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Honey Pot Men of South Stockton

Let us now make a vote of thanks to the honey-pot men of old who plied their trade in the dead of night and, by their deeds, kept sewers clear and emptied the cess pits. Without their work in the 19th Century, South Stockton would have been an unhealthy place with a higher rate of mortality than it had.

Who were these intrepid men who did the really dirty work and were known as 'night-soil men'. Contemporary society with its propensity to veil distasteful work might call them 'nocturnal effluent disposal specialists' or by the acronym NEDS for short. Night-soil men were not nocturnal gardeners or rhubarb growers using candles to speed the growth of rhubarb. No, not at all. These men of the NEDS brigade were made of sterner stuff. Little has been written of their work and even less of the conditions under which they toiled while they, as people, remain nameless.

They removed the effluent of the affluent and that of the common people alike. They cleaned the ash pits, cess pits, tanks and ponds, office and residential closets, privies, netties, bogs, loos, outhouses, cludgies, thunderboxes and all other places and devices used by humans to evacuate themselves, but cloaked in their euphemistic names to avoid offending public sensibilities.

These intrepid toilers of the night suffered the taunts of the public at large, but they gave as good as they got. 'Here come the drain sniffers,' or 'turd stranglers' they were told or they might be asked to answer 'What has four legs, a wheel, and flies?' A honey-pot man and his barrow was the answer, but the night toilers might reply, 'It may be shit to you, but it's our bread and butter.'

Artist's sketch of a 19th Century NEDS or night-soil man wearing a sou'wester hat and a distinctive yellow oil-skin coat.

So let those gallant men of the night now stand up in their graves and be counted: John Horrox, George Wilson, George Sturgeon, Mark Robinson and a certain Sedgewick to name a few. They were to the 19th Century what the fire fighters and rescue crews were to the 20th. Culled from the town's records, here is what they did.

Cesspits & ponds (also called septic pits)

As the town developed, streets were set out and the drains beneath them connected to branch and main lines to a central sewer line. Septic pits were built at the end of each street to collect the sludge. This was removed by a dipper, a scooping cup at the end of a long pole. The contents were then transferred into a wheeled container for disposal elsewhere. Some believe the sewage was discharged directly into the Tees, but this was not so. (Sewage was directed to a sewage processing plant.)

Quality night soil fertilizer was a by-product of the work in high demand. It was rich in nitrogen, so the NEDS removed it from privies, ash pits and earth closets for direct application to the land.

Dumping night soil onto vacant fields was a practice the Neds used to reduce the fluid content of effluent collected in the work. The practice did not go down well with the Inspector of Nuisances who threatened offenders with court action if the 'nuisance' was not removed within 14 days, which of course gave the Neds two weeks to move the then manageable material to a farmer waiting to feed his land.

There is no record pre-1891 of a sewage farm in the area. This came only after the streets were made and they in turn only came after houses were built and occupied. Depending on the frontage, each house owner was required to pay a share of the cost of flagging the footpaths, which became pavements, laying of the main drain and cobbling the roads into carriageways. The Board's engineer specified for these improvements, but actual development was a hit and miss affair. For example, some streets begun before 1860 were still under construction in 1890. Several areas (close to the River where notices were posted regarding the use of cess pits and ash pits etc.) were prone to overcrowding, so most effluent from those areas was still removed by the honey pot men.

Night soil was graded, most likely because of the demand by farmers for spreading over their farm land. Cess pits having a high liquid content were a problem, which explains why their contents were dumped on open land to drain. To the resulting dryer solid waste was added soil and routable matter, which improved its marketing value and provided additional income to the NEDS.

Ash pits

Ash pits were excavated close by or near to the houses they served or were connected to them as brick-lined structures. In these, a layer of ash was placed for the night soil to be deposited on top. A second layer of ash was then laid to cover and contain the effluent. Pits left uncovered meant that rainwater waterlogged the pit and seeped into the walls. This was detrimental to walls built without a damp course. The brickwork soaked up effluent water like a sponge, which hastened deterioration. For this reason, the Board of Control issued an order requiring ash pits to be protected by covers against the weather. Pits were to be emptied fortnightly in summer and monthly in winter.

