“Mooke, fylthe and other vyle things” – Tudor dirt and dung

Pamela Hartshorne describes householders’ daily battles with rotting vegetation, dung heaps and overflowing cesspits in Tudor England...

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Illustration by Becca Thorne.

Faeces, dung and droppings… blood, urine and slops. These words hardly conjure the drama and glamour of Shakespeare’s Globe or the Elizabethan court, but for the ordinary inhabitants of Tudor towns, they were an everyday fact of life.

The average householder lived on a narrow street crowded with people and animals: horse-drawn carts blocked the way, flocks of geese were herded to market, sheep and cattle were driven to be sold or slaughtered, hens pecked in the yards, dogs and cats scavenged, and then there were the rats, mice and pigeons…

Together, they produced a mountain of “mooke and fylthe”: entrails, bones and scales, fur and feathers, which mingled with rotting vegetation, food scraps, general household rubbish, dust, mud, ashes, the sweepings from workshop floors and “other vyle things”.

So if you’d have been a householder in Tudor England, how would you have gone about winning the daily war with waste? Here, with some help from the city archives of 16th-century York, are some tips…

 

As a Tudor householder, how would you have dealt with your rubbish?

You’d probably have had some hens scratching around in your back yard, and they’d have eaten most of the vegetable waste. Any other scraps went to the pig, assuming you had one. Pigs eat everything – it was known for some wretched maids who had given birth to unwanted babies to try and dispose of them in pigsties – and you could feed them blood, entrails, bones or anything else you couldn’t use in your cooking.

Pigs had to be penned in a sty and not allowed to root around in the streets where they spread muck and posed a threat to children. You had to make sure your servant didn’t carry any buckets of such refuse before 9pm, or risk a fine of 6s 8d.

Maidservants cleaned the house of dust and ashes, sweeping the floors and changing the rushes. All these ‘sweepings’ and any other rubbish could be piled up outside the front door from where it was taken away on dung carts by officials called ‘scavengers’ (see the section on cesspits later in this feature) three times a week. In 1580, collection days were Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

The rubbish was collected early in the morning, but householders had to beware of allowing their servants to put out the household filth before 7pm – as the barker (a kind of tanner) Thomas Rogerly did – or they’d be liable for a fine of 3s 4d. Rubbish put out too early blocked the narrow streets and was a nuisance to everyone.

You could always send your servant to the midden (a dump for domestic waste) with any rubbish, too. A convenient place was set aside within every ward for a neighbourhood dung heap. The 1575 Monk ward midden was in Thomas Barker’s garden in Elbow Lane, just inside York’s city walls at Monk Bar. Unfortunately, Barker was a rogue who restricted access to the midden and tried to sell the dung for his own profit. However, if you were a householder in the ward, you were entitled to take anything you needed for free.

 

If the street outside your front door was filthy, could you complain to the council?

No. As a householder you were responsible for cleaning and maintaining the street adjoining your property, up to and including the gutter. You had to sweep any dirt or rubbish into a pile at your front door, repair any paving and scour the gutter to make sure there were no obstructions to the flow of water.

If your street was narrow, there would have been just one gutter running down the middle of the street, but in wider streets there was a gutter on either side. The city’s chamberlains were responsible for cleaning and paving that middle part, as well as the markets. You could certainly complain that they hadn’t done as they should and ask them to maintain it better.

 

What did you do when your cesspits started overflowing?

Send for the scavengers! They were paid to clear away filth and rubbish from the cesspits, which were lined with brick so that they could be cleaned out. It wasn’t the most pleasant job in the world, but the scavengers were happy to sell the contents of cesspits as fertiliser for the fields and gardens outside the city walls.

Human and animal waste might smell, but it was only regarded as a problem when causing an obstruction in the street or sewers. The rest of the time it was a valuable commodity, and none of it went to waste.

It didn’t pay to let it accumulate in a dung heap at your door or let your servant be lazy and toss it over the wall. Your neighbours wouldn’t have appreciated it, and you might well have been fined, like Miles Robinson, a butcher, who was told to remove “all that great dunghill” lying in his yard in Davygate, central York. Not only was this “very noisome” to his neighbours but also “most perilous for infecting the aire”.

 

Where would you have gone to the loo?

The average Tudor householder would have had a pot in their chamber – just in case they got caught short at night – but that didn’t mean they could dispose of the contents out of the window with a careless warning of ‘Gardyloo!’ Contrary to popular belief, the practice was frowned upon, and might incur a fine. For example, one York resident, John Myn, had to stump up 2s in 1495 for throwing human urine and other “sordida” into the street at night.

Instead, you were best advised to empty your chamber pot into the cesspit in your yard, which probably had a privy built over it. If your property backed on to a river or ditch, you may have considered building a latrine, or a ‘jakes’, out over the water – but only if you weren’t worried about offending your neighbours. The ditches were sewers, and as faeces built up under private latrines, they tended to block the flow of water.

It didn’t matter how rich or important you were. The Dean of York himself was threatened with a massive £3 fine in 1579 if he didn’t remove a privy over the Queen’s Dike, a major ditch that ran through the city. Of course, he might have ignored the warning, but still, people didn’t like it so if you wanted to fit in, you were best advised to use your cesspit.

 

How often did you have to clean the street?

Usually once a week, although in 1550 it was decided that all the inhabitants of York were to ensure that the street in front of their houses was “twyse clensyd and swepyd every weyk”.

If you only needed to set your servant to sweeping and scouring once a week it would probably be on Saturday so that the city was clean for the holiest day. In 1572 householders were ordered to “make clene before their dores every Saturday at night and to cary away the filth or myre soo that no filth or myre remayne ther apon any Sonday in the morning”.

 

What if you were unfortunate enough to live next door to a filthy neighbour? 

You could complain to the wardmote jury. Twice a year, all the men in the ward were summoned to a meeting. At this wardmote, 15 to 20 men were appointed to an inquest jury. Their task was to walk around the parishes that made up the ward and make a note of any problems that affected the community: blocked gutters, potholes, obstructions, broken fences, anti-social behaviour, and infringements of common grazing rights.

The juries were quick to clamp down on those who didn’t do their bit to maintain the environment. So, your neighbour would have been required to scour the gutter and to clean and repair the paving in front of their house before a given date. If they didn’t, they’d have been fined at the next wardmote court.

A list was made of everyone who was ‘laid in pain’, as this process was known, and it was then checked at the following court, when all those who hadn’t complied were recorded as having been fined. Luckily, a complete set of records for the years 1575–86 survives in the 21st-century York city archives. A comparison of people ‘laid in pain’ and those that the authorities went on to fine shows that most people did as they were told.

To our 21st-century noses, the Tudor city would have seemed a smelly place, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that your ancestors didn’t care about the conditions in which they lived or that they didn’t try their best to keep their city clean by their own standards.

Pamela Hartshorne is a research associate at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York, and is also an author and freelance editor. pamelahartshorne.com

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