London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse.


WHETHER this mass of filth be, zymotically, the cause of cholera, or whether it be (as cannot be be questioned) a means of agricultural fertility, and therefore of national wealth, it be removed. I need not dilate, in explaining a necessity which is obvious to every man with uncorrupted physical senses, and with the common moral sense of decency.

Dr. Paley," it is said, in a recent Report to the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, "gave to Burckhardt and other travellers a set of instructions as to points of observation of the manners and conditions of the populations amongst whom they travelled. One of the leading instructions was to observe how they disposed of their excreta, for what they did with that showed him what men were; he also inquired what structure they had to answer the purpose of a privy, and what were their habits in respect to it. This information Dr Paley desired, not for popular use, but for himself, for he was accustomed to say, that the facts connected with that topic gave him more information as to the real condition and civilisation of a population than most persons would be aware of. It would inform him of their real habits of cleanliness, of real decency, self-respect, and connected moral habits of high social importance. It would inform him of the real state of police, and of local administration, and much of the general government.

The human ordure which defiles the churches, the bases of public edifices and works of art in Rome and Naples, and the Italian cities, gives more sure indications of the real moral and social position of the Italian population than any impressions derived from the edifices and works of art themselves.

The subject, in relation to which the Jewish lawgiver gave most particular directions, is one on which the serious attention and labour of public administrators may be claimed.

The next question, is — is the wet houserefuse to be removed?

There are ways:—

. is, to transport it to a river, or some powerfully current stream by a series of ducts.

. The other is, to dig a hole in the neighbourhood of the house, there collect the wet refuse of the household, and when the hole or pit becomes full, remove the contents to some other part.

In London the most obvious means of getting rid of a nuisance is to convey it into the Thames. Nor has this been done in London only. In Paris the Seine is the receptacle of the sewage, but, comparatively, to a much smaller extent than in London. The fæcal deposits accumulated in the houses of the French capital are drained into "fixed" and "moveable" cesspools. The contents of both these descriptions of cesspools (of which I shall give an account when I treat of the cesspool system) are removed periodically, under the direction of the government, to large receptacles, called , at Montfaucon, and the Forest of Bondy, where such refuse is made into portable manure. The evils of this system are not a few; but the river is spared the greater pollution of the Thames. Neither is the Seine swayed by the tide as is the Thames, for in London the very sewers are affected by the tidal influence, and are not to be entered until some time before or after high-water. I need not do more, for my present inquiry, than allude to the Liffy, the Clyde, the Humber, and others of the rivers of the United Kingdom, being used for purposes of sewerage, as channels to carry off that of which the law prohibits the retention.

Of the folly, not to say wickedness, of this principle, there can be no doubt. The vegetation which gives, demands food. The grass will wither without its fitting nutriment of manure, as the sheep would perish without the pasturage of the grass. Nature, in temperate and moist climates, is, so to speak, her own manurer, her own restorer. The sheep, which are as wild and active as goats, manure the Cumberland fells in which they feed. In the more cultivated sheep-walks (or, indeed, in the general pasturage) of the northern and some of the midland counties, women, with a wooden implement, may be continually seen in the later autumn, or earlier and milder winter, distributing the "stercoraceous treasure," as Cowper calls it, which the animals, to use the North Yorkshire word, have "dropped," as well as any extraneous manure which may have been spread for the purpose. As population and the demand for bread increase, the need of extraneous manures also increases; and Nature in her beneficence has provided that the greater the consumption of food, the greater shall be the promoters of its reproduction by what is loathsome to man, but demanded by vegetation. Liebig, as I shall afterwards show more fully, contends that many an arid and desolate region in the East, brown and burnt with barrenness, became a desolation because men understood not the restoration which all nature demands for the land. He declares that the now desolate regions of the East had been made desolate, because "the inhabitants did not understand the art of restoring exhausted soil." It would be hopeless now to form, or attempt to form, the "hanging gardens," or to display the rich florescence "round about Babylon," to be seen when Alexander the Great died in that city. The Tigris and Euphrates, before and after their junction, Liebig maintains, have carried, and, to a circumscribed degree, still carry, into the sea "a sufficient amount of manure for the reproduction of food for millions of human beings." It is said that, "could that matter only be arrested in its progress, and converted into bread and wine, fruit and beef, mutton and wool, linen and cotton, then cities might flourish once more in the desert, where men are now digging for the relics of primitive civilization, and discovering the symbols of luxury and ease beneath the barren sand and the sunburnt clay."

This is great evil; but in our metropolis there is a greater, a far greater, beyond all in degree, even if the same abuse exist elsewhere. What society with consent pronounces filth—the evacuations of the human body—is not only washed into the Thames, and the land so deprived of a vast amount of nutriment, but the tide washes these evacuations back again, with other abominations. The water we use is derived almost entirely from the Thames, and therefore the water in which we boil our vegetables and our meat, the water for our coffee and tea, the water brewed for our consumption, comes to us, and is imbibed by us, impregnated over and over again with our own animal offal. We import guano, and drink a solution of our own fæces: a manure which might be made far more valuable than the foreign guano.

Such are a few of the evils of making a common sewer of the neighbouring river.

The other mode of removal is, to convey the wet house-refuse, by drains, to a hole near the house where it is produced, and empty it periodically when full.

The house-drainage throughout London has characteristics. By system all excrementitious and slop refuse generally is carried usually along


brick drains from the water-closets, privies, sinks, lavatories, &c., of the houses into the cesspools, where it accumulates until its removal (by manual labour) becomes necessary, which is not, as an average, more than once in years. By the other, and the newer system, all the house-refuse is drained into the public sewer, the cesspool system being thereby abolished. All the houses built or rebuilt since are constructed on the last-mentioned principle of drainage.

The of these modes is cesspoolage.

The is sewerage.

I shall deal with the sewerage of the metropolis.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work