A Mr. Murray of North Street caused a public nuisance with his ash pit. The Inspector of Nuisances warned him that the excess fluid from his pit was discharging into North Street. The Ship Inn also had problems. The cellar of the Inn was a damp, dark and smelly place and no wonder; it was next to the earth closets, ash pits and stables that added the excrement of animals to the mix. Being close to the river as well as below ground, about at the same level as high tide, meant that contaminated water under pressure percolated through the walls.

Earth closets:

Earth closets or loos as they were known were common in the back yards of houses. In these, anyone using the loo had to cover the excrement discharged with a layer of soil. Many house owners then used to the manure manufactured to fertilize their gardens.

Outside toilets, closets and privies were in many cases bucketed by the honey pot man with his horse and cart. He emptied the bucket through a small opening in the back wall of the closet. (It was rumoured that ‘Nettle Rash’ was the fate of those who failed to tip at Christmas or caused the honey-pot man problems.


A midden was simply straw from the horses or other animals along with their waste in the back yard of a house or farm. Other waste such a vegetable matter was also cast on to the midden.

Pure boxes

Additional funding for the NEDS came from the collection of 'pure excrement' separate from the normal night soil. A pure box fixed to the cart or a bucket hung from a hook to serve the same purpose was used to collect this odd waste. As the NEDS brigade patrolled the streets collecting night soil, a NEDS apprentice scoured the area for dog droppings. This odious matter was in demand by leather tanners. After the tanner had limed and cleansed a hide, he would immerse it in ‘bate’, which was a mixture of water and dog excrement. Voila! The result was a lime free, if pungent, partially-cured hide. This, perhaps, gives credence to the Yorkshire aphorism, ’Where there’s muck there's brass’ (or money).

Health problems

Public health problems associated with night soil were many. One such trouble came to a head in an outbreak of cholera in 1866, culminating in the death of a Mr. Mark Barr and his daughter of Pottery Bank. It has been speculated that removal of night soil through the building as opposed to collection from the rear of the property was the original cause of the deaths. During a minor outbreak of the disease, Barr neglected to have his daughter's body moved. Delaying removal of the body was the cause of his contracting and succumbing to the disease. Details of this case are contained in the 'surveyor reports' to the Local Board and in which it is stated:

In pursuance of a resolution of the Board, I beg to report that the following list of articles, the property of Mark BARR have been destroyed by fire.
3 Quilts 2 Blankets 1 Bed Tick
1 Mattress 1 Flock Bed 1 Chaff Bed
4 Sheets 1 Coat (Pilot) 1 Pr. Trousers
1 Vest 1 Bolster(Flock) 3 Pillows 2 Flock 1 Feather

I also beg to report the destruction of the following articles by fire the property of the late Mark BARR.

1 Flock Bed 2 Blankets 2 Sheets
1 Quilt 1 Pillows 1 Feather 2 Pillows Flock
1 Bed Hanging 1 Pr Stays 2 Frocks

The Board denied a claim by Mrs Barr for compensation for the loss of her property. The Surveyor's reasoning sets out the format of her claim and his reason for recommending that the claim be rejected.

Surveyor's report October 4th
In reference to Mrs Barr’s claim I beg to make the following report.

During the cholera visitation of last year in this district there were four fatal cases, two of which were members of Mrs. Barr’s family. These cases and the general precautionary measures adopted for the Public security by the Board of Health entailed the following list of charges which (had) been paid.

Mr A Trotter   £ 32.11.00
-do- Mandale Disinfectants £ 5.12.07
-do- Stonehouse Disinfectants 2.03
-do- W B Brayshaw Disinfectants 13.06
-do- Hutchinson Disinfectants £ 2.10.00
-do- Wilson, Blankets £ 1.14.00
-do- Affleck, Mattress 09.00
-do- Miller, stimulants £ 1.06.00
-do- Brady, Leading Lime 01.06
-do- Watson, Bedstead £ 1.02.00
-do- Relieving Officer £ 7.18.00
-do- James WADDINGTON, Grave Digging £ 1.02.06
-do- Grave Digging 05.06
-do- Nurses £ 1.08.00
-do- Wilson, Compensation £ 4.04.03
-do- Stocks, Analysis 10.00
-do- Stockton & Darlington Rlway Co. Lime 14.06
  Total £61.14.03

Of the above expenses, Mrs. Barr participated to the following extent

2/4ths £7.18.10 Relieving Officers Charges £ 3.19.00
2/4ths of £1.08.00 Grave Diggers £ 14.00
Total £ 4.13.00

Of the other expenses incurred by the precautionary measures adopted, she participated directly and indirectly to a greater extent owing to her vacillation than any other inhabitant of the District especially in any other medical and other aid and the use of disinfectants. Of these expenses she could not benefit to an amount less than £5.0.0. Against these Public and private advantages, she was called on for her own safety to sustain a loss of the following household goods.

