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Dirty Work: An Excerpt from Dreams of Iron and Steel: Seven Wonders of the Nineteenth Century, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal, by Deborah Cadbury

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the population of London soared to 2.5 million, as thousands flocked to the capital to find work. Poor families often lived eight or nine to a single room. . . . They cooked, washed, slept, and defecated within these four walls, and as the population grew, so did the smell. Foul odors emanated from more than 200,000 cesspools across London, in alleyways, yards, even the basements of houses. . . .

Traditionally, London's cesspools were cleared by the "nightsoil men" who carted sewage to outlying regions and farms. The nightsoil men worked in teams of four. After taking up floorboards or flagstones and placing large horn lanterns at the entrance to the cesspool, a "holeman" would descend a few feet into the pit to fill his tub. He would then be helped by a "ropeman" to raise the stinking cargo, hopefully without too much spillage, and the waste would be emptied into carts by two burly "tubmen," carrying well over 100 pounds of sewage. As work progressed, the holeman would have to climb deeper with each trip, stirring up the filthy sludge to loosen it for shoveling out. It was an unbearably vile job for which the only compensation was a high wage, often up to two to three times the salary of a skilled man.

This system had worked well for many years, but as the city expanded, the journey to the outskirts of London became longer, and the nightsoil men's prices soared. At a shilling per cesspool, many Londoners could no longer afford the services, so raw sewage began to accumulate in the dwellings of the poor. The black suppurating cesspools hidden in the cellars were seldom emptied. Their contents were allowed to ooze through the floorboards or cracks in walls and flow at random through yards and ditches, fouling everything they touched.

Dreams of Iron and Steel: Seven Wonders of the Nineteenth Century, from the Building of the London Sewers to the Panama Canal
Deborah Cadbury
Fourth Estate, $25.95

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