An Asbo in 14th Century Britain

one one two two three three four four five five six six seven seven eight eight

Friday 9 August 1314:

The mayor and commonalty, by John Dode, chamberlain, complain that whereas of old in the parish of St Michael Queenhithe, a gutter running under certain of the houses was provided to receive the rainwater and other water draining from the houses, gutters and street, so that the flow might cleanse the privy on the Hithe, Alice Wade has made a wooden pipe connecting the seat of the privy in her solar with the gutter, which is frequently stopped up by the filth therefrom, and the neighbours under whose houses the gutter runs are greatly inconvenienced by the stench.

Judgement that she remove the pipe within 40 days.

Alice Wade: the defendant

John Dode: the official who brought complaint against Alice Wade.

in the parish of St Michael Queenhithe: area around church in what is now Upper Thames Street - the A3211 - in the City of London. Little evidence of its history remains, largely due to Blitz damage.

public latrine on the Hithe: the public toilet (camera privata in Latin) at a landing place on the Thames that was flushed via a rainwater gutter. But Alice's toilet waste was blocking this gutter.

wooden pipe (pipam ligneam): Alice used this wooden pipe to channel her waste into said rainwater gutter.

seat of her toilet (sedile camara privata): the seat to which the wooden pipe was connected.

Alice: Alice's name repeated.

within 40 days (infra quadraginta dies): officials ordered she remove the pipe within this time.

Today we are urged to report fly-tipping and other nuisances - just as our forebears did 700 years ago. Their complaints survive in a rare medieval document, the Assize of Nuisance, which sheds new light on an age-old problem.

Alice Wade, who lived in 14th Century London, could not countenance the smell of her own poo.

In an era when many of her fellow citizens relieved themselves in chamber pots and surreptitiously tipped the stinking contents out the window, she had a toilet in its own small room.

But 700 years ago, a toilet was a hole cut in a wooden platform over a cesspool. The smells that emanated were most foul.

Find out more

  • Dan Snow's Filthy Cities starts on Tuesday 5 April at 2100 BST on BBC Two
  • He explores the history of filth in medieval London, 18th Century revolutionary Paris and 19th Century industrial New York

So she rigged up a wooden pipe that connected her toilet to a rainwater gutter that flushed a nearby public latrine.

The solids from her toilet blocked the gutter, and her neighbours were "greatly inconvenienced by the stench". The city authorities ordered that she remove the pipe within 40 days.

This is case 214 in the Assize of Nuisance, a list of grievances made against irksome neighbours in London from 1301-1431. The complaints were recorded in abbreviated Latin, the language for official proceedings at the time, says Elizabeth Scudder of London Metropolitan Archives, where this 700-year-old document is stored.

Few documents survive from this era, but other British cities would have had similar records, says Scudder. "There is a very early record concerning nuisances dating from the late 12th Century relating to Northampton."

More than 700 years later, complaints against neighbours still persist, but they usually relate to noise, fly-tipping or anti-social behaviour, and many local councils have dedicated helplines to process grievances.

Back in medieval times, many complaints concerned misdirected, leaking or otherwise noisome privies, as medieval cities had no infrastructure to cope with the disposal of human waste. In the main, it was dumped into rivers and tributaries, or trodden into the ground.

John le Yonge's stinky cellar, 1347

John de Yonge's complaint in Assize of Nuisance, stored in London Metropolitan Archives

"John le Yonge complains that Henry le Yonge and John Conyng have a solar [toilet room] above his cellar in the parish of St Mary de Abbechirche, and the pipe of their latrine is in the same cellar and overflows into it.

"The mayor and aldermen, having viewed the premises, find the nuisance to be as alleged. It is adjudged that within 40 days they remove the nuisance."

These records show that people were coming up with ingenious ways to get rid of their waste, often giving their neighbours cause to complain.

"These were just some of the many attempts made to overcome the problems created by so many people living in close proximity with each other," says historian Dan Snow, presenter of BBC Two's Filthy Cities, which provides fresh interpretations of the Assize document. "The fact that they all too often failed to deal with those problems was because the sheer scale of that challenge overwhelmed their resources."

At the time, cleanliness was a luxury few could afford. London, a city of some 100,000 people living in close proximity, had just eight public latrines, and only the well-to-do had private privies.

Although there were rules and regulations governing the disposal of filth, these were largely ignored.

"In 1309, a charge of 40p was levied on anyone found dumping rubbish outside their house, or anyone else's," says Snow. "The trouble was, wealthy landowners seemed quite happy to pay the fine when they got caught. And the City authorities were probably quite glad of the money."

Nowadays, illegally dumping rubbish is a criminal offence that carries a fine of up to £50,000 and a prison sentence of up to five years.

Dan Snow in wooden overshoes, worn in medieval times to lift walkers above the filth on the streets Dan Snow, in medieval-style overshoes, recreates a 14th Century footpath with mud, entrails and urine

When the bubonic plague, or Black Death, decimated London's population in 1349, city officials were forced to act. They believed the vapours, or miasma, given off by the filth choking the streets and waterways contributed to the spread of this deadly disease.

Stricter laws were passed to clean up the waterways. In 1357, it was forbidden to throw waste into the Thames or other waterway under threat of imprisonment and fines. And officials added these new professions to the city payroll:

  • muckrakers, the first street cleaners, who collected filth and took it by cart or boat beyond the city walls
  • surveyors of the pavement, the first bin men, who kept thoroughfares clear by removing all nuisances of filth
  • gong farmers, or early drain cleaners, who cleared out cesspits, latrines and privies

"They could earn in 11 nights work what a skilled labourer would take six months to earn," says Snow. Many supplemented their income by selling human waste to farmers for fertiliser.

Some of the earliest built toilets in Britain are in the Tower of London, says Lucy Worsely, curator of Historic Royal Palaces. These are in the White Tower, built soon after the Norman conquest.

"The toilets, called garderobe, are all on the side away from the city so the subjugated Londoners wouldn't see the conquering Norman poo dribbling down the side of the walls.

14th Century street names

  • Give clue as to what conditions were once like
  • Some still exist, like Gutter Lane, Staining Lane and Seething Lane
  • Others renamed to hide mucky past - Sherborne Lane in EC4 was Shiteburn Lane

"The name garderobe - which translates as guarding one's robes - is thought to come from hanging your clothes in the toilet shaft, as the ammonia from the urine would kill the fleas."

And the word "loo" dates from medieval times, says Worsley, presenter of BBC Four's If Walls Could Talk, a history of our homes to be broadcast on 13 April.

"Ordinary people would use a chamber pot, and when they wanted to empty it, they would open a window and shout out 'gardez l'eau' - watch out for the water. Gardez l'eau became loo."

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.