into the Thames. It was the Titanic of turds, prompting public outcry and concern.
Thanks to treatment tanks to separate the solid waste, the Thames became cleaner (though not exactly clean). London was well on its way to living in a far more hygienic environment. So, too, were other cities. In the U.S., Brooklyn and Chicago joined London, but there was no national mandate; Memphis took until the 1880s to get a sewage system working. Today, we take indoor plumbing for granted, though poverty can still be an obstacle to this most basic of human needs: 2 million Americans are without running water or basic plumbing in their homes.
It feels like perhaps some kind of statue or monument should be erected for the cesspool maintenance men, but society at large didn't seem to want to dwell on them. “Being a night soil man wasn't glamorous,” Worsham says, in case there was any danger of someone thinking so. “Their dung carts smelled, and people would sometimes complain about the nuisance odors. Also, people were not always treating them well because they smelled and had material considered outside of polite society.”
Today, the night soil men are remembered for performing a necessary but revolting task—one that made polite society possible. The next time you find yourself struggling with a clogged toilet, you might want to consider it could be much, much worse. You could be making nocturnal rounds, risking your life by staring into an abyss of filth. A night soil man.