The story of a night soil man in medieval Preston, John takes a tumble

Posted on - 22nd August, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston News
Depiction of medieval times Pic: Find My Past
Pic: Find My Past

Before public drainage, the only way to empty the cess pits and privies used by most houses was to deploy a wheelbarrow and shovel! Medieval Preston was small and largely supported by agriculture, and its market. Animal manure was pervasive as were overflowing privies. Often a dangerous and unhealthy job, some night soil men came to an unfortunate end. The medieval world was a place of hard work and short lives.


Firstly, it was a young world as not many peasants made it past the age of 40. This was probably a good thing. Secondly, there was no health care or pension provision. Finally, disease was rampant; the Black Death killed more than half the population of some towns.

Preston in 1330

The medieval street layout of Preston persisted for many centuries. Strip fields ran down from most streets, with merchants houses fronting onto Fishergate and other main streets.

Few maps exist from the 14th century however documents record that the ‘New Moor’ in Ribbleton was enclosed and allotted in 1300. Later maps show the medieval layout, little changed until the industrial revolution.

A 13th century merchant’s house built in 1280 Pic: Tim Knight
A 13th century merchant’s house built in 1280. Note the ‘sign’ used before most could read. This type of ‘shop’ would have fronted on to the street with the strip field behind Pic: Tim Knight

A hole in the ground

At its most primitive, a cesspit was just a hole in the ground. Some had permeable linings that let the liquid waste drain into the surrounding land, often contaminating the water supply. Wealthier dwellings had stone lined pits under the cellar. They were not emptied often and created  a miasma in summer.

A short and brutal life

John lived in Preston, he was born in 1330 and died at the age of 33. His job was known as a ‘gong farmer’ in that he emptied privies and cess pits. Consequently he only worked at night. He was only allowed to live away from the wealthier areas! 

John began work at 9pm and had to be finished by 5am. 

On a cold and rainy night, John hitched his scrawny old horse to a rickety and smelly cart. Travelling down Friargate he approached a dilapidated hovel and dragged two lazy curs out of bed. The brothers lifted full buckets of ordure out of the cess pits. Gong farmers were paid well for the day, and he could afford to give the boys a few pennies a night, to load the barrels of ‘fertiliser’. 

The cart rattled down Friargate and then down a back alley, where the stinking privies were located. Earth closets were emptied into large barrels and then loaded on to the cart. Puddles filled with animal manure splashed on the unmade track. The chill air reeked of rotting garbage, as the dismal troop approached Market Square.

Wealthier inhabitants had cess pits under the cellar and on this night one of them needed emptying, after several years of use.

Wind flicked at the lone candle in the dilapidated lamp and loud snores erupted from a ramshackle house on Churchgate. Dogs barked and a baby screamed in the night. 

The wealthy merchant’s house shone like a beacon with lighted windows as the daily takings were counted. It was too early to deal with the cess pit and John decided to come back after midnight. The fully loaded cart continued out of the town towards Townend fields. 

A loose gate rattled in the wind, and the laystall, used by farmers to fertilize the fields, glowed dully in the lamplight. The barrels were emptied and the threesome returned past the Church to Market Square. One of the boys squeezed into the merchant’s cellar and began to shovel…

The Black Death

Depiction of The Black Death Pic: Mark Gridley
Pic: Mark Gridley

The Black Death struck in 1349, over 3,000 died in Amounderness Hundred. Many in the close packed Lancaster. Preston was not spared. John survived the disease, as some had higher resistance to the bacteria, probably due to his job.

Amounderness Hundred
Map of Amounderness Hundred

John dies in tragic circumstances

Medieval remains Pic: York Archaeological Trust
Pic: York Archaeological Trust

With incredible irony John arrived home one morning and headed to the long drop privy belonging to the house of the tanner where he boarded. On seating himself, the rotted seat gave way and he plummeted into the cess pit below. A verdict of drowning was recorded in 1363.

And finally

John is a composite character created using the few surviving documents relating to the commoners of the time. Old maps show the medieval layout of Preston.

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