Manuscripts and Special Collections


Pail closets (privies) built under bedrooms in Sun Street, Nottingham, 1912

As seen in Theme 1 of this resource, 'Mid-19th century housing', thousands of Nottingham's poorest inhabitants lived in narrow streets, alleys and courts, lacking street paving, street lighting, adequate water supply or sewerage. Document 3 is a graphic description of the situation in 1845.

Toilets (called 'privies' or 'pail closets') were usually common to the whole court or street, and located outside. The waste was not flushed away; instead it fell into a pail, pit or container underneath the privy. It remained there until it was collected by men known in Nottingham as 'muck majors'. In other places they were known as 'night soil men', because the collection was usually done at night. It was then sold to farmers as a fertilizer.

Most people also used a communal tap or pump to collect water for their household. The role of contaminated water in spreading cholera was not understood until 1854. Nottingham's relatively sophisticated water supply system, inaugurated by Thomas Hawksley in 1832, was regarded as one reason why the cholera outbreak in 1848-49 was not as severe as that in 1832.

Real improvements in sanitation began in Nottingham after 1845. The water supply companies were amalgamated into one organisation, the Nottingham Waterworks Company. The Inclosure Act of 1845 contained regulations concerning 'nuisances' and the quality of newly built houses, including a clause relating to the distance that there should be between privies and living accommodation (see Document 4). A Sanitary Committee for the Borough of Nottingham was established in 1847, and made regular reports (Document 5 and Document 6). However, the first Borough Medical Officer of Health, Edward Seaton, was only appointed in 1873. His first report (Document 7) showed that there were still problems of sewerage which needed to be tackled in particular parts of the town.

Some of the insanitary conditions mentioned in reports in the mid-19th century were still evident in the early 20th century. Photographs 3 and 4 show privies and communal taps in slum areas.


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