3 Quilts 6/-   1 Vest 3/-
2 Blankets 8/-   1 Bolster, Flock 2/-
1 Bed Tick 4/-   2 pillows flock 1 Feather 6/2
1 Mattress 4/-   1 Flock Bed 10/-
1 Flock Bed 10/-   2 Blankets 2/-
1 Chaff Bed 2/6   2 Sheets 3/-
4 Sheets 6/-   1 Quilt 2/-
1 Coat (Pilot) 6/-   3 Pillows 2 flock 1 Feather 4/-
1 Pr. Trousers 5/-   1 Bed Hanging 1/-
1 Pr. Stays 1/-   2 Frocks 3/-
1 Pr. Skirts 1/-      
      Total £4.13.00

This statement shows that Mrs. Barr had been fully compensated for her loss, but she has thought proper to send in the appended claim which I hereby submit for your consideration.

A further report by the Board Engineer suggests that the surveyor was also aware at this time of the dangers of typhoid, diarrhoea and vomiting, and puts forward a logical argument as to the dangers and hazards of ash pits and etc

Since the last meeting of the Board August 24th 1868 I have in conference (with) Dr Laidler and Inspector Howse inspected the localities visited with diarrhoea and fever. I therefore beg to submit for your information the following report of the prevalence of these diseases in the district and in doing this I shall make it my duty in the first place to speak of diarrhoea and its causes for I regard it as the forerunner and concomitant of the fever which now prevails There is probably no disease which external circumstances exert so great an influence and control as diarrhoea. Ushered in by the warmer summer months, it declines and vanishes under the colder breath of approaching winter.

Almost constantly concurrent with or arising after the continuance of a high temperature, its presence has been attributed to many causes as to the eating of unripe fruit, the indulgence in cucumbers and other uncooked vegetables, the alternation of temperature, cold nights succeeding hot days, excessive perspiration and numerous other causes.

The effect of a long continuous high temperature in localities where accumulations of effects matter such is to raise into vapour and change the atmosphere with the products of the putrefactive decomposition of these,

Decaying vegetable matter in houses, streets, ash pits and cesspools, accumulation of effete matter in the latter, floors and walls of houses, bedding and articles of clothing filthy and laden with emanations of the body and a house very smell(y) indicate their condition, are individually and collectively sources of that atmospheric impurity which is so injurious to health and the want of due ventilation to cellars, back-to-back houses and the generality of the houses of the labouring classes, intensified as their unsavoury condition is by over-crowding give strength to the operation of the cause to which alone I am disposed to attribute endemic diarrhoea.

The surveyor or health inspector as he might later be termed had a lively appreciation of the hazard to health. He went on to recommend proper cleaning of privies and ash pits, better construction and thorough ventilation of residential properties, 'persons and clothing'. He hoped these measures would reduce the incidence of diarrhoea

Typhoid fever and public health

The surveyor (health authority) was of the opinion that typhoid fever was to start in damp, poorly drained places where decaying organic matter accumulated and the public neglected habits of cleanliness. This recognition of the cause of diseases from dirt and filth led to better planning by the planning committee of Stockton. It specified the widths of front and back streets, the size of sewers, the direction and fall of lines to the main drains, installation of traps, venting above the eves of houses all of which brought gradual improvements to the sanitary conditions of the Town that, in time, led to putting the honey pot men out of business.

For the record, however, the work of the night soil men was essential to what level of sanitary conditions existing in the community before the authorities realised what a scourge poor sanitation was to public health. While they were in business, the NEDS men served the community for less than £3 a week, which paid for the horse, accoutrements of the trade and, of course, the employment of an apprentice for the really dirty jobs

© Peter Goble

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