We generally think of the Victorians as very proper and respectable, when even the the legs of the piano were covered up, and no risqué or unpleasant subjects were ever raised in polite society. So it was a bit of a shock to discover that Shirley Hibberd the great Victorian garden writer wrote passionately about, of all things, sewage. Indeed worse than that – he was vociferous in complaining about the waste of human sewage.
He argued in his book Profitable Gardening (1884), that it should be used as garden fertiliser, as it was in many parts of the world. So why wasn’t it? What were the alternatives being used? There was certainly no luxury of prepackaged multipurpose potting compost, and the fertilisers that existed were not clean granules in a neatly sealed plastic bag or colourful cardboard box with a handy measuring device, but usually had to be obtained as raw ingredients and mixed as needed. More on that in the next post but today, as the perfect reading for a steaming hot summer’s day, read on to discover, [and I hope this doesn’t make you too squeamish] a history of the use of sewage in our gardens!
Human sewage, often euphemistically known as “night soil” has been the traditional fertiliser used by market gardeners throughout history, and it was certainly an organised, if highly unpleasant trade by the 16th century. Right through until the construction of a proper sewerage system in the 19th century the night soil man was a common figure on London streets, and in some parts of the country the collection of night soil was a system that operated well into the 20th century.
There were also strong historical links between gardening as a trade and the clearing of nightsoil from at least mediaeval times. By 1617 The Worshipful Company of Gardeners which received its royal charter from James I in 1605, was claiming that it was its members who “cleansed the City of all dung and noisomeness.” This was a connection which dogged the company’s image throughout the following century or more, and certainly compromised the more genteel aspirations of many of its members!
In early modern London each of the city’s wards elected – or probably bullied into the job – a scavenger and rakers to oversee the cleaning of the rubbish. Street sweepings, general rubbish and sewage were then supposed to be taken outside the city walls and spread out there on common land, or put on heaps known as laystalls. Originally a laystall was a holding area for cattle being taken to market, and obviously this led to accumulations of dung, so that by extension, it became a term for a place where rubbish of all sorts was dumped. There were several huge areas set aside for laystalls including the rather inappropriately named Mount Pleasant, where Laystall Street can still be found. By 1780 that site is thought to have covered over 7 acres. It was near there that John Hunt, the nightsoilman whose trade card is above, was based.
Similar arrangements presumably existed in every urban area, right through until the great Victorian sanitary reforms, although they are not always easy to trace and research.
There was also a small stretch of the Thames near Blackfriars, known as Dung Wharf, where manure and sewage was collected to be sent to London’s market gardens. The vast majority of which lay close to the riverbanks and were fertilized by London’s night soil sent down on barges which then returned full of foodstuff for the London market.
There is a witty if rather scatological story about the link between night soil and gardening recorded by Thomas Brown in 1720.
Market gardeners are also known to have regularly collected human and animal waste direct from inns and other ‘communal’ sites for use in their gardens. This was often done as part of the daily routine: they would take crops to the market in the early hours of the morning, then pick up their night soil and return to the garden ground to unload before starting the days gardening.
Dung was thus an essential part of the gardening trade. Special dung barrows and special dung forks, which were used to work manure into the earth, always seem to feature on the probate inventories of gardeners possessions.
Of course as the city grew and most kinds of work became more specialised, by the mid-18thc gardeners were no longer necessarily connected directly with the collection and transporting of night soil but it continued to be used in market gardens around the city.
Yet what is perhaps rather surprising given the ubiquity of dung – animal and human – how little comment there is about it in early agricultural or horticultural texts. Thomas Tusser in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573) written in verse has a couple of stanzas in the section on ‘Instructions for November’, but this is the only mention I can find…
If Garden require it, now trench it ye may,
one trench not a yard, from another go lay.
which being well filled, with muck by & by:
go cover with mould, for a season to ly.
And in the next lines he gives a clue as what the ‘muck’ is that should be used to fill the trenches.
It seems that Tusser thought this more a matter of household neatness and necessity rather than horticultural good practice, and that if it has to be done you might as well get a return on your labour. And he adds to the perhaps understandable sense of distaste by saying it should be done under cover of darkness.
Leonard Meager in The Mystery of Husbandry (1697), has a chapter on The Dunging of Ground which starts with asking “what Dung doth most enrich the Earth?” The answer is that “The most Expert of the Ancient Husbandmen, appoint three sorts of Dungs: the first of Poultry, the next of Men, the third of Cattel. Of the first sort, the best is had out of Dove-Houses; the next is of Pulline, and other Fowl, except Geese and Ducks, which is hurtful… The next to this, is Man’s Ordure, if it be mixt with other Rubbish of the House: for of itself it is too hot, and burns the Ground. Man’s Urine, being kept six Months, and poured upon the Roots of Apple-trees, and Vines, causeth them to be very fruitful, and giveth a pleasant Taste to the Fruit. In the third place, is the Dung of Cattel.”
Unlike Meager, most other early gardening writers, although they might suggest liberal use of dung or manure are usually clear they mean sheep, horse, cow or pigeon dung and make absolutely no mention of nightsoil, privies etc.
By the turn of 19thc, however, it’s very clear that there were all sorts of experiments taking place all over Europe on ways of improving agricultural and horticultural productivity. For example, in 1802 Humphrey Davy lectured about his experiments with nightsoil & other manures, concluding that “in whatever state it is used, whether recent or fermented, it supplies abundance of food to plants.” (Lecture six, on Elements of Agricultural Chemistry).
