A load of old rubbish

It’s a sad fact that whenever I read a newspaper, the word most likely to catch my eye is ‘rubbish’.  I blame this on the fact that my PhD thesis, in spite of its grand aspirations,  ended up largely a study of dirt and rubbish in the pre-modern city.  For a long time I wanted to call it ‘A load of old shit: the wardmote courts and waste disposal in later medieval and early modern York’ but, perhaps fortunately, I was talked out of this.

The Observer, 25 November 2012

So when I was leafing through The Observer the other weekend, I immediately latched onto a short piece in Barbara Ellen’s column about a political row over bin collections.  Ellen mocks the political squabbling over rubbish bins but even she acknowledges what an emotive issue waste disposal can be.  Few things get us going like a problem with rubbish.  Want to unite a street community? Propose a change to bin collections.  There was an outcry in my own street a couple of years ago when the Council proposed issuing wheelie bins that would have to be stored in our forecourts.  Petitions, public meetings, letters of protest ensued, and we finally negotiated communal bins instead.  If only the idea of world peace roused us to action in the same way.

But people have always cared about the state of their immediate environment.  It’s a common misconception that the pre-modern town was a filthy and chaotic place.  In the popular imagination, city dwellers in the past picked their way along streets knee deep in dung heaps and snarling curs, or were forced to dodge the contents of chamber pots chucked out of upstairs windows with a careless cry of ‘Gardyloo’.

In fact, there were well-established systems for cleaning and maintaining the streets in York from at least the 15th century, and the records show a consistent concern on the part of the civic authorities to ensure that human and animal excrement, carcasses and butchers’ refuse, house and garden rubbish, ashes, mud and other ‘vyle things’ were cleared from the city.

Today, waste collections take place fortnightly in York.  In the 16th century, rubbish was collected three times a week.  In 1580 scavengers, early incarnations of bin men, were appointed to collect any filth or rubbish left at household doors on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  Nobody wanted to be tripping over piles of rubbish all day, though, so no waste was to be put out before 7 o’clock at night, and those who broke ranks and shoved it out onto the street before then were liable for a fine.  It’s not hard to imagine how quick their neighbours would have been to report them.

The Elizabethans were pretty good at recycling too.  The waste collected was deposited in middens, usually near the city walls, where it was used as fertiliser.   Clothes were mended, reused and passed on, and there was little of the packaging that fills most of my own bin.

Individual householders had a responsibility to clean and repair the street in front of their doors. Those who persistently cluttered up the environment with dung heaps or piles of timber, who were careless with their rubbish, let their walls fall into disrepair or were just plain annoying, were presented by their neighbours in local courts known in York as the wardmote courts.

Page from Wardmote Court Book*

I don’t think there’s much doubt that if we were able to revisit the 16th century with our 21st-century sensibility, we would find the city smellier and dirtier than we are used to, but those who lived in York then were just as concerned as we are about the state of their environment.  When we read about William Ledale, who was warned in 1580 not to ‘cast furth any chamber pottes … oute of his chamber wyndowes’, we might wrinkle our noses at what the street outside his house must have smelt like, but we might also see that the fact that he was presented at all shows that such behaviour was notconsidered acceptable.

A study of the wardmote court records makes it clear that far from accepting dirt as a fact of life, most of the inhabitants of Elizabethan York wanted to live in streets that were clean and well paved.  They wanted to move easily around the city without finding their way blocked or dangerous.  They wanted dogs kept under control and neighbours who were quiet and considerate.  They wanted the same things that most of us who live in York today want, in fact.

* YCA E31, p.67 includes the entry where William Ledale is ‘laid in pain’ not to lie filth or dung against his stable or to throw the contents of chamber pots out of his window.  Page reproduced by kind permission of City of York Council Archives and Local History. www.york.gov.uk/archives

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