The great nuisance, 1422
Time to hold your nose
The common privy of Ludgate is very defective and perilous and the filth thereof decays the stone walls…
Last week we encountered the cantankerous Charles Babbage and his obsession with ‘street nuisances’, particularly the noise from organ grinders. Concerns over public order and anti-social behaviour are nothing new and seem to be an inevitable consequence of the functioning of society – and this week I give you some brief examples from 600 years ago, four centuries before Babbage’s gripes.
The legal system’s attempts to deal formally with ‘public nuisance’ go back at least to the 12th century reign of Henry II, when courts of assize – usually known as the assizes – were instituted, with a jury. In later centuries these focused on more serious crimes; from the 14th century local ‘quarter sessions’, presided over by a magistrate, dealt with lesser matters – and in the 18th century, a further, lower tier of ‘petty sessions’ was created. This branching-off itself reflects how the incidence of minor crimes has grown with the population over time. In the 12th century, nuisance was referred to legally as ‘nocumentum’ (with roots in the Latin nocere, to harm) and the focus was on damage to private property or public infrastructure, from roads and ditches to orchards and gallows.
The first clear legal statute about public nuisance dates from 1388, in the reign of Richard II. It said, for example: “If anyone cast any Dung, Filth, or Intrails of Cattle into Ditches, Water, or other Places which are next to any City, Borough or Town, he who will may sue forth a Writ directed unto the Mayor, or Sheriff, or Bayliff of such Town etc.” – and clearly this was as much about public health as being ‘anti-social’. Dung becomes something of a theme in this arena, and in a horse-powered society, it remained a concern 500 years later with the fictitious but credible ‘horse manure crisis’ of 1894.
Over time the concept of public nuisance widened – by the 15th century, nocumentum could encompass “eavesdroppers under men’s walls and windows” and “malicious words and abuse”, and by the 17th, noise can be found mentioned in writs and complaints, setting the scene for Babbage’s own attempts to seek legal reform in the 19th.
Anyway… for our earliest Histories yet, let’s go back to 1422, and stand at the shoulder of Robert Chichele (d.1440), a merchant and twice Lord Mayor of London (in the same era as one Dick Whittington, who he knew – Dick himself had built one of London’s earliest public toilets1). The scene is the Guildhall, the City of London’s town hall (there was a building here as early as the 12th century, and the present one was built between 1411 and 1440, i.e. in Chichele’s time). The mayor’s court is hearing pleas and testimonies over public nuisances in a ‘wardmoot’ assembly for the area of Farringdon Without (meaning just outside the city wall), and the document below gives us a lively snapshot of the things that bothered people 600 years ago.
The actual text2 reads like this:
These ben nusauncis and defautis foundin in the warde of farundon with-out, Taken in the wardemot, a-fore Rankyn Barton, Alderman of the same warde, the yere of the kyng aboveseyd. First, that the mayster of ludgate puttyth out oft tymes dung in the Canell, and stoppit the watir goyng, to grete nusans to all folk ther passyng…
But what follows is a modernisation from 1953.3 Mind where you put your feet.
These are nuisances and defects found in the ward of Faringdon Without, taken in the wardmoot, before Rankyn Barton, Alderman of the same ward, the year of the king abovesaid [Henry V].
First, that the master of Ludgate often puts out dung in the street gutter and stops the water from flowing, to the great nuisance of all the folk passing there. Also that a mud wall in the bailey by the High Street, between the house of Shelhard, haberdasher, and Hay, spurrier [a maker of spurs], falls down piecemeal into the High Street, and makes the way foul, to the annoyance of folk passing and dwelling there. Also William Emery, horsedealer, often lays much dung in the high street and allows it to lie yet, to the great nuisance and annoyance of all folk passing and dwelling thereabout.
Also the pavements before the chamber house in the bailey, and before the door of Harry Gras, barber, and of Walsh’s door, are defective and need to be mended. Also the common privy of Ludgate is very defective and perilous and the filth thereof decays the stone walls, so that it is likely to be very costly and dangerous to those walls in time to come, unless it be put right as soon as possible.
Also that the barriers at Shoe Lane end are all broken with water carts, and the pavements defective in divers places of the same parish. Also that John Taverner at Bell is not a freeman of the city. Also John Whitlok at Bell at Carter Lane end and his wife are common bauds, and therefore have lately been put out of other wards [bawds = brothel-keepers].
Also John Swayn and his wife are forestallers, regrators, and extortioners often [forestallers and regrators bought goods and resold them at inflated prices – think medieval eBay], and especially lately they hired a page of the Queen’s household to arrest a boatful of rushes, and brought it from Queenhithe to Fleet Bridge, and there took up from it 30 loads of rushes, and laid them in Sir Walter Beauchamp’s place [Beauchamp had fought at Agincourt and was later a lawyer and part of the royal court], and then paid to the Boatman only 26d for 30 loads, whereas he should have been paid for every burden 3d and because of this the boatman made much noise and open slander.
Also the taverners of St Bride’s parish set their empty tuns and pipes [casks for beer and wine] in the high street, to the annoyance of all folk passing there. Also that the barriers of Chancellor Lane4 and Fetter Lane are all broken.
Published in A Book of London English, 1384-1425, ed. R.W. Chambers and M. Daunt (Clarendon Press, 1931).
Published in English Historical Documents Vol. IV, 1327–1485 (Oxford University Press), available online here.
The original was Chaunselerlane and actually I think this must refer to Chancery Lane, as this and nearby Fetter Lane are still in the ward of Farringdon Without to this day.