In France a patent was granted in 1814 for “alkaline vegetative powder” which was made from fermented sewage mixed with slaked lime. In 1818 the manufacture of “Urate” commenced and now “the whole matter collected from the cesspools of Paris is converted.” ￼A large manufacturing base was also established in London’s Whitechapel, where night soil was mixed with large quantities of finely pulverised charcoal and then dried and rendered into powder. “Owen’s animalised carbon” was another preparation of the same kind, this time bought in from Denmark. An American journal later reported, when a similar ‘factory’ opened in New York “that the use of nightsoil was already rapidly converting the vicinity of the principal European cities into a garden, and the use of these materials which have constituted the greatest nuisances and were most productive of diseases, into manures, will not have a better effect on the soil than on the health of those congregated masses of human beings.” (The New Genesee Farmer and Gardener’s Journal, October 1841)
As usual there is no one better to summarise the state of knowledge at this time about any gardening matter than John Claudius Loudon. This is perhaps unsurprising, since whilst researching this post, I discovered that he literally copied Davy’s lectures word for word into his own work. He did of course also add summaries of other research and information available.
Practical as ever, in the first edition of his Encyclopedia of Gardening of 1825 there is a very lengthy and wordy description of all kinds of manures, filling more than 15 pages of tiny print. “Amongst execrementations” he tells the reader “urine is the one upon which the greatest number of chemical experiments have been made, and the nature of which is best understood.” After discussing urine in its various forms including human and putrid he moves on to an account of dung, beginning with an account of the dung of birds. He notes the 1805 account of Alexander von Humboldt the Prussian naturalist and explorer, of the way that this was used by Peruvian farmers, before detailing its chemical properties and then noting “that it has never been much used as a than a manure in this country.” This was soon to change as I will explain in next week’s post.
But before it did the use of night soil continued. As Loudon said about night soil: “it is a very powerful manure… It speedily dries, is easily pulverised, and in this state, may be used in the same manner as a rape-cake, and delivered into the furrow with the seed.… Desiccated night soil in the state of powder, forms an article of internal commerce in France, and is known under the name of poudrette. In London it is mixed with quick-lime and sold in cakes under the name of “Clarke’s desiccated compost.” [Encyclopedia of Gardening, section 1145]. There were several other patented excrement recipes including “Alexander’s Chio Fou” and “Poittevins Manure” which had been around for at least 20 years, and apparently were even exported to Europe, America and to the colonies in the Caribbean.
Loudon later even advised householders ” in every suburban villa” that they should collect “all the liquid manure into two adjoining tanks, and mixing It there with water… Where urine cannot be got, excrement and water form the best substitute.” (The Suburban Horticulturalist, 1843,page 59)
Despite Loudon’s obvious enthusiasm, and Davy’s experiments there was relatively little scientific understanding of fertilisers, manures or their impact on agricultural and horticultural practice and production. This was beginning to change too. The Royal Agricultural Society was founded in 1838, and at about the same time that individuals like John Bennet Lawes, a wealthy young landowner, [of whom more in another post soon] were begin to experiment with various fertilisers, manures and feedstuffs in a planned scientific way. It was to lead to the invention of the “artificial” fertilisers which have dominated much of the developed world’s agricultural production ever since.
So Shirley Hibberd’s promotion of the use of nightsoil in the garden should not have shocked me, or anyone else for that matter. He noted ruefully that “our big towns are devising schemes to waste it. London especially might contribute to the soil manure worth £2 million a year, yet the Boards that manage these things are busting their wooden heads to throw it out to sea.” This meant that instead of being made to serve a useful purpose sewage was being washed up on the shores of London with every tide: “the waste of sewage is a national calamity…The people take it quietly, and die as cholera and typhus require them.”
However nowadays the pendulum is swinging back. Just as in the 19thc sewage was marketed under falsely attractive names to remove its stigma, so it being repackaged and marketed in the same way today. Biosolids – which are just treated sewage sludge – are now big business and becoming bigger all the time.
Every water company in Britain is busy converting sewage sludge to fertilizer in a tightly regulated way. Hibberd would be pleased. The dumping of sewage at sea, which still accounted for 30% of disposal in the early 1990s was phased out completely by 2000, and by then over 55% of sewage was ‘converted’ and put back on the land.
But Hibberd would not be so pleased to know that there are now increasing concerns about the dangers biosolids pose. Not because of the obvious things associated with sewage but from the longer term hidden effects of more recent ‘introductions’ to human waste such antibiotics, pathogens, synthetic organic compounds and contaminant heavy metals, such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury. For more discussion see:
For a non-technical introduction to the origins of sewerage systems and the creation and disposal of toxic sludge a good place to start might be Abby Rockefeller, Civilization & Sludge: Notes on the History of the Management of Human Excreta
For a balanced account of the debate over the safety of biosolids see: “Too Good to Waste?’ by Rose George in the Guardian, 29 August 2008. Rose George is also the author of The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, (2008)
For a historical oversight see Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, (Yale University Press, 2007)
Finally watch out for reports of the 20th European Biosolids conference which is being held in Manchester in November.
“The conference remains the best technical sludge event in Europe [and] will look back at the history of sludge developments and also forward to where the next 20 years will take us.” What else can one say!