29th February 1348. Nuisance!

Some idea of the sanitary conditions of medieval London can be deduced from street names: Gutter Lane, Seething Lane, Staining Lane and Shiteburn Lane, (later Sherborne Lane, EC4).

The Assize of Nuisance (1301-1431) was concerned with grievances against irksome neighbours and centred on the disposal of human waste, which resulted in ‘noisome privies’ which flowed in and around property, with much ending in rivers and tributaries.

Though London had a population of c 100.000 there were few public latrines and only the wealthy had private latrines.

The Black Death of 1349 caused the London authorities to take action as the bad-air-miasma- was blamed for the outbreak, and laws to clean the waterways were enacted.

Its little surprising that much of the legal action under the Assize was directed against sewage problems as noted Today a Friday in 1348, when Simon de Worthstede complained [before the Aldermen of London], ‘that Robert Bisshop and Roger Madour have six windows and two apertures in their tenement adjoining his in the parish of St Alban de Wodestrete through which they can see his private business and his tenants throw sewage and other refuse through the apertures’.

The site was viewed but parties given a day at Guildhall on Wednesday 5th March 1348 for lack of Aldermen. ‘On that day there being assembly (congregati sunt) and adjudged nuisance be removed in 40 days’.

Then William Aldred claimed Thos. Benton had erected a pig sty too close to his home which was ‘enough to deprive Aldred of his property therefore violation of rights, owing to smells smoke, noxious vapours, flies and jarring machinery’.

The Law on Nuisance traditionally defined only a handful of noxious smells by name, rules affecting blood boilers, blood driers, bone, soap and tripe boilers, fat extractors, fat melters, gut scrapers, size makers and fell-mongers (dealers in skins).

The Law goes back to the time of Henry III (13thc), and come via the Latin ‘nocumentum’. The French word nuisance was divided into private and public nuisances. Over time matters became more diffuse and tended to meld into The Law on Negligence.

By 1357 it was forbidden to throw rubbish into the Thames, a time of new professions: Muckrakers who carted noisome ordure away; Surveyors of the Pavement, the Dustmen of the day, and Gong-Farmers who emptied cess-pits, drains and privies, and could earn in 11 nights what a labourer might in 6 months. Also there was a ready market for the ‘fertilizer’.

The Law of Nuisance later included burying of corpses under churches, operating a brothel, allowing yew trees to spread where cows can forage and opening a hospital in a residential area.

Nowadays in our more ‘refined’ age, noise pollution causes more outcry than smell, whilst an ASBO might restrain undue nuisance.

Ref: wikipedia.org/Nuisance in English Law.

Ref: British History Online. London Record Society. London Assize of Nuisance. 1301 -1431.Editors: Helena M Chew and William Kellaway.

Ref: An Asbo in 14thc Britain. BBC News Magazine. Megan Lane. 5.4.2011.

Ref: Punch Magazine, Article July 17th 1968. ES Turner p.82-83. Is your house in a vinegar belt?

Ref: legis.gov.uk national archives.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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