Nightmen & gongfermours
MIDDLE AGES TO 19TH CENTURY
(Picture: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy)
Nightmen – whose services often also included other dirty tasks such as sweeping chimneys – advertised their trade with business cards and brass plates such as this. And they were kept busy over many centuries.
Though sewers were built in cities such as London from at least the 16th century, they were not intended for human waste but to drain rain and other surface water from streets. Cesspits continued to receive much of the human waste of Britain’s burgeoning urban areas long after the first flushing toilets were introduced, well into the 19th century.
(Picture: Bridgeman Images)
This illustration shows a pair of nightmen hefting a large wooden tub of excrement in the mid-19th century. This job title was accurately descriptive: they generally worked at night, when their activities would cause less distress to the inhabitants of the towns and cities they served. The waste they collected, using scoopers like the one pictured below, was known as nightsoil. Having removed it from cesspits under houses and latrines, they would carry the waste to a cart in which it would be carried out of the city.
This role had been important in cities since the Middle Ages, when the men were known as rakers or gongfermors, from the Saxon words gang (‘to go off’) and fer, from the verb fey, to clean. This was a dangerous job, not just because of the risk of disease. In 1326, one Richard the Raker is reported to have fallen into a cesspit, where he drowned in the stinking slurry.
The work could be reasonably lucrative, though. In 1281, it was recorded that men removing waste from beneath Newgate Jail received 6d a night – three times the normal rate for such manual labour. The sludge collected was carted away and could be sold to farmers, who spread it on fields as fertiliser. Later, from the 16th century, excrement became valuable as a source of nitrogen for saltpetre, used in making gunpowder.
(Picture: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)
By the 19th century, nightmen were in great demand in Britain’s fast-growing industrial towns and cities: in 1810, about 200,000 cesspools served London’s population of more than one million. The cost of emptying them, using scoopers such as the one pictured here, was relatively high – one shilling in the mid-19th century, twice the average daily wage of a skilled worker – so householders and slum landlords often delayed paying for the service, allowing the contents of cesspits to overflow or ooze out into houses and streets, contaminating water supplies. Removing the waste also became more challenging, as the city spread out and distances to farms grew.
The problem of removing human waste from crowded cities without adequate sanitation continues today in many places where retrofitting sewers is too costly, not practically viable, or both.