Medieval London’s worst smells

By historical standards, London today is a clean city. Effluent drains through the sewers, domestic waste gets collected, everyone showers daily. But as Dan Snow explains, that certainly wasn’t the case in the medieval era. So what were medieval London’s stinkiest stinks?

This article was first published in the April 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

A woman emptying a chamber pot.

A woman emptying a chamber pot. "The sewers and the streets were virtually indistinguishable", says Dan Snow. Wood carving, 1489. (Photo by Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

 

1) The people

The population would have absolutely stunk. They did not wash very often. They often didn’t have more than one set of clothes. There was very little idea of personal sanitation, and in the summer they would all have been hot and sweaty.

The only source of water for washing was the river and we know gong farmers, people that emptied the latrines, would have gone and washed there. But of course the river was also the receptacle for all the mess. We think people would have avoided washing in the winter. After a period of warmer weather from about the 10th to the 13th centuries, it got quite cool again and so sometimes the Thames would have been frozen for weeks on end, so there would have been limited opportunities to bathe there. I think you’d probably avoid bathing in the river if it was cold.

Given how much perfume the richer people wore, I think it’s fair to assume that some of the slummy areas, the overcrowded areas, were pretty stinking, partly thanks to the inhabitants. Nonetheless, our information is that people did regard washing as rather effete. Bathing just wasn’t that regular – it’s a total inversion of our modern obsession with daily washing.

 

2) The Thames

The river was basically the only means of getting sewage, certainly liquid waste, out of the city. The river was the way they got drinking water but also where they dumped all their waste. No wonder the fish died – it would have been absolutely foul.

The off-cuts, the various bits of offal, things that weren’t going to be eaten from the butchers, these were wheeled down in wheelbarrows to the Thames and dumped off a specially constructed pier in an attempt to put them in the middle of the river, the fastest-flowing part. Corpses would have been knocking about in the river too.
Dick Whittington built public privies over the river, suspended on wooden piles where you could go and excrete straight in the water. It was seen as a handy way to get rid of human waste.

One advantage that London had over Paris is that at least the river was very tidal, so there is relatively fresh water coming in twice a day – it’s acting as a huge flushing system for London. The Seine is not tidal – it’s very placid, gently flowing – so it would have been absolutely filthy.

 

3) The streets

The sewers and the streets were virtually indistinguishable. There really wasn’t much of a sewerage system, there would just be gutters running down the edge of some streets. And indeed ditches that were dug down the middle of the street with a slight camber on them as well.

The streets were the receptacles for all waste. There were chamber pots being emptied into them. There were the entrails of slaughtered animals, the dead cats, the dogs. Barber-surgeons were obsessed by letting blood and that would have been drained off in the street as well. We know that in the summer, when the rain didn’t come, the streets would have just piled high with the detritus of the city.

The street would have been so disgusting that the people wore pattens. These were worn over a normal shoe and were effectively wooden clogs raising you off the ground. They would elevate you above the human effluent and the mess that was in the streets.

‘Pattens’ comes from patt, meaning animal hoof. In fact, the guild for shoemakers in Britain is still called the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers. They made me a pair and I attempted to walk around on fish entrails, cow poo, mud and stuff – it was great fun.

 

4) Tanneries

Tanning was an incredibly important process. It turns animal hides into leather, which is obviously hugely useful. I went through the tanning process and it was a totally rancid thing to do. There are huge amounts of waste products at every stage. There’s alkali run-off from the initial process of soaking the hides. There’s the urine and
dog poo that you use to treat the hides. You have to separate the subcutaneous fat from the animal skin with a big knife, to shave all the residual fat off the hide. That is basically a waste product.

Tanning was an absolutely foul process, which stank, and also created chemical compounds sometimes that were actually very, very dangerous – they’d burn your mouth.

The authorities tried to regulate where the tanneries and the slaughterhouses could be. As the medieval period went on, there was an attempt to regulate London more.

 

5) The latrines

Wealthy families would have had a private latrine in the back garden and obviously that had to be cleaned out, by  gong farmers or muckrackers. Otherwise, latrines were communal. One man called Richard the Raker famously drowned in one of these cesspits.

Gong farmers and muckrakers were well paid. They would come in at night and shovel the waste out, using carts to carry it away. There’s no way of controlling the smell but you could try to keep on top of it by emptying the cesspits. As you can imagine, if there was torrential rain they’d overflow and just join the mess in the streets.

Thanks to the Books of Assizes, which contain records of complaints by neighbours, we know about two dodgy plumbers who built a toilet over the street with an overhang so that the waste would just drop down into the street. We also know about a woman who used guttering to carry away her waste. Her neighbours complained because when it rained their gutters became full of her excrement.

Dan Snow is an author and historian who has written, researched and presented many TV documentaries. He spoke to Jonathan Wright about his BBC Two series Filthy Cities, which he presented in 2011.

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